A recent decision to undertake a national census could prove key to empowering Myanmar’s more than 100 ethnic groups, provided it is inclusive and conducted to international standards.
“Potentially, the census would have a very positive affect on the ethnic areas and could serve to support claims for ethnic rights in education, language and culture that in some areas is repressed by the state and military,” David Scott Mathieson, a senior researcher in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), told IRIN.
The government lists 135 ethnic groups, comprising more than a third of Burma’s 55 million inhabitants, which are grouped into eight national races: Burman, Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Mon, Rakhine and Shan.
The United Nations agreed on 30 April 2012 to assist the Burmese government in conducting its first census in 31 years. The project will start in April 2014, ahead of the next general election in 2015.
“It’s incredibly important to have a census at this time, both to support the gradually expanding reforms and because there hasn’t been a census since 1983,” Mathieson said, noting that there had been severe limitations on gathering the data at the time, as ongoing armed conflict had excluded significant parts of the country.
Karen State in the east of the country is one such area, where the long-standing conflict between Karen forces and Burma’s successive governments has hampered development for more than 60 years.
Healthcare and education standards in southeastern Myanmar are described as among the worst in Asia.
According to the Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), an umbrella group of NGOs working along the border, fighting has displaced more than 400,000 people.
Although the Karen National Union (KNU), which has been fighting for greater autonomy from the Burmese government for decades, is now in the initial steps of implementing a ceasefire, the census process could prove just as difficult to carry out.
“Right now, not many people in Kayin State are aware of the proposed census, so the government will need to do a lot more to inform the communities about it,” said Knaw Paw, spokesperson for the Karen Women's Organization.
“There is an urgent need to get accurate information out to international organizations and institutions, so that they are aware of the real situation on the ground in Kayin State, where healthcare and education issues have been largely ignored by the Myanmar government,” Knaw Paw said.
That will take careful planning, particularly as to how the survey is conducted. Za Uk Lin, of the Chin Human Rights Organization, expressed concern that the census methodology might be skewed. “There is a significant number of Chin who can no longer speak their ethnic language fluently, so they are often mistaken for or classified as Burman,” Lin said.
According to the 1983 census, the majority Burman ethnic group accounted for 69 percent of the population.
Some 500,000 people live in Chin State, described by the United Nations as the poorest of Myanmar’s 14 regions and states, with 73.3 percent of the population living below the poverty line and having limited access to healthcare and education. Another 100,000 Chin, having fled persecution, live across the border in neighbouring India’s Mizoram State.
There is also the challenge of ensuring that everyone living in Myanmar, regardless of race, is covered, including the Rohingya, who are officially classified as “stateless”. Activists say this ethnic, linguistic and religious (Muslim) minority, has long faced persecution.
“In Myanmar, the term ‘Rohingya’ is not recognized by the government and, therefore, it does not feature in the official list of 135 national races whose membership guarantees full citizenship,” said Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, an advocacy group for Rohingya. “[It is] shocking that Myanmar’s government would only consider to include in this census people belonging to the ‘national races’.”
There are some 800,000 Rohingya living in northern Rakhine State, while 200,000 or more fled persecution and are now living in Bangladesh, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Another challenge, said HRW’s Mathieson, are the “countless thousands of stateless hill-tribe people in Shan State and other border areas, plus thousands of civilians who have never been registered as Burmese citizens. [They have] no birth certificates, ID cards, or passports because they grew up in insurgent -controlled areas or refugee camps or migrant worker communities.”
Such groups could strongly benefit from the upcoming census, as well as from the expected increase in international donor support, given the country’s ongoing political reforms. How that aid is spent, and its effectiveness, will require better information on the ground.
“There is a dire need for the census to guide Myanmar's rural development and poverty reduction strategy, and 5-year national development plan. How can such plans be developed and monitored without accurate data on the number of people residing in the country, their age structure and sex, geographical locations, access to healthcare, water and sanitation?” said Mohamed Abdel-Ahad, country representative for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
In the two years leading up to the census, UNFPA will be assisting in surveyor training and drafting the forms that will be completed during the data collection exercise.
At the signing of the agreement to undertake the census, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “very encouraged by the government’s strong commitment to the project”, and urged donors to support it.
Myanmar’s Vice-President, Sai Mauk Kham, said his government “will cooperate closely with UNFPA to oversee the quality of the census, so that the result will be accurate and up to international standards”.