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Myanmar's missing millions The leftovers

By T. J. 
September 4, 2014

MYANMAR has just found out that 9m-odd people it had thought were living within its borders actually do not. In fact most of them don’t live anywhere at all. The first census in three decades puts Myanmar’s population at just 51m, not 60m.

The dearth of real data always made a nonsense of economic planning. Until recently not knowing the size of the population—the denominator for almost every development index—did not matter. The sad fact was that the dictatorship did not care much at all about such indices. Freshly snatched from China’s orbit, Myanmar has been reconnected to a steady flow of aid and investment from Western countries—whose governments are happy to regard it as a rare and precious example of political and economic development gone right.

Losing 9m people overnight has a nice side-effect or two. On paper the country’s GDP per capita is suddenly 17% higher, breaking $1,000 for the first time. Myanmar’s progress towards a host of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) looks correspondingly better—though in plenty of other cases, it looks worse. More meaningfully perhaps, across the board this census makes plain just how dark a statistical shadow was cast by the country’s half-century under a military dictatorship.

The newest snapshot shows that 15m people or 29.6% of the total population live in urban areas. The average household size is 4.4. Some 7.4m people live in the commercial capital, Yangon—a couple million more people than there were according to the best guess from the past decade.

The headcount has also revealed that there are 1.7m more women than men. The sex ratio of 0.9 speaks to a reasonably favourable status of women. This roots Myanmar firmly in mainland South-East Asia, home to countries where women outnumber men. By contrast, all of South Asia, and China too, produce too few girls relative to boys, a sad consequence of sexism in those societies.

The census was ill-considered in many ways. It cost $75m and its biggest achievement was probably to underscore the fragility of a political transition in Myanmar, an ethnically diverse country with a long history of internal conflict. The 51.4m figure includes 1.2m people whom the government could count or chose not to count. About 100,000 live in bits of Kachin and Kayin states whose territory the central government does not control. But by far the larger number are to be found in northern Rakhine state. There the new census figures revealed a new 1.1m people, most of them Rohingya Muslims. (In Kayin people were asked to count themselves; in Kachin calculations were based on “the demographics of surrounding villages”; and the estimate for northern Rakhine was based on maps made before the census was taken.)

In the past the government has excluded the Rohingyas from the census, for fear of having to acknowledge their existence. The government, like much of the ethnic-Burmese majority, regard the Rohingya as being illegal “Bengali” immigrants and keeps them in an effective state of ethnic segregation. Still to come is the dreaded moment at which new figures will reveal the actual ethnic and religious affiliations of the total population. The fear is that it will trigger violent outrage among Buddhist nationalists if the data turn out to show, as many people expect, a doubling of official estimate of the Muslim population. On the old figures, there are only 4m Muslims in Myanmar today, only a minority of them being Rohingyas. Tallying them, and other minorities too, will be a tricky affair.

Thankfully recalculating the population of Myanmar as a whole poses questions that are relatively academic. How to explain those missing millions? Most countries expect any census to result in an “undercount” of 2-3%. In addition, the official figure of 60m, everyone knew, was a wild guess. It was based on the outcome of a flawed 1983 census which put the population at 35.4m, updated with subsequent guesses about rates of fertility and mortality, in the absence of meaningful data. The initial estimate, or the rates used to update it—or both—might have been wildly off. And those are not the only ways Myanmar’s millions have made themselves scarce.

Janet Jackson, the country representative of the UN’s Population Fund, says factoring in people who were abroad at the time of the census will have to be kept as “the subject of a separate research enquiry”. In part the missing millions may be well be an illustration of the fact that in political systems that forbid basic freedoms and economic opportunities, citizens head for the exit. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has estimated that there are between 2m and 4m Burmese workers in Thailand, perhaps another half-million in Malaysia, more than 100,000 in Singapore, a few thousand in Japan and South Korea, and then a totally unknown number in India and China. Fully 10% of the country may be living abroad (if an estimate made in 2009 is to be believed…).

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Rohingya Exodus