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Myanmar's census raises debate

Policemen covers their faces to protect from the dust as they walk with census enumerators at Thae Chaung village in Sittwe, Rakhine State, western Myanmar, Tuesday, April 1, 2014. Enumerators fanned out across Myanmar on Sunday for a census that has been widely criticized for stoking religious and ethnic tensions, after the government denied members of a long-persecuted Muslim minority the right to identify themselves as "Rohingya." (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)

By Muhammad Zamir
FE Bangladesh
April 14, 2014

As Myanmar continues its efforts to roll back half-a-century of totalitarianism and usher in a comprehensive democratic process, controversy has found a new niche within its public realm.

The latest nationwide census undertaken throughout Myanmar was initiated on an upbeat note. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) came forward to help the Myanmar government complete the much needed task. Frederick Okwayo, a census adviser, explained to the media that there was need for completion of the coding list of the 135 ethnic groups who are supposed to constitute the population of Myanmar. As indicated by Okwayo, such a census of the population was imperative 'for any planning - be it planning for basic education, planning for health services or planning for housing'. The United Nations was right in being part of the task.

The census operations have however raised a debate and various groups have been expressing concern. That has included not only different sections of the Myanmar population but also sections of its civil society and think tanks. They have indicated their anxiety about whether the government was again trying to manipulate ethnicity for political goals. The civil society has particularly disagreed with the government trying to obtain answers to sensitive personal questions in a 'divisive' country fractured by race and religion. They have pointed out that demographic information might be a requisite for development planning, but debate was being created unnecessarily over the ethnic background of persons during the census. It has been alleged by them that the government efforts associated with this operation has been in most cases arbitrary and inaccurate and has contributed towards growing tensions between the majority Buddhist population and other minority communities.

It has been alleged that ethnic minority groups, which constitute nearly 40 per cent of Myanmar's population, have felt threatened with this exercise. This feeling has been further exacerbated by the action of certain extreme right Buddhist groups attacking members of the civil society and representatives of some international aid agencies who are being perceived as being sympathetic towards any particular ethnic group - be they the Rohingya Muslims from the Rakhine state or the Kachin or the Chin communities.

This was exemplified in attacks in Sittwe, which targeted the offices and facilities of a number of such agencies working in that city. These were apparently triggered by reports that a foreign aid worker from Malteser International had treated a Buddhist flag disrespectfully and had removed it from their office building. It may be noted that many flags had been hung on buildings across the state ahead of the census as a sign of opposition to the Rohingya population who are widely viewed in Myanmar as intruders from across the border in Bangladesh. The situation was serious enough for the Secretary General of Malteser International having to issue a statement that Malteser was committed to humanitarian principles and gave the highest priority to absolute ethnic and political neutrality. It was also clarified that Malteser avoided any form of political, religious or ethnic partisanship. Attention was drawn to the fact that the Buddhist flag had been removed because 'it might have been seen as a symbol for political positioning' and that this action should not be interpreted 'in any degrading manner or as an expression of any cultural misconduct'.

Other foreign aid groups have also come under fire in Myanmar at different times for allegedly showing bias towards the Rohingya. One such organisation is the 'Medecins Sans Frontieres' which was temporarily banned from operating in the volatile state following protests by ethnic Rakhine nationalists against the organisation and other international NGOs (non-governmental organisations).

Such action by extremist Buddhists have led the United States to express 'deep concern' about mob violence reportedly targeting international NGO operations in Myanmar's restive west. The US State Department has highlighted what it views as 'the continued lack of adequate security forces and rule of law on the ground in Sittwe'.

It may be recalled that the Rakhine state located along Myanmar's west coast has been at the centre of an ongoing sectarian conflict for some time between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. This has seen hundreds of people killed and nearly one hundred thousand made homeless in recent years. The census carried out by the central Myanmar government has now triggered further unrest. It has generated fresh fears. There is anxiety among the Rohingya population who are still being considered as a stateless Muslim minority and not recognised as citizens or one of the country's 135 'official' ethnic groups.

It is now generally recognised that the census effort has unleashed chauvinism. It has been reported that extremist anti-Muslim monk Wirathu and his followers and also the newly-launched nationalist Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) are trying their best to stop the government from recognising the millions of Rohingya Muslims as citizens of Myanmar under any group. They are encouraging and orchestrating violence. Though the massive majority of the Rohingyas have only known life in Myanmar, they are viewed by Rakhine's estimated three million Buddhists as intruders from neighbouring Bangladesh.

It is understood that the latest effort of the government is directed towards the inclusion of the Muslim community as being part of the 'Other' box in the census. This would however threaten their eligibility to be able to enjoy fully the rights provided by the State of Myanmar to its citizens. It would also leave that community underrepresented. The situation has assumed greater complexity because ministerial positions in the local parliament are given to constituencies above a certain population threshold. Buddhist nationalists consequently see the Rohingya census count as the thin edge of the wedge for citizenship. The government has however denied that any data gathered from the Rohingya community will be used for this purpose.

It would be interesting to note that the Brussels-based think-tank International Crisis Group thinks that at four per cent, the percentage of Muslims was heavily underreported during the last census in 1983. This statistic is now being watched carefully by the Islamic Center of Myanmar who believes that the number should be closer to 10 per cent of the total population. At the same time some among the Muslim leadership in Myanmar have seen danger lurking in the updating of this historical fallacy. They feel that the corrected figure could be interpreted as a three-fold increase in the Muslim population - a potentially hazardous call to arms for the Buddhist extremists.

Two other major ethnic minority groups - the Kachin and the Chin - also fear that they could be denied political representation because their communities are subdivided, misclassified or clumped together with other unrelated groups. For the Kachin, a Christian and Buddhist ethnic group in Myanmar's northeast, three of the ethnic classifications refer to geographical areas rather than ethnic groups. The Chin people, who primarily reside in the northwest, are divided into 53 categories, many of them using village or clan names. In Shan state, located in the east, the Palaung, Lahu and Intha are included as subdivisions of Shan ethnicity, but they are not related by race or language. All these aspects have created a very complex paradigm not only for the census takers but also those expected to provide information for inclusion within the matrix of future development planning efforts.

One can only conclude that the Myanmar authorities are confronted with a serious problem. They should however be able to find an acceptable solution to this dilemma consistent with the spirit of tolerance, fairness and inclusiveness. It will be difficult, but the challenges have to be faced and overcome.

The next decade will see resource-rich Myanmar emerge as an important player within this region. What this country will need is stability to be able to exploit all the required opportunities. The entire world, particularly members of SAARC, BIMSTEC, BCIM, ASEAN, the EU and the USA are ready to help them achieve the desired transition. Bangladesh, as their neighbor will always be there for them.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is specialised in foreign affairs, right to information, good governance.

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