Myanmar’s Census: Risks Beyond the Rohingya Issue

By Courtney Weatherby

Myanmar's shifting demographics in places like Mon state, shown here, represent a key reason for the  census.  Source: Wikimedia user Go-Myanmar, used under a creative commons license.

Myanmar’s shifting demographics in places like Mon state, shown here, represent a key reason for the census. Source: Wikimedia user Go-Myanmar, used under a creative commons license.

Myanmar is in the process of conducting its first census in 30 years despite concerns over its impact on increasing communal tensions between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya in western Myanmar. The government’s decision not to let Muslim Rohingya identify themselves on the census as Rohingya has prompted criticisms from numerous rights groups. These concerns are real, but international critics must not overlook other significant and long-term implications of the ongoing census.

Results of the census – which are expected to be announced next summer – will have major implications on the ability of ethnic political parties to fully participate in the democratic process, since Myanmar’s constitution and election laws allow any group that makes up 0.1 percent of the population in a city to field its own political candidates and be granted representation at the ministerial level.

Currently, a significant number of ethnic minority individuals who live in urban areas are inaccurately counted as members of the majority Burman. As a result, Mon parties were not allowed to contest in Yangon constituencies in the 2010 elections because the local Mon population did not meet the 0.1 percent threshold, although the real number of Mon living in Yangon could be much higher. Ethnic political parties hope to change this by urging their constituents to identify themselves on the census according to their original ethnicity.  Failure to accurately reflect the population makeup, in this case outside ethnic-majority states, could present a major obstacle to the incorporation of ethnic parties into the national political system.

In the same vein, many ethnic groups have criticized the subgroupings and divisions of ethnicities as derived from the 1983 list of officially registered nationalities. They point out that in some cases ethnic groups with no linguistic, cultural, or ethnic ties are placed together, while in other cases groups are incorrectly sub-divided or even misidentified as belonging to a sub-group of another ethnic minority. This may lead to some large ethnic groups gaining a boost from the inclusion of other sub-groups and smaller ethnic groups losing out.

While the government has expressed a willingness to discuss the classification system after the census is taken, the trust deficit between ethnic groups and the central government has already impacted the census-taking process. The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) has said it will not participate in the census due to the ongoing conflict with the Myanmar military, while ethnic Mon and Shan have started taking separate censuses in order to verify the government’s information. This means that an estimated 400,000 Kachin people living in KIO-controlled territory in Kachin state will not be accounted for, unless the KIO agrees to let government census-takers into its areas of control.

Numerous international observers, ethnic groups, and civil society  organizations came out publicly against the inclusion of ethnic and religious identities on the list of questions days before the census was due to begin. Ethnic groups also issued a joint statement calling on the government to postpone the census until classification issues can be addressed and ethnic census takers can be trained to ensure transparency and accuracy.

Yet, calls for postponement of the census ignore the urgent need for a clear picture of the country’s demographics. Since the last census was taken in 1983, population growth rates and concentrations have changed significantly due to mass emigrations, deterioration in economic opportunities and healthcare in areas of fighting, and shifts in fertility and family planning. Current estimates of Myanmar’s population range anywhere from 48 to 60 million.

The existing uncertainty poses major challenges in formulating an informed development policy and determining needs for healthcare, education, infrastructure, and other services. Tensions between the Burman majority and Myanmar’s numerous ethnic groups have driven most of the internal political dynamics of the past 50 years. Ultimately, the sustainability of the nationwide ceasefire currently being negotiated and the development of a fully-functioning democratic system must start with the successful integration of ethnic stakeholders into the Union of Myanmar. However, the census as currently designed may even heighten ethnic tensions and hinder this process in the long-term.

Ms. Courtney Weatherby is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.

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