The Brussels-based International Crisis Group is warning that Myanmar’s nationwide census, planned for late Mar and April risks inflaming tensions at a critical moment in the country’s peace process and democratic transition.
The crisis group called urgently for the census process to be 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.
Myanmar has not performed a census for the past 30 years as the country remained locked in a totalitarian embrace. However, the ICG warned, “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.”
With the country stepping out from under the yoke of a tightened military regime, the loosened reins have led to an increasingly virulent ethnic Burman nationalist movement that made bloody assaults on minority communities, particularly Muslims. At the same time, the government is attempting to deal with decades old ethnic conflicts in its border areas. The concern is that asking specific questions about racial background could inflame those tensions.
“There are many flaws in the ethnic classification system being used for the census, which is based on an old and much-criticized list of 135 groups produced in the 1980s,” the ICG notes. “In some cases, this creates too many subdivisions.” The Chin, for instance, which are mostly Christian, are divided into 53 categories, many of them village or clan names, which appears to have 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, the ICG notes. A number of these groups – including ethnic political parties and ethnically based armed organizations – have issued statements highly critical of the census, some demanding a postponement and reclassification based on consultation with ethnic communities.
The classification can be expected to have direct political ramifications, the report notes. Groups fear that if their communities are subdivided or misclassified, they may be denied 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 described in a March 22, 2013 Asia Sentinel report, claims that the majority Burmans are being overrun by Muslims such as the Rohingya, who officially constitute only about 4 percent of the population.
The census could serve to unwittingly support such sentiment. There are strong indications, the ICG says, that the real figure could be more like 10 percent, but that a political decision was taken to publish a more acceptable figure of 4 percent. 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,” the report continues. “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 ICG warns. “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.”
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, the ICG says. That would 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.