Critics worry Myanmar census could be fiasco, worsening ethnic repression and persecution

by Thin Lei Win | @thinink | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 26 February 2014 09:00 GMT

In a file photo from Oct. 28, 2012, a woman displaced by violence in the Kyukphyu township cries after arriving to Thaechaung refugee camp, outside of Sittwe. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

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Human rights groups and analysts suggest postponing the census or limiting it to key demographic questions to reduce the risk of inflaming ethnic tensions

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Human rights groups are concerned that Myanmar’s first census in 30 years will inflame ethnic tensions, further marginalise ethnic groups and be used as a tool for repression - especially against stateless Rohingya Muslims who are already denied basic human rights.

The census, funded by Western donors and the Myanmar government and supervised by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), is planned for March 30 to April 10.

The main point of contention is the census’ ethnic classification system, which the Netherlands-based Transnational Institute (TNI) calls “politically problematic, culturally sensitive and informationally flawed”.

Critics say the system, which includes 135 ethnic groups, is based on a flawed list produced in the 1980s, and creates unjustified subdivisions in some instances, while lumping together groups with separate ethnic identities.

A number of Myanmar’s ethnic groups have criticised the census, while others have demanded a postponement and reclassification.

“It has the potential to be a fiasco. Some would argue it already is,” said Matthew Smith, the executive director of Fortify Rights.

He urged donors and agencies to hear out civil society concerns and proceed when it can be guaranteed that the process will not contribute to ethnic disunity or human rights violations.

TNI said that as of February, there had been “no significant public participation in census preparation, planning and management”, though according to UNFPA regional spokesman William A. Ryan, Myanmar’s Minister of Immigration and Population has been holding meetings with ethnic groups to counter misunderstandings, and many groups are now on board.

“It’s important to understand that it’s not a perfect set of categories. The government has said this isn’t the last word on ethnicity, and the data they get will provide a starting point on a wider dialogue on a better definition of ethnicity, done in collaboration with different ethnic groups,” Ryan told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.


With the constitution and election laws allowing representation for groups with large enough populations, the classification will have direct political ramifications, the International Crisis Group (ICG) warned.

“Groups fear that if their communities are subdivided or misclassified, they may be denied that political representation. There is no possibility to report mixed ethnicity, forcing people into a single identity, to the potential disadvantage of some smaller groups,” it said.

Myanmar, which has emerged from half a century of iron-fisted military rule, has been praised for embarking on democratic reforms in the past two years, opening up the media, allowing protests and negotiating for peace with the country’s many ethnic armed groups.

Rights groups warn the reforms are still fragile, pointing to continuing offensives against the Kachin Independence Army in the north, the arrest of journalists and activists, and ongoing violence against the Rohingya  and Muslims in general.

“Myanmar is struggling to end decades-old, multiple and overlapping ethnic conflicts in its peripheries. At the same time, recent months have seen an increasingly virulent Burman-Buddhist nationalist movement lead to assaults on Muslim minority communities,” ICG said.

With elections in late 2015 - the first relatively free and fair polls in a generation - the next two years will be highly volatile, it said.

“A poorly timed census that enters into controversial areas of ethnicity and religion in an ill-conceived way will further complicate the situation,” it added. 

London-based Burma Campaign UK last week added to the mounting criticism.

“The forms are … only in Burmese, with the exception of a few English language forms for foreigners. This again reinforces the perception that many ethnic people have, that ethnic people are not being treated equally in the census,” it said, adding there is little awareness of the census among the population, even in former capital Yangon.


“Perhaps the most serious possible outcome of the census is the potential for anti-Muslim violence,” said Burma Campaign UK. 

According to TNI, the last census in 1983 reported the national population to be 89.4 percent Buddhist, 4.9 percent Christian, and 4.4 percent Muslim.

Although it is widely believed Muslims were undercounted for political reasons, any divergence from the 1983 figures could inflame communal tensions, especially against the Rohingya.

Since June 2012, religious conflict across Myanmar has killed at least 240 people and displaced more than 140,000 - most of them Rohingya whom Myanmar does not recognise as citizens.

“Many Rohingya fear the census will become a tool to further deny their access to citizenship rights and to further alienate them from the country's diverse population. We share those concerns,” said Smith of Fortify Rights, which on Tuesday released a 79-page report on government abuses against the Rohingya using leaked government documents.

“There's a risk the census will contribute to statelessness rather than help end it, which is patently unacceptable.”

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