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Accurate demographic information about Burma does not and has never existed. This year’s census aims to correct that and to provide the data required for successful development projects as the country lurches out of military dictatorship.
Burma’s development is currently underpinned by figures cobbled together from the disparate research of NGOS, companies, UN departments and the government itself. According to Khin Yi, Minister of Immigration and Population, the government’s official statistic of 60.98 million is based on approximate reproduction rates taken from a basis point provided by the last census, conducted in 1983.
That census was flawed by a lack of access to regions impacted by civil war, leaving the end population figure of just over 35 million drastically short of the mark. Despite this census being plagued by the same problem, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Burmese government are determined to get it right this time.
That determination —as well as the magnitude of the task — is best illustrated by the fact that enumerators tasked with interviewing the people of Kachin State’s snowy northern reaches were forced to hike on foot for two weeks to count those in barely accessible villages.
The stalled nationwide peace process, however, has not been completed in time to make all populations accessible. As in 1983, there is limited chance of conducting the count in Burma’s war torn periphery. The process has also done little to build trust between the government and ethnic minorities, who are now being called upon to provide sensitive personal data.
The most sensitive data pertains to religion and ethnicity, which, particularly in Burma’s western Arakan State, has fuelled internecine violence in the recent past.
There is no doubt that the census, as Dr Hla Hla Aye of the UNFPA in Rangoon believes, “has the potential to enable evidence-driven, transparent and responsive planning and policymaking for the first time in the country’s history”. The power of accurate results to questions on subjects such as infant mortality, household sanitation and education levels cannot be understated.
“The Ministry of Immigration and Population and UNFPA have taken concerns expressed by ALL groups very seriously.”— Janet Jackson, UNFPA Burma
However, the count will go ahead despite a serious risk of violence, as rumor and misinformation shroud an already complicated process of ethnic categorisation. That threat is especially acute in Arakan State, where communal violence has displaced more than 140,000 people, mostly stateless Rohingya Muslims, and hundreds more have been killed in the past two years alone.
The census has already caused some unrest, before it has even commenced. In mid-March, thousands of Buddhists took to the streets of major towns in Arakan to oppose use of the term Rohingya when writing in ethnicities that do not appear on the list of Burma’s 135 officially recognised ethnic groups. The Rohingya are considered by many Arakanese to be illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and that “Bengali” is therefore the appropriate term.
“We will not allow census data collection in Arakan State,” Than Htun, one of the campaign organisers, told DVB this week, saying that all of Arakan’s 17 townships will participate in a boycott if they do not receive assurance from authorities that the term “Rohingya” will be omitted.
The government insistence on using the much-maligned list of 135 ethnicities has guaranteed that ethnic concerns are not limited to western Burma. The International Crisis Group (ICG), which last month called for questions about ethnicity to be scrapped completely from the questionnaire, noted that in the case of the 53 subdivisions of the Chin people, many clan titles and even village names are classified as stand-alone races.
These inaccuracies splinter minorities and threaten the political status of ethnic groups by limiting their representation in government. The 2008 Constitution provides for National Race Representatives to be appointed in administrative regions that boast a “suitable population” of a single ethnic group. That form of politicised demographic data is at the heart of ethnic consternation when it comes to the census. Fears that ethnic population levels could be skewed downwards has driven ethnic leaders to call for members of ethnic groups to identify as part of an overarching “major minority”.
In some cases, ethnic groups have vowed to conduct their own counts. For the last year, Mon leaders have conducted a census of their own across southern Burma, in what they say is an attempt to rectify government misinformation printed on ID cards.
The UNFPA however, is out to calm nerves.
“The Ministry of Immigration and Population and UNFPA have taken concerns expressed by ALL groups very seriously,” said Janet Jackson, UNFPA’s representative in Burma.
“Consultations have been taking place throughout the past year with ethnic armed groups, representatives of self-administered areas, civil society and religious groups,” Jackson assured DVB last week.
Khin Yi has also repeatedly told The New Light of Myanmar that “All ethnic armed groups are ready and willing to cooperate with the 2014 census”, a position that contradicts claims of the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), still at war with the Burmese government through their armed wing The Kachin Independence Army.
An unnamed KIO representative told local media outlet Kachinland News that the group was not consulted in the lead-up to the census, and that it is unlikely that civilians in KIO-controlled territories will participate.
Hence the 2014 census suffers some of the very same difficulties as the last inaccurate count. But while data collection in warzones remains a major obstacle to truth, this is not the Burma of 1983 and data collected this time will likely be more reputable, if not fully accurate.
Janet Jackson is right to contest that postponing the census “would lead to a delay of several years in making data available to planners”. The sunken costs of an aborted project would be crippling, which perhaps lies at the heart of Burma Campaign UK director Mark Farmaner’s claim that “census donors privately accept that there is a realistic chance of violence”.
At total of US$58.5 million is being spent on Burma’s 2014 census. According to UNFPA, the Burmese government is paying US$15 million of that bill. The UNFPA is contributing US$5 million and Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) has donated over US$16 million.
Given the quantifiable commitment made to the project, postponement no longer seems a possibility. About 120,000 trained enumerators wait to conduct the count based on a person’s whereabouts on Saturday night, 29 March.
This despite upset from disaffected ethnic leaders and fearful international onlookers, all calling for postponement.
“The UNFPA, DFID and other donors seem prepared to risk anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim violence which could result in people being killed,” said Farmaner, “rather than make the politically embarrassing decision to admit they were wrong and say the census must be postponed.
“Nobody deserves to die for a census,” he said.