Myanmar’s census stokes tensions

An upcoming census tracking religious and ethnic statistics could renew unrest.

Ethnic minority groups comprise some 40 percent of Myanmar's population [AFP]

Yangon, Myanmar – Huddling for shade under parasols and skinny trees, hundreds of people gathered in the searing heat to listen to comedians Zee Thee and Sein Thee in Myanmar’s western Delta region.

“A nationwide census, let’s all participate,” shouted Zee Thee from the top of a wobbling tour bus in the small town of Kangyidong.

Despite Zee Thee’s enthusiasm, advanced survey software and legions of trained enumerators, not everybody will participate in the nationwide census aimed to take place on March 30.

Large portions of Myanmar’s restive borderlands, home to a constellation of armed ethnic groups, are beyond the reach of census officials and their clipboards.

“Most of the civilians, they don’t want it. This is not the right time to collect the data because of our ongoing peace process,” said Ja Seng Hkaun Maron, a member of Kachin civil society.

Meanwhile, many, including government officials, are worried the sensitive questions over ethnicity and religion could prompt renewed unrest in parts of the country where little provocation is needed.

As Myanmar rolls back half-a-century of totalitarianism, a thuggish brand of Buddhist chauvinism has been unleashed.

Extremist anti-Muslim monk Wirathu and his followers believe Myanmar’s Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group numbering upwards of one million people, should not be allowed to identify themselves on the census.

Earlier this month, the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres was expelled from Rakhine – a coastal area located in the far west of the country – for reporting that it treated victims of an alleged massacre of the Rohingya.

This week, a mob of Buddhists opposed to the Rohingya’s participation in the census, attacked offices and houses used by international aid groups.

‘Recognition brings power’

The Rohingya are not included in the list of 135 recognised ethnic groups.

Putting the name of a people that don't exist will cause violence.

by - Zaw Aye, Rakhine Affairs Minister

The group fears that ticking the “other” box on the census will threaten their eligibility for citizenship, while not being identified as Rohingya will leave their community underrepresented.

Local officials fear the census’ ethnic data could provoke further bloodshed because ethnic recognition brings power.

“Putting the name of a people that don’t exist will cause violence. But if they’re counted as Bengali, there won’t be any problems,” said the Rakhine Affairs Minister Zaw Aye.

This week state officials told residents of Aung Mingalar, an internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camp for Rohingya who have fled sectarian violence, to leave some sections of the census blank.

“They cannot decide what to do… people are frightened,” said Kyaw Min, president of the Democracy and Human Rights Party, a political party made up of mainly Rohingya.

Ministerial positions in local parliament are given to constituencies above a certain population threshold. Buddhist nationalists see the Rohingya’s census count as the thin edge of the wedge for citizenship.

The government denies the data will be used for that purpose.

“The government asked [the Rohingya] to fill the forms without the race and religion columns. So people are in a dilemma,” said Kyaw Min.

Manipulated ethnicity

The United Nations Population Fund and the national government are more upbeat. They say the headcount will help allocate the nation’s budget and resources.

Dozens of teachers are getting trained in collecting census data [Hereward Holland/Al Jazeera]

At an enumeration-training centre in Kangyidaunt township, dozens of teachers in grey aprons are schooled in collecting census data and asking census-related questions.

Frederick Okwayo, a census adviser to the Department of Population, perused the coding list of 135 ethnic groups.

“For any planning, be it planning for basic education, planning for health services, planning for housing, you need [to know] how many people are there,” Okwayo said.

Even so, many are concerned about foul play in a country where the government has a history of manipulating ethnicity for political goals.

Civil society groups and think-tanks agree such sensitive personal questions are unnecessarily divisive in a country fractured by race and religion.

Kyaw Thu, head of the civil society consortium Paung Ku, told the Thailand-based Irrawaddy magazine that only demographic information is necessary for development planning.

“If development is the priority, the data of headcounts – the numbers of people and the age group – is enough to conduct economic projects,” he told the magazine.


Ethnic minority groups constitute some 40 percent of Myanmar’s population. Many minority groups say the list of the 135 ethnicities, which dates back to the early 1980s, is arbitrary and inaccurate.

Some major ethnic minority groups, such as the Kachin and Chin people, fear they could be denied political representation because their communities are subdivided, misclassified or clumped together with other unrelated groups.

For the Kachin – a Christian and Buddhist ethnic group in Myanmar’s northeast – three of the ethnic classifications refer to geographical areas rather than the ethnic groups.

The Chin people, who primarily reside in the northwest, are divided into 53 categories, many of them using village or clan names.

In Shan State, located in the east, the Palaung, Lahu and Intha are included as subdivisions of Shan ethnicity but they are not related by race or language.

“[People] might be worried about the use of the information,” said Khu Khu Ju, from the Karen Human Rights Group. “They will find it difficult to trust the census and what are the benefits to them? There’s no clear answer to that.”

Call to arms?

According to Brussels-based think-tank International Crisis Group, there are strong indications that at four percent, the percentage of Muslims was heavily underreported during the last census in 1983.

Al-haj U Aye Lwin from the Islamic Centre of Myanmar said the real number was closer to 10 percent.

“The four percent figure is absolutely wrong. They wanted to underestimate everything to prove that Burma is Buddhist,” he said.

“We will give them the correct data because it will help to make plans for our nation-building. We hope that the correct data comes out.”

However, danger lies in updating this historical fallacy: The corrected figures could be interpreted as a three-fold increase in the Muslim population – a potentially hazardous call to arms for Wirathu’s extremist disciples.

Few seem happy about being counted under the present conditions. As the census approaches, comedian Zee Thee has little to laugh about.

Source: Al Jazeera