Painting by numbers – The Edge Review/RTÉ World Report

the-edge-review-logoradio – app/digital magazine available here (subscription required) – broadcast Sept. 14

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 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

First census in more than 30 years is but a preliminary portrait of Myanmar

YANGON – A little over six years ago, after holding a rigged referendum to adopt a disputed constitution, Myanmar’s junta announced – with almost comic certainty – that “the population of the country is 57,504,368.”

The number was proclaimed so confidently and precisely that you would never guess there had not been a census held in the country since 1983. In 2008 not even junta leader Than Shwe knew the real population of a country ravaged by civil war, economic sclerosis, large scale emigration, and, at the time of the communiqué, a devastating cyclone that took the lives of an estimated 140,000 people.

But then, nobody knew how many people died in the storm either. In the same statement, the military said 77,738 people were killed by Cyclone Nargis. The real death toll could have been as high as 300,000, going by comments attributed to Maung Aye, Than Shwe’s second in command, in a U.S. diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks.

Six years on, Myanmar’s three-and-a-half-year-old civilian government can claim to have a better grasp of how many people actually live in the country. On August 31, Immigration Minister Khin Yi put the provisional population figure at 51,419,420 – the number based on a landmark census held in April this year that counted 50,213,067 people and added an estimated 1,206,353 who in three areas riven by war, discrimination and ethnic tension.

The 1983 census put the population at 35 million, although that was too low given that some ethnic minority areas were not covered due to Myanmar’s long-running civil wars. Extrapolating from that 1983 round-up, recent estimates of the country’s population ranged from 48 to 60 million

There had not been a comprehensive census held in Myanmar since the 1930s, however, so the new findings will partly fill a statistical vacuum that made it difficult to measure important economic metrics – even those as rudimentary as gross domestic product (GDP) per head. That is now said to be topping US$1,000 for the first time, based on the new census results.

Aung Tun Thet, who advises Myanmar President Thein Sein on economic issues, said on the eve of the census taking in late March that without the population data, the resource-rich country could not plan properly in long-neglected areas such as healthcare and education.

What the census could not tally, however, is how many Myanmar citizens live abroad –  migrants who have fled economic decline at home. Between 2 million and 4 million work in Thailand, around a half a million in Malaysia, some 100,000 in Singapore, and unknown thousands in India and China.

The 2014 census cost around US$75 million to carry out with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) helping the Myanmar government carry out the process. The agency’s Myanmar Country Representative Janet Jackson told The Edge Review that the census – showing just under 30 per cent of citizens living in urban areas and the rest in the countryside – means that “for the first time in a very long time, there is complete, accurate and reliable data available.”

The census shows that almost 7.5 million people live in the country’s commercial capital Yangon, making it by far the biggest city – and that there are 1.7 million more women than men living in Myanmar.

The data are far from complete, however, with statistics on ethnic and religious affiliation being withheld until May 2015. By then, the government hopes to have concluded a “nationwide ceasefire” with most, if not all, of the country’s armed groups. A fifth round of negotiations took place in August, although the process has been undermined by the withdrawal of the bigger minority parties, the Karen National Union, from a pan-ethnic coalition set up to negotiate with the Myanmar government.

Burma, the former name for Myanmar, was derived from “Bamar,” the majority group thought to make up 60 per cent of the population, with the remainder made up of dozens of minorities, mostly living in border regions close to India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand.

When the census plans were first announced, back in the early days of the current military-backed but formally-civilian government, they were welcomed by ethnic minority leaders as a means to get a handle on how many of their respective peoples live in Myanmar, and in turn, what the possible political pay-off could be in a democratic Myanmar.

But with the government sticking to a clumsily collated and long derided list of 135 recognised minorities, some ethnic leaders took umbrage at the census.

By the time the tribal and faith-based figures will be released, Myanmar will be getting ready for national elections – which are due before the end of 2015. All the ethnic minorities have their own expectations about how many of their people live in Myanmar – and in turn, what this will mean for seats to be won in the elections.

If the final census results are a letdown, then the outcome could undermine the legitimacy of both peacemaking and elections in Myanmar.

Marte Nilsen, Senior Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and joint author of an analysis of Myanmar’s census, said that the release of ethnic and religious data before the elections could spark tensions.

“We fear that the already tense relations between religious groups and between ethnic groups will deteriorate further and lead to electoral violence. The government should postpone the data release on ethnicity and religion until after the elections to avoid unnecessary conflicts,” Nilsen told The Edge Review.

The government claims it already acted to prevent census-related violence by reneging on a pledge to allow a segregated Muslim minority living in western Myanmar to identify themselves as ethnic Rohingya in the census.

Before the census, Rakhine Buddhists rioted in western Myanmar, looting offices of foreign aid agencies who the Rakhine described as biased in favour of the Rohingya, and telling the government that the Rakhine ethnic minority would boycott the census if Rohingya were not excluded.

The Myanmar government appeased the Rakhine, meaning that more than one million Rohingya were prevented from filling out the census form – unless they described themselves as “Bengali.”

The Myanmar government denies the existence of a Rohingya ethnic group and says that they are immigrants from Bangladesh whose claims to Myanmar citizenship need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Back in April, just days after the census took place, Rohingya community leader Aung Win recounted how census-takers rolled into Rohingya ghettoes and refugee camps such as at Thay Chaung, on the outskirts of Sittwe, the regional capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

“They had so many police,” he said, wondering why such security was not provided to Rohingya villagers burned out of their homes during mob violence in 2012.

Speaking to The Edge Review last week, Aung Win said that the census results barely registered with the beleaguered Rohingya.

“Now we are thinking about the verification which started on August 26,” Aung Win said, referring to an official push to assess individual Rohingya’s citizenship credentials but which stipulates they must agree to be described as “Bengali.”

“People will not accept [a] citizen card with ‘Bengali’ on it,” Aung Win warned.

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