Making it count – The Edge Review

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Myanmar kicks off its first census in more than three decades but Rohingya left off list

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By SIMON ROUGHNEEN / Pharmoon, Shan State, Myanmar

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

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

It took around 15 minutes for Than Phay – a stocky, tattooed farmer living with his wife, daughter and 88-year-old mother-in-law – to go through the 41 questions on the pink and white census form.

Sitting in an airy and darkly-varnished timber hut, with a dish of locally-grown strawberries within arms reach of the census form spread over a shin-high table, Than Phay went through the questions with Naing Naing Win, a local teacher working as one of around 100,000 census-takers helping to complete Myanmar’s first population survey in over three decades.

“It was fine, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with [the] questions, and it didn’t take so long,” Than Phay said.

Naing Naing Win, who like Than Phay is from the Pa-O ethnic minority, said that the data collection process was going well.

“I got through 20 houses yesterday, and so far today have done seven,” Naing Naing Win said.

The census-takers have been going from house to house across Myanmar since March 31, in some cases hiking through rough terrain to access hilltop villages and isolated jungle communities, all in a effort to try to establish Myanmar’s population and gather other household data that the government says is needed to help social and economic planning.

The census will take 12 days to complete and is the first such undertaking since 1983. It comes three years after a civilian government, run largely by former army men, took office and started a series of political and economic reforms that prompted revived Western and Japanese business interest.

Stein Tønnesson, a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and co-author of a recently published paper on the Myanmar census, told The Edge Review that much of the data sought in the census questionnaire will help the Myanmar government in its economic reform efforts.

“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,” Tønnesson said.

Aung Tun Thet, an advisor to Myanmar President Thein Sein, said that estimating Myanmar’s population is currently guesswork and that policymakers therefore are working in an information vacuum.

“The projections are based on birthrates and death rates since the last census, and even those birthrates and death rates are not fully reported,” he told The Edge Review.

Current estimates of Myanmar’s population, based on conjecture, put it at between 48 and 60 million. The country’s demographic make-up has long been politicised by the mostly ethnic Burman military elites who ran the country from 1962 to 2011.

When the census was first announced, it was welcomed in ethnic minority regions such as Shan State, the biggest state in Myanmar and home to possibly the largest ethnic minority in the country, the Shan, but also dozens of others, such as the Pa-O. But as the census drew closer, many ethnic minority representatives took issue with the process – particularly the government’s ethnic or tribal categorizations. Some of the largest minorities thought the census was a ploy to dilute their numbers by introducing irrelevant sub-categories of ethnicities, while some of the smaller tribes, in turn, resented being classed as part of a larger ethnic minority.

Some foreign human rights organisations have pushed for the census to be postponed or amended, fearing that questions about faith and fatherland could spark conflict in what has long been a fractious society.

Aung Tun Thet conceded that the timing of the census is “delicate,” but argued against postponement. “It would be a sensitive topic no matter when we held a census, so now is good a time as any,” he said. “We should have it before the elections in 2015.”

And for some, determining accurate data on ethnic minority populations could also bolster calls for changes in local education, health and cultural policies in their regions – rights that have long been subjected to Burman dominance – such as a ban on teaching in local languages in government schools.

Khun Sann Kyaw, a member of the secretariat of the Pa-O National Organisation (PNO), told The Edge Review that PNO welcomes the census. “We will know from the census how many of our ethnic [group] are in the country, so we can benefit from this,” he said, adding that discussions with the government had allayed Pa-O concerns that their nationality could be subsumed into the bigger Shan ethnic group, which, like the Pa-O, lives mostly in Shan State, a hilly tea, coffee and opium-growing region bordering northern Thailand.

An accurate headcount of Myanmar’s minority groups – such as the Kayin, Kachin, Mon and others who have long felt that hazy, outdated statistics under-represented their real numbers – could bolster claims for parliamentary representation in the elections due to be held by the end of 2015.

“We expect at least one million,” said Khun Sann Kyaw, when asked how many Pa-O he thought lived in Myanmar. The PNO projects that the party could win 10 to 12 seats in the 2015 elections, based on such a census outcome.

But not all ethnic minority groups support the census, or are being allowed to participate. Since 2011, the Myanmar Army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) have fought a small-scale war close to the Myanmar-China border, driving more than 100,000 civilians from their homes, while violence in Rakhine State, in western Myanmar, has seen almost 140,000 Rohingya Muslims driven from their homes.

The week before the census, Rakhine Buddhists – implacably opposed to the presence of the Rohingya in Rakhine State – looted the stocks of the United Nations and international aid organisations in Sittwe, the regional capital, in what was billed as a protest against the alleged mishandling of a Buddhist flag by a foreign aid worker, but which had all the hallmarks of a premeditated attempt to intimidate aid workers into leaving and undermine the census in the region.

The Rakhine see non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as biased toward the Rohingya, who make up the bulk of the 140,000 people languishing in camps and ghettoes since communal violence, most of it Buddhist-on-Muslim, first flared in June 2012.

In the run-up to the census, the Myanmar government said it would allow people to list themselves as “Rohingya” in the “other” box on the census form’s ethnicity section. But the day before the largely donor-funded census started, the government backtracked, saying it would not recognise the term “Rohingya.” The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the agency assisting Myanmar carry out the census, said on Tuesday that it was “deeply concerned,” about the exclusion of the Rohingya, after the Myanmar Government double-crossed the international donors who provided all bar US$15million of the US$74million census operation.

The displaced Rohingya, whom the Myanmar government regard as Bangladeshi immigrants, rely on foreign aid for survival, so the pogrom directed against the NGOs could jeopardize supplies of food and shelter for people who will not be allowed to register as they want on the census.

The KIA, meanwhile, has barred census workers from tallying in areas it controls, meaning that perhaps one-third of Kachin will not be registered on the census, while the Rohingya will not be counted at all, it seems.

Assessing these gaps in the data, Khon Ja, an activist from Kachin State, said that “the census will not really provide all the accurate data for the government to implement policy.”

“Two states will not have complete numbers,” she told The Edge Review.

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