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Why donors should insist the census be postponed

By Robert Finch and Alex Moodie

March 25, 2014

The upcoming national census, scheduled to start on March 30, is proving to be one of the most divisive issues on Myanmar’s agenda. Representatives of the country’s many ethnic nationalities, as well as smaller ethnic sub-groups, are raising vociferous objections. Many feel that it violates their right to identity. Such objections generally work in two opposing directions, which only serves to highlight the complexity and dangers of such an exercise.

President U Thein Sein speaks at the launch of the 2014 census in Nay Pyi Taw on March 1. (Pyae Thet Phyo/The Myanmar Times)

On the one hand, smaller ethnic sub-groups feel excluded, threatened or incorrectly classified if they cannot identify as their own ethnic sub-group. Indeed, the Palaung State Liberation Front recently issued a statement rejecting the census’s categorisation of the Palaung people as one of 33 Shan sub-groups. On the other hand, larger ethnic groups feel that their own wider national identity and cause is undermined if ethnic sub-groups do not identify with them.

Furthermore, the census represents a grave risk to rights and security in the context of recent anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya violence in Rakhine State and across Myanmar. Although Rohingya Muslims cannot explicitly state that they are “Rohingya”, they can indicate their ethnicity through code 914. There are, however, concerns that enumerators, or data collectors, may simply write “Bengali” instead of “Rohingya” in an effort to deny their identity so they can continue to be portrayed as illegal immigrants. 

Fears have also been voiced that Muslims of other ethnicities might be told to identify themselves as “Muslim”, which is of course a religious rather than ethnic affiliation. Muslims were apparently underreported at 4 percent of the population in the 1983 census due to political sensitivities. There is a significant risk this time around that if the census is accurately conducted and Muslims are required to state their religion over their ethnicity then the results will show large growth in the Muslim population, which could provoke further violence.

Moreover, there are real fears about the logistics of collecting the data, both in terms of authorities using the correct forms and accessing remote, rebel-held areas or active conflict zones. This would have implications for the accuracy of data recorded on the Kachin, the Palaung of northern Shan State and the Wa, in particular. It is likely that some groups, especially in rebel-controlled parts of Kachin State, will be unable to take part in the census at all.

Finally, the consultation process with ethnic groups has been flawed from the outset. Some groups have welcomed the fact that the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is assisting the government. Yet this trust is misplaced: There has been little transparency, and indeed the UNFPA has been guilty of misrepresenting the views of ethnic groups in an effort to legitimise the census and its own financial and moral backing for the process.

Following a meeting on February 26 with various ethnic representatives in Nay Pyi Taw, the UNFPA disingenuously claimed that ethnic representatives have “call[ed] off postponement of [the] census”. However, it would appear that ethnic groups were hoodwinked by assurances from both the government and the UNFPA that concerns over the categorisation of ethnicity would be dealt with after the census, that “census preparations were adhering to international standards” and that the census was essential for ongoing reforms. The lack of transparency, realism and fair representation is a damning indictment of the vital role of the UNFPA – and other donors – in the census, and only serves to further undermine the credibility of these parties.

Yet this divisive and dangerous census can only go ahead with the support of the UNFPA and other donors. These donors should listen to the views of all ethnic groups and stop manipulating the discussion to suit their purposes. It is clear that this census represents a Pandora’s box of potential ethnic tensions and conflict. At a time when the government claims to be striving to secure a sustainable peace deal with the armed ethnic groups and cementing political reforms before the 2015 general election, the timing and nature of the census is strange to say the least. It risks jeopardising national reconciliation, undermining the peace process and exacerbating religious violence.

This census should be postponed, and only revisited once a comprehensive political settlement has been reached with all ethnic armed groups, political reforms have been properly institutionalised after the 2015 national elections and religious violence has been tackled head-on and defused. The government and the international community cannot afford to get this wrong, especially not now at this highly volatile stage in the country’s reform process.

Robert Finch and Alex Moodie are political and human rights analysts for Burma Partnership, a network of organisations from across the Asia-Pacific region advocating for human rights and democracy in Myanmar.

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