‘Burma’s Population Is Only 51 Million—We Lose in Geopolitics’

By Yen Saning 5 September 2014

Burma’s first nationwide census in more than 30 years found that the population of the country is just 51.4 million, according to provisional data released last week.

In the time since the last count, various organizations have taken guesses at just how much the population had grown, but the government’s claim of 60 million was the most widely used estimate. The Burmese people and policymakers must now adjust to the reality of a country smaller than most thought.

Salai Isaac Khen—an ethnic Chin activist and director of the Gender and Development Initiative Myanmar—is a member of National Technical Advisory Board for the census. Following the announcement of provisional results, he spoke to The Irrawaddy about what impacts the revision will have on development policy.

Question: What do you think of the provisional results of the census from a civil society point of view?

Answer: Actually, the census is done for good reasons: It’s difficult to plan without census data. But, we’ve got a variety of ethnic nationalities and the coding of 135 ethnicities used in the census is wrong. There was no proper announcement about this to the public, which put people off.

The provisional results were announced at first, without announcing how many Burmese, Kachin or Chin there are. The data collected included controversial things. Some people say the census data can be used for voter lists, so these provisional results have avoided sensitive issues.

Q: How will the lower-than-expected population figure of 51.4 million impact upon development policy?

A: There could be changes because a population gap of 10 million is a lot, especially in development planning. When the state budget is drawn for townships, it is calculated based on population. This means the previous budget was based on 60 million people. There are only 50 million now. Isn’t the amount for those 10 million wasted? It is. Waste means corruption. We’ve never heard that the allocated budget has been sufficient for the existing population.

We also need to think why there is a 10 million population gap. Do we have 10 million people living outside Burma?

In Malaysia, the Chin population is in between 80,000 and 100,000, according to a count by ethnic community.

Q: Overall, how would you judge the census, weighing up the benefits and weaknesses?

A: In general, this is an exercise in collecting data. Some data cannot be collected. There were challenges and difficulties that will have to be considered in the next census. But we don’t accept that the census was extremely well prepared. When the UNFPA [the UN Population Fund] or the Census Commission claimed the census questionnaire reached all people at the grassroots, it was not only because of their effort. It’s also the effort of ethnic organizations worrying that their ethnic groups might be left out in the headcount. For example, the Chin used about US$10,000 for this.

The census makes us realize that we have to be very careful in handling issues concerning ethnicity. The central government cannot do whatever they want, telling a person to be ‘stone’ or ‘leaf,’ for example.

Even though it’s said to be 30 years [since the last census], it’s actually 60 years. Thirty years ago the data was collected during the socialist government. The administration was one-party rule and ethnic groups did not have freedom of expression or involvement in decisions. Then, it became 135 ethnicities. Whether it was true or not, [the late dictator Gen.] Ne Win liked the number nine, so he made it a multiple of nine.

We can conclude that those who have decided there are 135 ethnic groups did so not because they are stupid, but because they were not allowed to speak the truth.

The census is claimed to be technical. But technical is political. It can be used in future politics.

Q: What will be the future consequences of these census results?

A: Sometimes, data is political. Especially in geopolitics, population is one of the factors. Let’s say Burma’s population is only 51 million—we lose in geopolitics. How many people does China have? [1.35 billion]. What about India? [1.24 billion]? What about Bangladesh? 100 million. Thailand has got 60 million. We’ve got only 51 million. We lose.

In a country, when you have less population with more space, people will come in. We haven’t got educational, economic or technical power. The only thing we have is military power. Singapore has got economic and educational power. So, there will be the idea that military power is a more secure option than democracy.

When the ethnic numbers are revealed, there will be strength and weakness according to geopolitics. It would be no problem if everybody was inclusive about the variety of ethnic groups. But this is not the case in Arakan State. How many people have been inclusively considered?

In Arakan, not to mention Bengalis, there are Kaman, Thet, Chin, Kami and Maran. They were never treated as equal. So, when lining up how many Arakanese there are, as an major ethnicity, we might be creating ‘segregation’ mindsets in the future. Similarly with religions: How can we avoid this? Religion is a private matter.