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Census ethnicity data release delayed until after election

(AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)

By Fiona MacGregor /Myanmar Times
August 04, 2014

Census results on Myanmar’s ethnic populations will not be published until after the 2015 general election, an official in charge of the census has told The Myanmar Times.

The revelation, which comes following concerns that figures on ethnicity and religion could prompt further communal conflict, has prompted some observers to conclude the results are being held back for political reasons. However, those involved in the process say the delay is due to data-input difficulties after a higher-than-expected number of people chose not to identify as one of 135 set ethnic groups on the questionnaire.

“The ethnic information cannot be released [as early as planned],” said Daw Khaing Khaing Soe, director of the Ministry of Immigration and Population’s census technical team.

She said entering the details of those who self-described their ethnicity through the “other” option, rather than choosing one of the listed groups, would be “a very long process”.

The question of ethnic identity was one of the most controversial elements of the census, which was conducted in March and April. Prior to the count, many international experts called for the question to be removed, or the entire census postponed, because of concerns it would exacerbate religious and ethnic tensions.

Those answering the question could choose from one of 135 officially recognised ethnic groups – a classification described by Human Rights Watch as “deeply flawed’’ – or the “other” option, which enabled them to describe their ethnicity in their own words.

While the government had promised to allow anyone to self-describe their ethnicity, at the last minute it bowed to public pressure in Rakhine State and decreed that nobody would be allowed to enter “Rohingya” on the census form. While some Muslims in Rakhine State opted to identify instead as Bengali, most refused and were therefore skipped. In Kachin and Kayin states, some communities were also missed because they were in areas too insecure for enumerators to enter.

Despite Rohingya respondents being excluded, sources close to the census said a far higher number of people than expected had chosen to identify as “other”. The range of ethnic identities people had used to describe themselves was far more diverse and complex than expected.

“The [figures on ethnic identity] were supposed to come out before the election, but it now it won’t be until afterward. Far more people self-identified as ‘other’ than anticipated,” one source said.

Each “other” response has to be entered by hand, which organisers said accounts for the delay in tallying results.

However, one source told The Myanmar Times the government “did not seem to be any great rush” to get the information processed and made public before the election.

U Kyaw San Wai, a senior analyst at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said he believed a primary reason for the delay is the government’s desire to “minimise risk ahead of the 2015 elections”.

“I would say that given the sensitivities of ethnicity, especially in Rakhine State with regards to the Rohingya, the government might be trying to pre-empt any possible sectarian unrest or ramifications the data might have,” he said.

However, Rakhine State is not the only area of the country where the results on ethnicity may have important political implications.

“There are many preconceptions and passionate views among ethnic minorities on ethnic identity, and ethnic groups have rough estimates of how big they are and where they are located.

If the census data disagrees with these estimates, it might lead to accusations that the government had manipulated the results in favour of the Bamar in an attempt to perhaps undermine ethnic minority parties,” he said.

Tom Kramer of the Netherlands-based Transnational Institute, which published a report condemning the timing and methodology of the count, said many ethnic groups feared the use of the 135 ethnic groups would “further diminish” the political status of minority peoples.

“The scheduling of the census in the year before a key general election – and before political agreements have been achieved in the ceasefire talks – has only deepened concerns,” Mr Kramer said.

“Unreliable data that results from the census could have [a] negative impact on political debate and ethnic nationality representation in the legislatures,” he said.

But delaying the release of the results will only put off the potential for fallout, he said.

“Instead of just delaying the release of the information regarding questions of ethnicity and identity from the census, an inclusive debate about identity and citizenship in the country should first take place, and the failings and difficulties with the census need to be recognised.”

The census cost an estimated $74 million, with much of the funding coming from international donors, notably the British, Norwegian, Australian and Swiss governments.

Matt Smith of Thai-based group Fortify Rights said the delay confirms that the collection of data on ethnicity has political implications.

“Donors, UNFPA and the government repeatedly claimed the census was apolitical and in no way related to the elections, as if they could magically will that to be true just by saying it. Of course the census is political,” he said.

Despite continued criticism of the census process, and an acknowledgment of problems in Rakhine and Kachin, organisers say the count has been an overall success. Officials also say they are working to find ways to include data about people who wanted to identify as Rohingya so that they are not missed completely.

Daw Khaing Khaing Soe also promised there would be “consultations” with ethnic minority groups on the census results before the figures are released.

A report from international observers was given to the government at the end of July and is due for publication imminently.

Initial data on the number of men and women in the country is due to be released at the end of August.