Burma has never been an easy place to conduct a head count. Dogged by protracted conflicts and populated by communities wary of outsiders, census-takers have had their work cut out in building an accurate dataset of a country rich in demographic diversity, but which for decades has largely been invisible to the world.
Thus the challenges that need broaching prior to a planned 2014 census are daunting. Early indicators were given in the country’s first nationwide census in 1891, five years after the British annexed Upper Burma – thousands had been displaced by colonial troops who fought to bring half the country under rule of the Empire, only adding to a fluid migration of communities that rendered internal boundaries meaningless. Upland tribes fiercely hostile to the presence of foreigners resisted classification, meaning that the majority of Shan state, for instance, was not counted (British expedition leaders risked joining the rows of skulls that adorned Wa villages, whom up until independence considered European heads coveted bounty).
While more than a century has since passed, some of these obstacles remain. Subsequent attempts by the administrative government to classify citizens have met with controversy, particularly over the issue of ethnicity – a 1931 census categorised all Burmese-speaking Buddhists living in Burma proper (Tenasserim, Irrawaddy, Pegu and Arakan regions) as Burman, sparking uproar from non-Burman who found their identity altered overnight.
Bar the 1960s and the dawn of military rule, bicennial surveys were carried out up until 1983, but the turbulent past 30 years brought this to a halt. Now however, plans are being hatched for a 2014 census, one that according to a pledge made by immigration minister Khin Yi “will adhere to global standards” and “include all national races”.
How exactly this will be achieved is unclear, and it may be Burma’s most challenging in decades, not least because the world’s eyes will, for the first time, be fixed on the conduct and outcome. Moreover, huge sensitivities surround the question of what it is to be a Burmese citizen, a debate that Khin Yi is all too familiar with. Like other ministers, he has drawn the ire of rights groups on several occasions over remarks that attempt to sideline ethnic minority groups, in his case the Rohingya in western Burma whom he dismissed in 2011 as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants not entitled to citizenship.
A joint letter signed by seven Rohingya organisations has already brought attention to the risks involved in the UN funding a potentially highly controversial project. The letter warned that President Thein Sein’s reform effort “has not touched the Rohingyas yet”, but rather that members of his inner circle, including Khin Yi and political advisor Ko Ko Hlaing, had further institutionalised persecution, with the latter saying that restrictions on the movement of the Rohingya were needed for “national security” reasons.
They were indeed excluded from the last census in 1983. Nine years earlier, the 1974 Emergency Immigration Act had been introduced to officially deny citizenship to the Rohingya, and in 1978, Operation Nagamin (Dragon King) was General Ne Win’s campaign to round up and expel Rohingya under the pretense of routing Mujahideen groups. Both were seen as a means to pave the way for a 1983 census in which Rohingya need not be counted.
While the Rohingya have faced a lengthy battle to “belong” in Burma (Rohingya babies born out of wedlock continue to be placed on blacklists that stop them from attending school and marrying), other ethnic groups have over time had mixed relations with the central government. Characterisations of minority populations in Burma are fluid, and often politicised – the Karen, for instance, who served in the British army in Burma, are described in a 1911 census report as originally arriving in Burma “peacefully, quietly, unobtrusively … avoiding all contact with the tribes they passed … preferring the hardship and obstacles of hills, jungles and uninhabited regions to the dangers of conflict with fellow humans”.
In contrast, successive military regimes since 1962, which have sought to subjugate the Karen and bring them under one flag, have portrayed them as hostile and violent. The majority of refugees residing in camps in Thailand are Karen, as are a significant chunk of the more than half a million internally displaced persons in eastern Burma. How can the government guarantee that a population whose itinerant state is politically and strategically driven will in two years be in a position to take part in a legitimate, internationally sanctioned census?
The hurdles that need to be overcome prior to 2014 are therefore sizeable. While a consortium of global voices hails a reforming government, there remains a cancerous malaise at the top – namely, the inability to accept non-Burman, or non-Buddhist, as equal citizens – that will invalidate any project of this kind. The UN, which “envisions the participation of all ethnic minorities and civil society” in both the census and a census committee, should keep a firm eye on the status of the Rohingya and other marginalised or displaced groups, otherwise it risks endorsing a characteristic of the government that has shown no sign of reform.