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Mystery About Myanmar's Census


The tiny nation Mayanmar faces an uphill task to conduct an accurate census after a gap of three decades
AMIR HOSSAIN | Issue Dated: January 5, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : Mystery About Myanmar's Census |

In an article titled ‘Dawn of a new era’ published in The Sunday Indian last year, we had concluded, “Clearly, the country (Myanmar) once again has a fair chance at regaining its past glory. But the government needs to capitalise the current opportunity efficiently. Most of all, it should restore the confidence among investors by sustaining the political reform, developing the infrastructure sector and resolving the ongoing ethnic conflict.” Now, the nation faces another typical national administrative issue. The nation is going to conduct its first nationwide census after 31 years to broaden the way of development. Janet Jackson, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) representative for Myanmar commented on the importance of the census, “If everybody gathered here today were to call just five people living in different townships and highlight the importance of the census, then together we would light bulbs that would soon do the same for others, and so build the excitement and momentum for the census and its potential for inclusiveness, participation, peace, transformation and having a say in data that will steer the country’s future development plans.” However, Myanmar has to perform an uphill task to come out with a successful and accurate census as there is a fear of disregarding the ethnic identities of its people, apart from a clear lack of regular experience in conducting such an exercise impartially and expansively.

Census plays both direct and indirect roles in planning growth charts for any nation. An accurate census always helps a nation chalk out development plans that are practicable and can benefit the civil societies the most. Dave Mathieson, senior Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW) also draws the connection that a census facilitates stable governments. He said recently, “Potentially, if you have a census that extends the right to vote to everyone in the country, you are going to have a far more equal and credible election in 2015, if you have actually empowered people enough that they can actually cast votes.” He further added, “Potentially, the census would have a very positive effect on the ethnic areas and could serve to support claims for ethnic rights in education, language and culture that in some areas is repressed by the state and military.” In the same light for Myanmar, Mohamed Abdel-Ahad, country representative for UNFPA highlighted that “There is a dire need for the census to guide Myanmar’s rural development and poverty reduction strategy, and 5-year national development plan. How can such plans be developed and monitored without accurate data on the number of people residing in the country, their age structure and sex, geographical locations, access to healthcare, water and sanitation?”

Unfortunately, the tiny nation has not conducted any census during the last three decades. Myanmar officially carried out a census in 1983, although it was futile to count people living in areas where insurgencies were raging. Preceding that, the nation was able to conduct a credible census in 1931, when it was governed under British rule. The 1983 census noted that the nation had a population of 35.44 million and the Bamar or Burman community (the dominant ethnic group of Burma or Myanmar) made up 69 percent of the population. According to the Myanmar government’s estimation based on approximate reproduction rates, the nation has a current population of 60.98 million.

The nation has an extensive plan to accomplish the next census between 30 March and 10 April 2014. On the face of it, their initial efforts seem credible. The government of Myanmar has trained 100,000 primary school teachers and 20,000 supervisors to carry out the process smoothly. The government has also tried to make people aware of the census through several campaigns with the tag line: “A nation-wide census – Let us all Participate.” However, the upcoming census also is riddled with divisive political oneupmanship. One leading international magazine aptly highlighted, “On the one hand, the census could compel the State to finally recognize long-excluded people and foster a better collective understanding of the daily struggles that most Burmese face. But on the other, the census is set up to obscure Burma’s incredible diversity by requiring that Burmese people choose just one ethnic identity, even if they identify with many ethnicities. This comes at a dangerous point in Burma’s simmering ethnic conflict, especially since nationalists are now using conceptions of exclusive and timeless ethnicity to justify violence against populations suddenly deemed irrevocably foreign.“ By many accounts, the tiny nation has 135 racial communities. In this line, the recent conflict between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in the Arakan state is worthy of a mention. Chris Lewa, Director of the Arakan Project, an advocacy group for Rohingya, revealed in the media, “In Myanmar, the term ‘Rohingya’ is not recognized by the government and, therefore, it does not feature in the official list of 135 national races whose membership guarantees full citizenship.” Some analysts also predict that the upcoming census, if it shows minorities as being significantly large in number, might end up provoking the extremist Burman people demand pro-Burman and anti-minority laws and regulations to safeguard their positions. Similarly, some minority representatives have already expressed their worry that the government may inflate the percentage of ethnic majority Burman people to further the same cause. HRW’s Mathieson has added another challenge to the list mentioning that “Countless thousands of stateless hill-tribe people in Shan State and other border areas, plus thousands of civilians have never been registered as Burmese citizens. [They have] no birth certificates, ID cards, or passports because they grew up in insurgent-controlled areas or refugee camps or migrant worker communities.” How the census would include them is still a big question.

The most important challenge though will be to convince people to participate as most do not have any relevant idea about the census as it is happening after three decades. As mentioned above, inexperience may let down the whole process of census as the census team taking up the responsibility is relatively fresh, despite being guided and trained by a few international experts and organisations.

The good aspect of the upcoming Burma census is that UNFPA is backing the nation to complete the process smoothly. Yet, the true impact of the census will only be known once the results are collated, audited and then publicised. Till then, the world awaits with eagerness.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017