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Myanmar Conflict Alert: A Risky Census

A Rakhine man
during conflict between Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya Muslim communities,
northwest Myanmar, June 2012. REUTERS/Staff

By International Crisis Group
February 12, 2014

The nationwide census planned
for 30 March to 10 April 2014 risks inflaming tensions at a critical moment in
Myanmar’s peace process and democratic transition. The census process should be
urgently amended to focus only on key demographic questions, postponing those
which are needlessly antagonistic and divisive – on ethnicity, religion,
citizenship status – to a more appropriate moment. By doing so, the government,
United Nations and donors can demonstrate that they are sensitive to the
serious risks presented by the census as currently conceived, and that they are
willing to respond to the deep reservations expressed by many important groups
in the country.

While the collection of
accurate demographic data is crucial for national planning and development – it
has been over 30 years since the last census – the coming census, consisting of
41 questions, is overly complicated and fraught with danger. Myanmar is one of
the most diverse countries in the region, and ethnicity is a complex, contested
and politically sensitive issue, in a context where ethnic communities have
long believed that the government manipulates ethnic categories for political
purposes. In addition to navigating its political transition from authoritarian
military rule to democratic governance, 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. A census
which risks further increasing these tensions is ill-advised.

There are many flaws in the
ethnic classification system being used for the census, which is based on an
old and much-criticised list of 135 groups produced in the 1980s. In some cases,
this creates too many subdivisions (the small Chin group, for example, is
divided into 53 categories, many of them village or clan names, which has no
justification on ethno-linguistic grounds). In others, groups are lumped
together who have separate ethnic identities (for example, several groups in
Shan State such as the Palaung, Lahu and Intha are included as subdivisions of
the Shan ethnicity when they are not related in any way ethnically or
linguistically). A number of these groups – including ethnic political parties
and ethnically based armed organisations – have issued statements highly
critical of the census, some demanding a postponement and
reclassification based on consultation with ethnic communities.

The classification is related
to more than ethnic identity; it will have direct political ramifications. The
constitution and election laws provide for a set of ethnically delineated
constituencies for those groups that meet a certain population threshold, with
representatives being appointed as ministers in local governments. 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.

Religion adds yet another
layer of controversy. Rising Burman-Buddhist nationalism in the country –
typified by the “969” movement (see our report The Dark Side of Transition: Violence Against Muslims in
Myanmar
) – projects a fantastical narrative that Myanmar
and the majority Buddhist faith are being overrun by Muslims. The census could
serve to unwittingly support such sentiment. Currently, it is widely believed
that Myanmar’s population is 4 per cent Muslim, a figure reported in the 1983
census. However, there are strong indications that the real figure collected
then was over 10 per cent, but that a political decision was taken to publish a
more acceptable figure of 4 per cent. The results of the current census could
therefore be mistakenly interpreted as providing evidence for a three-fold
increase in the Muslim population in the country over the last 30 years, a
potentially dangerous call to arms for extremist movements.

Issues of ethnicity, religion
and citizenship form a particularly potent mix in Rakhine State, the site
of serious recent violence. Many in
the Buddhist Rakhine community feel that they are fighting for their ethnic and
religious survival in the face of a Rohingya Muslim population that is
perceived to be growing rapidly – but which is currently denied citizenship and
basic human rights. They claim that many Rohingya are recent illegal immigrants
from Bangladesh – a narrative that has been repeated for decades, despite
evidence to the contrary. In addition to the tensions that could flare when
official figures on the Muslim population in the state become known, some
extremist Rakhine political actors undoubtedly fear that the census would
establish a baseline Rohingya population that would make it more difficult to
sustain the narrative of recent migration in the future. Rakhine politicians
are already claiming that additional populations of Bengali Muslims are now
infiltrating Rakhine State in order to be included in the census count.
These politicians are demanding that
they be allowed to form an armed Rakhine militia to prevent such a migration.

Myanmar is at a very sensitive
moment in its transition. The peace process with ethnic armed groups is in a
delicate phase, with all sides engaged in a concerted effort to bridge gaps and
build trust. Elections in late 2015 will likely be the first relatively free
and fair polls in a generation and will radically transform the political
landscape. The next two years will thus be highly volatile. A poorly timed
census that enters into controversial areas of ethnicity and religion in an
ill-conceived way will further complicate the situation.

The Department of Population
and other officials are to be commended for their tireless efforts over the
last two years to make all the technical and administrative preparations for
this enormous exercise. However, the plans have proceeded with apparently
little concern at the political level – by government, the United Nations and
donors – over the potential risks. For a country that has no recent experience
of conducting a census, comparative lessons from other transitional and
conflict-affected contexts could have informed Myanmar’s efforts and helped to
significantly mitigate the risks.

There is still time to adjust
the process by limiting the census to just the key demographic questions on
age, sex and marital status – that is, the first six questions on the census
form. This will provide the most important data without touching at this stage
on the controversial issues of identity and citizenship. The limited technical
complication of adjusting the process pales into insignificance when placed
against the much larger risk – to the very fabric of Myanmar society at this
delicate stage in the country’s transition – of proceeding with the current,
ill-thought-out process.