Dripfeeding the results – The Edge Review


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Census taking in Pa-O village in Shan State in April  (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Census taking in Pa-O village in Shan State in April (2014 Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Rohingya excluded while ethnic and religious date withheld before election

BANGKOK – “A monumental achievement,” was how Vijay Nambiar, the U.N. Special Advisor in Myanmar, described country’s first census in 3 decades, as a second set of census results were released on May 29.

In March and April 2014, over 100,000 enumerators visited around 11 million households, collecting data on electricity, communications, water supply, transport, literacy. The findings, said Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, could help “address disparities and inequalities across and within Myanmar society.”

The first set of census results came out last year, revealing Myanmar’s population to be 51.4 million, short of the government’s 57 million projection, which by factoring in natural increase from the last 1983 figure of 35 million, possibly included the roughly 5 million Burmese who have emigrated to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and elsewhere in search of work – the main exports generated by the Burmese Way to Socialism and the military-dominated cronyism that followed.

Now, after US$60 million spent and millions of pink and white forms filled out in households across Myanmar’s variegated terrain, we know that there are 93 males for every 100 females – more men emigrate than women. Half the population is under 27 years of age, while life expectancy is a few months shy of 67 years old. 85 per cent of men and exactly half of women are working, with unemployment an implausibly low 4 per cent – a number that connotes more or less full employment, but surely includes subsistence farmers, casual laborers and millions of underemployed as “employed.”

Highlighting the challenges ahead for developing one of the world’s poorest countries, the census found that only a third of households have electric lights and a third have mobile phones, but half have televisions. Over 70 per cent of homes have improved water and sanitation – a number that varies from state to state however. “Planners at all levels can use these [data] to identify gaps and pinpoint needs for infrastructure and social services,” read a UNFPA statement marking the May 29 data release.

Stein Tønnesson, a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), who has examined Myanmar’s census, said that “it will be useful to have good census data on the number of inhabitants in households in the various parts of the country, their standard of living, level of education, access to water, electricity, telephones, transportation.”

The UNFPA, which worked alongside the Myanmar government in carrying out the census, noted also that “over 1 million people were not included in the enumeration exercise, amid ongoing communal tensions and the demand of many to self-identify as Rohingya, which the authorities did not allow, despite UNFPA’s advice.”

At first the Myanmar government said it would include the Rohingya, but after Buddhists from the Rakhine or Arakanese ethnic group threatened to boycott the census, the government said Rohingya could only be counted if they self-identified as “Bengali,” which most refused to do, hence the 1 million not included.

The Rakhine are the largest ethnic group living in Rakhine State, where most of the Rohingya also live, and are potential allies for whoever is seeking Myanmar’s Presidency after elections in late 2015. As are Buddhist hardliners who last week protested, albeit in small numbers, against naming Rohingya as chief victims of southeast Asia’s ongoing boat people crisis.

So no mention of the Rohingya in the census, echoing the taboo pushed by Myanmar government at the May 29 regional crisis meeting on the boat people. Indeed, almost simultaneous to President Thein Sein’s announcing of the new census data in Naypyidaw, Myanmar government representatives in Bangkok were warning counterparts from 16 other countries not to mention the Rohingya during the refugee crisis discussions.

And no mention also, not yet anyway, of how many of Myanmar’s 51.4 million people are Buddhist, the majority religion, and how many are Christian, Hindu and Muslim. Also withheld for now are crucial data on the country’s ethnic make-up. Estimates suggest that around 60 per cent of the population is Burman, with the rest made up of dozens of minorities.

The government’s official classification lists 135 ethnic groups, though many dispute the methodology by which officials came up with that glossary. Khon Ja, an activist from Kachin state, a mostly-Christian region in northern Myanmar, said at the time of the census-taking last year that “my group is listed four times under different names, even using a geographic location as a tribe name.”

The data on religion and tribe is being withheld until after the national elections scheduled for October or November 2015. The conventional wisdom is that releasing such information now could further destabilize the country ahead of the vote and a hoped-for signing of a national peace deal.

But some ethnically-based political groups hoped that the data would be out by now, as it would in turn give a clear indicator of where and how many seats they could hope to win. “We expect at least one million,” said Khun Sann Kyaw, member of the secretariat of the Pa-O National Organisation (PNO), when asked how many Pa-O he thought lived in Myanmar, projecting that his party could win a total 10 to 12 seats in the 2015 elections based on that number.

But for now neither Khun Sann Kyaw nor the dozens of other ethnic parties know how many of their peoples live in Myanmar. Before the census, dozens of ethnic and religious organizations, including the armed groups that the government hopes to forge a peace deal with, wrote to the UNFPA, criticizing the ethnic categories used and saying that ethnic minority representatives were not consulted in the census planning.

“The UN and government didn’t listen to Karen [one of the largest minorties estimated at between 3 and 7 million] and other ethnic people about how data is collected on ethnicity and so many people won’t trust the data, said Zoya Phan of the Burma Campaign UK.

“They are delaying releasing data because they are worried about the controversy ahead of Novembers election,” added Zoya Phan, whose father was assassinated in 2008 while leading the Karen National Union, one of Myanmar’s biggest ethnic minority organisations.

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