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Burma Census Data May Be Used Politically: Official

An official examines a census questionnaire in Naypyidaw. (Photo: Yen Snaing / The Irrawaddy)

By Yen Snaing
May 23, 2014

NAYPYIDAW — The results from Burma’s first census in 30 years may be used for political purposes, a census official says, following previous assurances from the government that data would mainly be used for development projects,

While individual data will be kept confidential, the Burmese government cannot control how the aggregate results are used, according to a spokesman from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which provided technical and financial assistance for the census last month.

“If you said you were a certain ethnicity, nobody is going to link your identity to that ethnicity. Your age, education level and any other information you provided will not be released in connection with your name,” UNFPA chief technical officer Fredrick Otieno Okwayo told reporters in Naypyidaw on Wednesday.

However, he said aggregate data could be used for any purpose after it is released to the public.

“Parliament can use it as a resource, including for elections,” he said. “Once the [census] publications are out, the main results on ethnicity can be used for any purpose by any organization, civil society or government. I think the DoP [Department of Population] will not have control of that.”

Before the 12-day census began on March 31, Minister of Immigration and Population Khin Yi said census data would not affect the political representation of ethnic groups.

“These statistics are generalized mainly for the country’s future development projects,” the minister said at a press conference in February, responding to concerns by ethnic minorities that the data would be used to reduce their political representation.

He added, however, that census data may “indirectly” affect elections, without elaborating.

In Burma, ethnic groups that pass a certain population threshold can have ethnically delineated constituencies with representatives appointed as ministers in local governments. Under military rule, ethnic minorities accused the government of inflating the numbers of the ethnic Burman majority to justify the dominance of Burman officials in government.

In the run-up to the census last month, ethnic minorities said the census questionnaire inaccurately classified certain ethnic subgroups or tribes, raising concerns about the potential ramifications for their political representation.

Preliminary findings from a manual count of the census forms will be released in August and will include at least population and gender data down to the divisional and township levels. Finalized population data is not due to be announced until May of next year. The scanning of questionnaires is currently under way at the Department of Population in Naypyidaw.

Otieno Okwayo of the UNFPA said data about ethnic groups could be useful for a number of reasons. “How many children are going to school, what’s the literacy level, what’s the mortality rate—one ethnic group may be at a disadvantage compared to others,” he said.

Salai Isaac Khen, coordinator of the Chin National Action Committee on the Census (CNACC), said census results could be used politically not only by the government, but also by the people.

He said he worried there might be a negative response if the census reveals that the Muslim population has increased, following several anti-Muslim riots in the Buddhist-majority country over the past couple years. “It could harm stability and security,” he told The Irrawaddy.

He added that certain ethnic subgroups could use data from the census to build up their constituency to justify the appointment of a new ethnic minister in their state or division.

Data may also be used during political dialogue between the government and ethnic armed groups, particularly during discussions about federalism. “How would states be divided, based on [ethnic] majorities and minorities?” he said.

The last nationwide census in Burma was conducted in 1983.

Responding to rumors in local media that the population in Rangoon has increased significantly since then to about 8 million people, Director of Population Nyi Nyi told reporters in Naypyidaw that it was impossible to say because new population data has not been fully processed.

“We, the Department of Population, do not confirm any rumors about the population in Rangoon or any townships, states or divisions,” he said.

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