Burma’s Census Marred by Controversy Over Ethnic Question

By Seamus Martov 4 April 2014

MAI JA YANG, Kachin State — Burma’s census was supposed to be an opportunity for President Thein Sein’s government to show the world that it was capable of carrying out a nationwide survey in accordance with international standards that would produce reliable population figures, a major prerequisite for receiving further international development aid.

Instead, the census—which began Sunday and is scheduled to last until April 10—has been beset by controversy over the way it deals with ethnicity, by far the most contentious of all the 41 questions on the census form.

The outbreak of riots in Arakan State last week, which saw one person killed, prompted Human Rights Watch to call on the government to delay the entire process. “The government should suspend the census until it can ensure adequate security and a fair process for everyone involved,” said Brad Adams, the group’s Asia Director, in a statement Sunday.

This advice has so far been ignored by the government and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which is both funding and helping to implement what one commentator termed a “senseless census” for its unnecessarily bringing up the ethnic question—always a difficult subject in a multiethnic country scarred by decades of conflict.

In its statement Human Rights Watch noted that the UNFPA, and “several key international donors have accepted the Burmese government’s deeply flawed and highly contested classification of its population into ‘135 national races.’” That appears to have been overlooked by the British, Norwegian, Australian and Swiss governments that are funding the bulk of the US$74 million census budget.

Burma Campaign UK, a London-based advocacy organization, wants UNFPA, the British government’s Department for International Development (DFID) and other international donors to immediately withdraw their support for the census.

“UNFPA, DFID and other donors ignored warnings that the census could increase ethnic tensions and lead to violence, and now people are dying as a result,” the group’s director Mark Farmaner told The Irrawaddy.

“At the moment they are complicit in illegal and discriminatory policies against the Rohingya,” said Farmaner, referring to the government’s stated policy blocking members of the stateless Muslim minority from self-identifying their ethnicity.

Presidential spokesman Ye Htut indicated just a day before the census began that use of Rohingya would be banned. A statement issued by UNFPA three days later noted that the agency was “deeply concerned about this departure from international census standards, human rights principles and agreed procedures.”

While the census’s handling of the Rohingya issue is a major point of contention for both Rohingya and ethnic Arakanese, who strongly oppose use of the term, Arakan State is far from the only place in Burma where the census has met with resistance. The census will not be conducted here in Mai Ja Yang, or any other territory controlled by Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), Burma’s second largest armed group.

During a recent interview in Laiza the KIO’s de facto capital, La Nan the KIO’s Deputy General Secretary told this reporter that his organization was boycotting because of the “current situation,” a reference to the ongoing conflict between his group and the military. Granting government agents access to every person living in KIO territory, including their sizable armed wing, would necessitate a level of mutual understanding that clearly doesn’t exist.

“We don’t trust the government”, explained a 52-year-old Kachin farmer-turned-refugee, when asked his assessment of Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government during a visit to his new dwellings located in a camp just outside Mai Ja Yang. It is unlikely this view will change provided Burmese troops continue to occupy his farm in Sin Lum, a nearby village.

As a result of the KIO’s nonparticipation in the census, as many as 400,000 people will be excluded from the process, Khon Ja of the Kachin Peace Network predicted in an interview with the Democratic Voice of Burma. The government will instead rely on “international experts and technical know-how” to estimate the population figures for areas not participating, Eleven Media quoted an official from the Immigration Ministry saying.

In addition to a general level of distrust relating to anything involving the government, Kachin people’s concerns about the census stem in large part from the way in which the various Kachin sub-groups were listed as separate ethnic groups, which would lead to a distortion of figures for the Kachin population, critics claim.

Most Kachin recognize there are six or seven Kachin sub-groups, the census lists 12 but this according to critics is because some of the groups are listed twice with different names. Members of the Karen and Chin communities have similar concerns about what they maintain is a seriously flawed list of ethnic groups based on outdated categories from the era of Gen. Ne Win.

Both the government and the UNFPA had advanced warning about the potential pitfalls of pushing ahead with the ethnicity question. In February, the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank, warned that the census “risks inflaming tensions at a critical moment in Myanmar’s peace process and democratic transition.” The ICG, which had until this point been full of praise for the Thein Sein government, even going so far as to give him a peace prize last year, called for the census to be “urgently amended to focus only on key demographic questions.”

Similar concerns were raised by the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute (TNI), which warned in a report also published in February that the organizers of census were overlooking serious warning signs. “Difficulties have been treated purely as technical problems with simple, ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions, rather than as fundamentally political and ethnic challenges that need resolution,” TNI said.

Barring respondents from self-identifying their ethnic group is not the only way in which the census deviates from internationally accepted practices. Protocol employed in the census also prevents people from choosing more than one ethnic category, posing a challenge for people of mixed heritage, of which they are many across Burma.

During a recent visit to a boarding school for refugee children in Mai Ja Yang, the impracticalities of this restriction was easily demonstrated by a middle school teacher who asked his group of about 50 students to indicate by a show of hands which of the various Kachin sub-groups they were from. More than a quarter of the students taking part in this informal survey identified themselves as being from more than one of the groups, something they would be prohibited from doing on their census form.

The London-headquartered group that serves as the largest ethnic Kachin diaspora organization, the Kachin National Organization (KNO), last month blasted the government and the UNFPA for their handling of the census. “We, ethnic nationalities are marginalized again. Nobody wants to listen to us about our concerns,” said KNO spokesperson Hkanhpa Sadan in a statement.

Hkangpa Sadan, who also serves as General Secretary of the KNO’s Kachin National Council, has a valid point. Although senior representatives from both Burma’s Immigration Department and the UNFPA held public forums on the census over the past few months, these meetings primarily focused on informing the public about how the census would be carried out, as opposed to taking feedback into how it how should be conducted, according to participants.

KIO officials and their counterparts from the various armed rebel factions who attended a roundtable meeting in late December in Chiang Mai, Thailand, involving the UNFPA’s chief of mission in Burma, Janet Jackson, Burmese Immigration Minister Khin Yi and his cabinet colleague Aung Min, were less than impressed by the fact that issues relating to how the census dealt with ethnic categories was presented as a fait accompli.

“A complete waste of time”, was how one ethnic representative described sitting through Khin Yi’s rambling presentation. Perhaps things will go better next time around.