Protest over Myanmar census brings ethnic tensions to the fore

Anti-census protesters attacked an international NGO office on Wednesday. The census allows ethnic minorities to self-identify in a country wracked by ethnic and religious divisions. 

Joseph Schatz
Local primary school teachers in Kangyidaunt, in Myanmar's Ayeyarwady division, do a role playing exercise as part of their training to carry out Myanmar's national census.

The last time a national census was held in Myanmar, the country was an isolated military dictatorship known as Burma. Then, Daw San San was a 28-year-old primary school teacher tasked with counting heads in this rural rice-growing region in the Ayeyarwady river delta.

Now 59 and retired, Ms. San San is helping to oversee the country’s first census in 31 years, this time held under a civilian-led government. The new administration took power three years ago and has cracked open the door to international donors who are underwriting the $60 million census, which begins March 30. 

Now, as then, authorities face a common challenge: earning the trust of people wary of how the census data is used, particularly when it comes to ethnicity and religion in a country scarred by decades of inter-ethnic conflict and political repression. 

While some conflicts have been tamped down, anti-Muslim sentiment has increased, particularly in western Rakhine state, where Muslim Rohingya face rampant discrimination from majority Buddhists. Pre-census tempers flared yesterday in the state capital, Sittwe, where Buddhist mobs threw stones at the offices of an international aid group and its employees' houses. Last month the state government forced Doctors Without Borders (Medicins Sans Frontieres, MSF) to leave because it was accused of giving preferential treatment to Rohingya. 

“When compared to 1983, the trust level is a bit improved with the new government,” says San San, a member of the township census committee, last week as she stood outside Myo Ma Primary School in Kyaunggon. Inside, a group of teachers were being trained as “enumerators,” tasked with canvassing the area and asking 41 questions, ranging from the type of toilet in a household to the hot-button issue of ethnicity. 

Most countries hold a census every five to 10 years. The long gap in Myanmar, the poorest country in southeast Asia, means the government lacks data needed for everything from health care to investment decisions. “Taking the census is aimed not to exploit politics, military, nationality, and collection of tax, but to help the development of the state,” U Khin Yi, the minister for immigration and population, told reporters last month.

The census will run for 12 days and involves 120,000 enumerators. 

"We're facing a country that hasn't had a census for 30 years. Now, that poses challenges, but it's also an opportunity," says Janet E. Jackson, the United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) representative in Myanmar. "It's an opportunity to set the record straight and have credible data.”

Political dynamics

UNFPA has run into criticism over the census. In February, the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based non-profit, warned that at this stage in Myanmar’s transition from military rule, “a poorly timed census that enters into controversial areas of ethnicity and religion in an ill-conceived way will further complicate the situation.” Critics say the UNFPA, as the main donor liaison to the Myanmar government, has focused too narrowly on technical issues and ignored the political dynamics.

Critics say the census should be delayed, or the more controversial questions, like ethnicity and income level, removed. 

Ms. Jackson says the agency conducted a political risk assessment based on Myanmar’s unique cultural, historical, and political context and consulted frequently with ethnic groups. The underlying concern is trust, she says. "How will the data be used? Will it be confidential, how will it be used later, and when will it come out?" she says. 

Rakhine state isn’t the only trouble spot for census takers. Some border areas controlled by ethnic armed groups are likely to be off-limits, but many ethnic groups have agreed to cooperate – in return for promises that the government will open up a dialogue on ethnic groupings once the results are out. These groups have offered to help census teams gather data in their regions.

The census asks people to identify their ethnicity from a list of 135 ethnic groups that was established in 1982. Since this is widely acknowledged to be outdated and inaccurate, people can chose to self-identify as they wish.

This has generated further controversy: Some smaller ethnic groups are angry about their exclusion from the list, while larger ones say that sub-groups from their ethnicity are illusionary and a way to divide and dilute their political voice ahead of national elections in 2015.

“Division within vulnerable ethnic communities and between ethnic groups has already been caused by the census,” a network of overseas minority Karen groups said in a March letter to the government and UNFPA. 

One local advisor to the government warned that some minorities may lie about their ethnicities and religions out of fear of repression, or simply to throw off the government, meaning that the census data will be "all screwed up."

Rohingya or Bengalis

As for Rohingya, they don’t officially exist. The government and most people here say that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and call them “Bengalis.” But many were granted citizenship before 1982, and have lived here for generations.

There is no code for Rohingya or Bengali on the census. “Our status will be like foreigners,” says Kyaw Min, chairman of the pro-Rohingya Democracy and Human Rights Party.

Still, they can self-identify as Rohingya, to the fury of Rakhine Buddhists who oppose any type of legitimacy for the group and are threatening to boycott the census.

Experts say Myanmar’s broader Muslim population has been undercounted for years. Officially they make up only four percent of the population. This could triple in the new census data, providing a potentially dangerous call to arms for extremist movements,” the ICG report warned.

To defenders of the census process, it comes down to a simple question: if not now, when? Myanmar’s ethnic and religious problems aren’t going to be solved anytime soon, they say, and Myanmar needs to know the size, makeup, and distribution of its population, which is estimated at 60 million.

Here in ethnically-mixed Kyaunggon, where mosques and Buddhist pagodas share the skyline, early concerns about the ethnic coding seemed to have been allayed, says U Soe Oo, a district immigration official. 

“At the beginning, there was some concern especially with the ethnic coding,” says Mr. Soe Oo. “But gradually these issues are now gone,” in part because people understand they can self-identify as their ethnicity as they wish.

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