Burma’s Ethnic Minorities Decry Census, Jostle for Advantage

By Yen Saning 10 February 2014

RANGOON — Members of Burma’s largest ethnic minority groups and smaller ethnic subgroups are voicing concerns over a census due to be conducted late next month, with the survey’s system of classification criticized as inaccurate by some, and unnecessarily divisive by others.

Major ethnic groups like the Karen, Chin and Kachin have complained that they are being robbed of some subgroups, claiming they owe lineage to the larger respective ethnic identities but have been incorrectly placed elsewhere under the current categorization scheme. Other voices from among the ranks of Burma’s biggest ethnic minorities have called for categorizing the scores of ethnic subgroups under the primary ethnic groups rather than giving an individual code number to each.

That recommendation has not won the endorsement of some of Burma’s ethnic subgroups and tribes, however.

The Palaung, also known as Ta’ang, as well as ethnic Zomi, Pathi and Rohingya, have all expressed a desire to maintain a distinct ethnic classification with their own designated code number on the upcoming census.

The Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF) last week issued a statement rejecting the census’s categorization of the Ta’ang people as being one of 33 Shan subgroups.

“The Ta’ang are of Mon-Khmer ancestry—Mon, Khmer and Palaung [Ta’ang] belong to this group. We are not derived from Shan. We migrated to the Shan region for various reasons, among them climate and war,” said Mann Aik Kyaw, a communications officer for the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the PSLF’s armed wing.

The PSLF statement said: “The Palaung State Liberation Front objects to the fact that eight main ethnic groups have been specified by the Burmese government led by President Thein Sein in the collection of nationwide census data, placing the Ta’ang under one of the main ethnic group’s 33 subgroups.”

Similarly, ethnic Zomi peoples are officially listed as a subgroup of the Chin, but Zomi representatives say they cannot accept the government’s decision to group them among the 53 designated Chin subgroups.

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and a handful of foreign governments are assisting Burma in the lead up to the census, which will be the first to be conducted in the country in more than three decades.

In a letter to parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann, 23 Kachin civil society groups have called for postponement of the census, to allow for a discussion of its system of categorization. Absent a resolution to the various groups’ concerns over classification, the letter urges census administrators to drop “Question 8,” which asks for ethnic or tribal identification.

“The problem is the promulgation of 135 ethnicities in 1983 by Gen. Ne Win under one-party rule. [It was] the grouping of ethnics without consulting any ethnics at the time. That system has been reapplied now, under the democratic system, which creates problems,” Thet Ko from Minority Affair told The Irrawaddy.

“The respective ethnic groups have questioned this,” said Thet Ko, the director of Minority Affair, a civil society group that conducts research on Burma’s ethnic minority groups. “The list of ethnics should be compiled again after consulting with ethnic groups through a democratic procedure.”

The Nationalities Brotherhood Federation (NBF), an alliance of 20 registered ethnic political parties, has also called for a review of the census classification system in negotiation with ethnic groups. The NBF fears that requiring Burmese nationals to identify as one of the 135 listed ethnic groups could lead to disunity among ethnic groups, the coalition said in a statement released on Feb. 2.

Thet Ko said the government had never adequately explained the basis for its accounting of Burma’s ethnic groups, which officially listed 144 different ethnic groups in 1973. Ten years later, the nation’s ethnic composition was announced to have been reduced to 135 ethnic groups.

“They have never explained the reason why they repealed the nine ethnic groups,” he said.

Some, like Myint Swe of the Peace Cultivation Network, have speculated that—as is believed to have guided other policy decisions by the superstitious Ne Win—the change in the ethnic tally was the product of yadaya, the practice of following an astrologer’s advice on what one must do to avert an impending event, or realize one’s desires.

“We were no longer on the official ethnic list after Ne Win removed us as ‘koe-na-win,’” Myint Swe said, referring to the practice of acting on the number nine, widely believed by Buddhists to be auspicious.

Many of Burma’s Muslims are also organizing to try to secure favorable representation in the census. A support committee for followers of the Islamic faith has issued an announcement encouraging Muslims who trace roots to the ethnic Pathi to identify themselves as such in the census.

Kyaw Khin, of the United National Congress Party, says Pathi Muslims want a separate code number for their identity. Failing that, Kyaw Khin and others are instructing people who identify as Pathi to mark themselves under the census’s ‘Other’ designation, where they can write in “Pathi.”

Myint Thein, also with the Peace Cultivation Network, says self-identifying Pathi will continue to push for official recognition, which they were given in the government’s 1973 reckoning, but was rescinded in the 1983 tally.

“Khin Yi, the Union minister of immigration and population, told us that the 135 ethnics might not be the same after the census. It might be fewer and new ethnic groups might appear too,” he said, adding that the minister had advised them to submit the issue to Parliament.