Myanmar’s first census in 30-odd years

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29 March 2014 will mark an important date in Myanmar’s post-2010 history. All the people who were in the country on that day were to be included in the data of the first Population & Household census held in over 30 years. In the 12 days following the 29th 120,000 enumerators went around the country to collect the data. A census is a systematic exercise aiming to provide the government with data about the population on which it can base its policies and service delivery. As such, it is a common and indispensable instrument. And generally, it is not given much thought.

Not so in Myanmar. The census has been hotly debated; and will be again once results start coming out around the end of the year. To begin with, many people mistrust the government’s intentions. Experiences with the successive governments in the period of 1962 to 2010 were often negative, as abuse and arbitrariness were rampant and government policies ran the country in the ground. People ask themselves questions, e.g. can we trust the reliability of the data? Minority groups fear they will go down in the books in smaller numbers than the actual ones. What will government do with all the data? What are the guarantees of confidentiality worth?

The most controversial element is ethnicity. Myanmar is one of the most ethnically diverse countries. Currently, 135 “national races” are recognized. And in this list of 135 lies part of the problem. The categorization of the different races stems from the colonial time and was anything but water tight. There are 8 major races, of which the Bamar (‘Burman’) are by far the biggest group, and the remaining smaller groups were classified as sub-groups. The Bamar are said to account for over 60% of the population and they have managed to exploit this numeric majority at the expense of the non-Bamar minorities. (The way the British structured their colonial administration of Burma further deepened this Bamar – non-Bamar divide.)

To regain equality vis-à-vis the Burman is of paramount importance to the minority groups. They are looking to secure equal status and rights through autonomy in a federal system. The current constitution does not fully allow for federalism and constitutional reform will feature highly on the agenda in the years to come. It does allow for a special ethnic representative in parliament if a certain threshold is met. And this brings us back to the census: the smaller groups face a dilemma. Do they want to be counted as their own separate (sub)sub-group and thus ‘secure’ their distinct identity? Or do they want an ethnic representative in parliament to advocate their interests, which may mean they will have to be ‘heaped up’ with a related sub-group in order to make numbers?

Moreover, ethnic identity is closely related with the right to citizenship. One very sensitive issue concerns the struggle for ethnic recognition – and thus citizenship – by the Rohingya. The Rohingya are a Muslim minority living in Rakhine state and across the border in Bangladesh. They are not eligible for citizenship under the latest Citizenship Law (1982) that defines full citizens as those who had settled within the borders of modern-day Myanmar in 1823. The Rohingya claim that they lived in Rakhine state long before 1823 is supported by evidence but so far this has not helped them. On the contrary, the government has placed many restrictions on them, for example limits on whom they can marry, the number of children, and how freely they can go about.

Public opinion is very much against them. The Rohingya are seen as intruders with a false claim to citizenship and – a (perceived) extension of the citizenship claim – part of Rakhine state as homeland. The negative sentiment is carrying over to non-Rohingya Muslims across the country and has resulted in several incidents of communal violence. One of the fears is that, if the percentage of Rohingya turns out to be significantly more than the current official figure of around 4%, those opposed to the Rohingya may feel justified in their fear that ‘the Muslims will soon outnumber the Buddhists’. (It is not clear how real/true the figure of 4% is.) For census purposes, Rohingya are listed as one of the options as ‘other’ (code 914). Even this is passionately protested, as public opinion wants them to be labelled Bengali. The Rohingya fear that they will end up being ‘stricken’ from any records in the event all others become a single statistical group.

There are plenty more issues that may affect the (perceived and real) usefulness of the census. Enumerators did not get unhindered access to every nook and crook of the country. Pockets where ethnic armed groups rule continue to exist and some of these were off-limits. How will this affect the political future of the country, still to be decided by successful conclusion of peace negotiations? Moreover, only one ethnicity can be indicated, so people that have a father from one ethnicity and a mother from another will have to choose between those two. This ethnicity chosen will then be listed for all household members. Myanmar nationals abroad are included as ‘family abroad’. As census data is used for government policies and services in a country, there’s no pressing technical reason to include people living abroad in the census. But in the light of the unique and controversial context, it might have been wiser to explicitly do so. (Leaving aside obvious practical challenges.)

I can’t help but wondering, if it would not have been wisest to exclude ethnicity all together for now.



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