Burma Urged to Drop Census Questions on Ethnicity, Religion

International Crisis Group, United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, Burma, Myanmar, census, ethnic identity, religion, conflict

The questionnaire used during the Population and Housing Pilot Census in 2013. (Photo: Pyay Kyaw Myint / UNFPA)

RANGOON — The International Crisis Group (ICG) is urging the Burma government and the United Nations to amend the country’s nationwide census survey, which includes questions that it describes as “needlessly antagonistic and divisive.”

The Brussels-based NGO on Wednesday echoed calls by Burma’s ethnic minority groups to postpone the collection of data on ethnicity, religion and citizenship status until a later, less volatile time. The government has recently defended the need to take down this information as soon as possible.

“While the collection of accurate demographic data is crucial for national planning and development—it has been over 30 years since the last census—the coming census, consisting of 41 questions, is overly complicated and fraught with danger,” the ICG said in a “conflict alert” statement.

“In addition to navigating its political transition from authoritarian military rule to democratic governance, Myanmar is struggling to end decades-old, multiple and overlapping ethnic conflicts in its peripheries. At the same time, recent months have seen an increasingly virulent Burman-Buddhist nationalist movement lead to assaults on Muslim minority communities. A census which risks further increasing these tensions is ill-advised.”

While praising the government for its work to prepare for the census, which begins late next month, the ICG said the organizers—including Burmese officials, the United Nations and donors—have not paid enough attention to potential risks. It said there were flaws in the classification system for ethnic groups, and cautioned that collecting data on religious affiliations could feed into anti-Muslim sentiment that has led to outbreaks of sectarian violence.

In western Burma’s Arakan State, clashes between local Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims have left over 140,000 people displaced and over 200 people dead since 2012. Some Buddhists in the state say they fear the Muslim population is increasing too rapidly, and that Muslim men will attempt to marry Buddhist women and convert them to Islam.

After the last census in 1983, the military regime reported that Muslims constituted 4 percent of the population in the Buddhist-majority country, but this percentage may not be accurate.

“There are strong indications that the real figure collected then was over 10 percent, but that a political decision was taken to publish a more acceptable figure of 4 percent,” the ICG said. “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 for extremist movements.”

The group urged census organizers to only ask demographic questions covering age, sex and marital status. “This will provide the most important data without touching at this stage on the more controversial issues of identity and citizenship,” it said.

“The census process should be urgently 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.”

The nationwide census will begin at the end of next month, with data collected from March 30 to April 10. With help from the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the Burma government has created a survey that will require participants to identify as one of 135 ethnic groups. Non-citizens, which include Rohingya Muslims, can identify as “other” and write in their own ethnic group, as can citizens who belong to a group that is not recognized by the government as native to the country.

The results are important because they have major political ramifications: Ethnic groups that pass a certain population threshold can have ethnically delineated constituencies with representatives appointed as ministers in local governments.

Under military rule, ethnic minorities accused the government of inflating the numbers of the ethnic Burman majority to justify the dominance of Burman officials. Now similar concerns have surfaced about inaccurate representation. Some ethnic groups say the census survey inaccurately classifies certain ethnic subgroups or tribes as belonging to unrelated larger ethnic groups. Others say the classification breakdown of 135 ethnic groups is too divisive.

While taking note of these concerns, the government has defended the need to collect data on ethnicity. Earlier this week, Khin Yi, the minister of immigration and population, said that although many countries around the world do not include such questions in their census surveys, Burma needed to do so because its statistics were much more out-of-date.

“We are starting to collect this data only after 30 years, so we don’t know exactly how many ethnic people are here. That’s why we’re including this element. Other countries conduct a census once every 10 years,” he said at a press conference in Rangoon on Monday.

“It’s true that ethnic minorities worry their groups will disappear, that they will not get the ‘right to govern themselves’ in the upcoming election. But the census is not directly related with elections, although it may be indirectly. There will be no such thing as losing the right to govern themselves.”

Despite his reassurances, a number of major ethnic groups have called for the postponement of the census to hammer out some of these concerns. On Monday, ethnic Chin activists called for at least a 30-day delay of data collection in a letter to President Thein Sein, the immigration minister and the chairman of the central census commission.

“We have evaluated that some arrangements for the census will harm ethnic people, including the Chin. Especially the tribal groups’ names are wrong,” the Census Supporting Committee for Chin Ethnics wrote in the letter, adding that they were also concerned about potential conflict between various tribes.

In a separate letter to Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann, 23 ethnic Kachin civil society groups also called for postponement, again to allow for more discussion about the categorization of ethnic groups. They urged the government to drop the question about ethnic affiliation if no resolution is achieved over their concerns about classification.

Gen. Gun Maw, deputy chief of staff for the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), has also said the current time is not right for the census. Speaking Thursday in Chiang Mai, Thailand, he said ongoing clashes between ethnic armed groups and the government army could prevent data collectors from reaching certain areas in remote ethnic states.

“If the government takes the census now, the survey will be incomplete because there are many conditions, such as war and conflicts,” he said.

UNFPA representatives working on the census were not available on Thursday to respond to requests for comment about the ICG statement.

With reporting by Nyein Nyein in Chiang Mai.

7 Responses to Burma Urged to Drop Census Questions on Ethnicity, Religion

  1. Is current Government a true and democratically elected Government? No. Not at all. They came to power with fake constitution. Not a single person would give his vote to the people who changed the uniforms and pretend as civilians. Especially Thein Sein , Shwe Mann and Khin Ye etc. These people are suitable to get shoes. Like fake constitution , now they want to finish census to make indirectly their BAMA’s superiority on other minorities. International community can cry but these extremists will not change. They will go ahead with their fake census.

  2. Census in Kachin State, Shan State, Chin State, Karenni State, Karen State and Rakhine State will be 100% flawed. Because of the endless war is still happening in Kachin State and more than 100,000 Chins are in neighboring Mizoram(India) and 60,000 are Malaysia as laborers for their survival. How about Karens at refugee Camps in Thailand who are citizens of the Union of Myanmar. So, collecting census without having peace in the Union means nothing more than waste of time and money. Everything do, they cannot do it right.

  3. We want to know why international bodies are giving instructions what to do and what not to do. If there is no international standard, they would complain. If somebody is going to review and implement they start to say this and that.

    The census had been carried since 1976-77 if we were not mistaken and a lot of problems had taken place. We feel Burmese gov: must be firm now at the expense of loss of lives as expectedly and should start to implement a system not to perpetuate the cycle and close every body mouth. That’s it.

  4. For the last sixty years Burma has conducted its census based on ethnicity and religion. If those censuses were not illegal so why should this census is flawed? What does ICG know about the realities of Burma? On what authority is ICG demanding such a whimsical census? Why has ICG not considered censuses in Islamic countries including Pakistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Indonesia, Bangladesh, etc. to be conducted as they care demanding from Burma? Is Burma a backboneless nonentity so that all these socalled international self-interested NGOs have started demanding whimsical implementation of ‘their’ kind of motivated policies? Please show me on Islamic country in this world that does not conduct their census on grounds of ethnicity and religion, and I will support this half-cocked design of NGOs turning Burma into an Islamic no-man’s land. I will urge all those who are crying for this ulterior motivated demand to respect the democratic demands of the people of the majority of the Burmese people. Burma is not a battleground of the Shiahs and Sunnis, neither it is the Deep South of Thailand. In recent past the killing of a Burmese police officer by Islamists in Maungdaw has been extolled by socalled HR NGOs including those based in Thailand. These are the examples of senseless Islamization by international NGOs mostly run by the donations of Christian organizations. We need no further explanation to this. Period.

  5. MyanMAR is going backwaRD????

  6. The ICG has politicised the forthcoming census in Burma already by this kind of meddling when the UK 2011 census questionnaire was made up of 56 questions including ethnic background, language, religion and marital status in addition to work and second homes!

    Some issues such as Gen Gum Maw mentioned are justifiable technical concerns. For ethnicity 135 plus boxes to choose from and tick may be a bit over the top when one blank to fill in may suffice. Whether Muslim is ethnicity or religion remains a controversial issue, but it does indicate people’s perception and beliefs.

    Whatever name it calls itself it is not the ICG’s place to dictate a sovereign state’s census collection or to control statistical analysis from the data.

  7. Its a great disadvantage for we Rohingyas as to what to decide in answering the forty-one complicated questions.
    Unless there is a clear cut policy as to how the Rohingyas will be considered about their status, and in our opinion the state should give the Rohingyas a seperate code number. We are afraid that the govt policy is always trying to push the Rohingyas to Alien Bengalis all the time which is not true. We are legally represented with our elected representatives in the Pyithu Hluttaw from our constituencies. Although the international community is urging the adamant Burmese regime to recognize the Rohingyas as citizens of Myanmar, the Myanmar govt is always rejecting the international community’s concern. Lately His Excellency the German President has echoed his strong support for the citizenship of the Rohingyas as we have every right and are entitled to be the rightful citizens of the Union. And we Rohingyas hope that the Myanmar govt would drop the questions on ethnicity, religious affiliation and citizenship status etc. in the forthcoming census because it could escalate the anti Rohingya sentiments and make the matter worse which is in a critical point already.

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