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Burmese census will offer ethnicity of choice

Burma is an ethnically diverse nation with over 900 different ethnic groups, according to the 2014 census data. (PHOTO: DVB)

Dr Nyi Nyi, director general of Burma’s Department of Population, said on Friday that each person in the country shall be given the opportunity to refer to themselves by whatever ethnicity they choose in the upcoming national census.

Speaking at a press conference in Naypyidaw, Nyi Nyi said that the decision to expand the parameters of “ethnicity” was in response to concerns raised by various ethnic leaders over the harm to national unity which may arise from forcing people to identify themselves as an ethnicity that they say does not represent their group or sub-group.

He said the aim of the census was to identity the correct population of Burma, with demographics based on age and education, which would assist in the development of the country. He noted that Burmese nationals living abroad will not be counted in the 2014 census.

The Population Department head said the information requested on the census questionnaire was designed to meet international human rights standards and  allow the government to gauge what type of investments were feasible in different ethnic regions.

Asked whether the ability to choose one’s own ethnicity in the upcoming census would extend to the Rohingya Muslim community – referred to by many Burmese as “Bengalis” and widely regarded as illegal immigrants – Nyi Nyi said, “The Rohingya issue is a recent case. We have conducted censuses in 1973 and 1983, and each person was permitted to refer to themselves by the ethnicity of their choice. We intend to do the same at the upcoming census – we will register anyone under any ethnic entity that they refer to themselves.”

Werner Haug of UN Population Fund said it is difficult to estimate the population in Burma as no census has been conducted in the country for 30 years.

When asked by a reporter the same question about the status of the ethnic Rohingya Muslims, Haug said that he could only underline what Dr Nyi Nyi had said – that “the census is essentially a statistical operation” and for those persons who referred to themselves “be it as Rohingya or be it as Bengali or whatever”, the census “could not solve other related problems such as registration cards or citizenship” which, he said, would need to be discussed in a different context.

In October, DVB reported that the Burmese authorities intended making arrangements with their Thai counterparts to allow refugees sheltering in Thailand the opportunity to be included in the census.