An important headcount
March 18, 2014
The present controversial census of the Burmese population should not be abandoned. The concerns coming from government quarters that the first survey of the population since 1983 will stoke ethnic tensions, do have some merit, but should nevertheless be ignored. The multiethnic patchwork of this country needs clear definition, in order to allow the formulation of realistic policies that will encompass it.
There are no less than 135 different ethnic groups within the country. The largest of these is the Bamar, who give their name to the country. The last census 31 years ago, conducted by the military junta was widely disputed, since it was believed to have exaggerated the number of the Bamar and fellow Buddhist communities and downplayed the importance of the significant proportion of Muslim communities, not least that of the long-persecuted Rohingya.
Then there are remote tribes such as the Kachin who have been in almost-permanent rebellion against the central government, whether it was the British colonialists, the Japanese wartime occupiers or the post-independence Burmese authorities themselves. Some of these insurgent communities have said that they will not cooperate with the population headcount.
Since the impetus for the census is being driven by the international community, this attitude will be quietly welcomed by the government. Nevertheless, United Nations, which along with Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom, is picking up the $75 million tab for this year-long exercise and is pressing ahead.
Opponents of the survey argue that by producing an accurate ethnic breakdown of the Burmese population, there is a very real danger of increasing division within the country. The UN sponsors have said that the census forms will include the option for people to tick a box marked “Other” when they are asked to define their ethnicity. However, it may be pondered if a population that has been subjected to years of ruthless dictatorship has the political sophistication to appreciate that by eschewing an ethnic label and if it is promoting a status primarily as Burmese citizens rather than members of any particular community.
Moreover it is surely desirable that the truth about the ethnic make-up of this remarkable country is fully understood. Providing that groups such as the Kachin can be persuaded to change their mind about cooperating, perhaps by making special arrangements for their areas, the outcome ought to be a crucially important set of figures upon which the emergent Burmese economy can base its national planning.
And herein lies a very important point. The census, which is expected to show something like doubling of the population to near 70 million, should not be seen, of itself, as controversial. What could be controversial is how the government of retired general Thein Sein handles these data, which has to be available ahead of elections scheduled for later next year. It is absolutely crucial that there be no attempt to massage or manipulate the figures to protect or impair the interests of any particular community. In particular, the census is going to demonstrate the strength of the Muslim minority within the country.
Buddhist bigots have already caused near genocidal horrors among the Rohingya. The guilt of the Burmese government has been compounded by its refusal to accept that the Rohingyas, a community which has lived in the country for many generations, are entitled to Burmese citizenship. Not only should all Burmese politicians, including Aung San Suu Kyi, give assurances that they will accept the findings of the census, but that also that they will not use them to promote further persecution of minorities, not least the Rohingya.