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Government mulls options on ‘missing’ census data

By Bill O’Toole and Ye Mon
May 12, 2014

Ministry of Immigration and Population staff said last week they were still considering ways of allowing populations skipped by the national census to be counted, but said no decisions had been made.

Minister for Immigration U Khin Yi speaks at a press conference in Yangon on May 7. (Photo: Zarni Phyo/The Myanmar Times)

Most undercounting occurred in Rakhine State, where entire communities of Muslims were not counted because they insisted on registering as Rohingya, and Kachin State, where enumerators were denied access to areas controlled by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO).

The census was scheduled to end on April 10 but the government has not ruled out collecting additional data. Minister for Immigration and Population U Khin Yi said he plans to meet with representatives of both regions in the coming weeks to discuss possible solutions.

“We haven’t got the green light from the KIO so far. We will negotiate with them in Myitkyina and Yangon to get their agreement to take the census,” he said at a press conference in Yangon last week.

Speaking at the Myanmar Peace Center in Yangon, General Gun Maw, deputy chief of staff of the KIA, was non-committal on the prospect of allowing the census in rebel-controlled areas, saying only that the government should negotiate with top KIO leaders. Fighting that flared between the KIA and Tatmadaw in April, leaving at least 30 killed or wounded, is thought to have been sparked by Kachin soldiers killing a Tatmadaw officer who was providing security for census enumerators.

In Rakhine State, officials say they are mulling several options to rectify the undercount, including simply sending enumerators to count the missed houses, skipping the communities altogether, or making an estimate based other population information, such as lists of National Registration Card holders.

The latter option would be made more difficult by the fact that the majority of Muslims in northern Rakhine State born after 1990 have never been issued NRC cards.

“We don’t have enough information yet to recommend which option to take,” said Paul Cheung, co-chair of the International Technical Advisory Board, a body of 15 experts set up to advise on the census. While Mr Cheung noted that simply redoing the census in skipped areas would be the most technically sound solution, he was not sure whether the relevant groups in Rakhine State would allow this to happen.

Several Rohingya civil society members interviewed for this article questioned why United Nations Population Fund and other foreign donors, who provided the majority of funding for the census, are not doing more to fix the situation.

“UNFPA has not recommended any option in advance of this discussion. We have, however, advised the government that consultations should be broadly inclusive, involving leaders of all the communities concerned, and that there should be a clear and explicit consensus before any action is taken,” said William Ryan, UNFPA regional communications adviser for Asia and the Pacific.

Daw Khaing Khaing Soe, head of the census technical team at the Ministry of Immigration and Population, said discussions would include leaders of both the Rakhine and Muslim communities.

“We need to do [the negotiations] very carefully … [and make] the process transparent and include everybody on both sides,” she said.

Daw Khaing Khaing Soe stressed that the ministry would not agree to any procedure that allowed citizens in Rakhine to self-identify as Rohingya, but said the ministry would have no problem if respondents wanted to leave the ethnicity question blank.

Members of Rohingya civil society, however, say they will not back down from their right to self-identification. “No one [in Rakhine] will agree to write ‘Bengali’ in the census. We cannot accept that name,” said U Aung Win, an activist based in Sittwe.

“People in Rakhine State are very clear: The only thing we have left is our pride. We are not going to accept registering as ‘Bengali’,” said U Khin Maung Myint, an activist and member of the National Democratic Party for Development, which identifies as Rohingya.

Both men pointed out that the Ministry of Population and UNFPA had been promising for weeks leading up to the census that Muslims would be permitted to identify however they like. “In reality,” said U Khin Maung Myint, “it’s the exact opposite.”

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