Census Raises Issue of Ethnic Identities

By Lawi Weng 31 August 2012

When Burma conducts its first national census in more than thirty years in 2014, it will face a host of logistical problems, ranging from poor infrastructure in much of the country to the possibility of continuing conflict in regions where armed groups still resist central government rule.

But even before they begin to tackle any of these hurdles, the census planners will have to contend with another issue that has bedeviled the country from its inception as an independent nation: demands from its ethnic minorities for full recognition of their distinct identities.

In a country with 135 officially designated “national races,” many fear a repeat of the mistakes of the last census held in 1983, when ethnic minorities complained that they were forced to use forms of address that blurred the line between them and members of the ethnic Burman majority.

Words such as “Maung” or “U”—common forms of address for men among ethnic Burmans, who make up roughly two-thirds of the country’s population—are not widely used by non-Burmans. The Mon equivalent, for instance, is Nai, while the Karen use Saw and the Shan use Sai.

By forcing minorities to use Burman terms to refer to themselves, the 1983 census did not just offend ethnic sensibilities—it may also have resulted in an underestimation of the number of people belonging to various ethnic groups in given areas.

This failure to recognize local ethnic populations often has political consequences. When Burma went to the polls in 2010, for instance, Mon parties were not allowed to contest in any Rangoon constituencies because the local Mon population was estimated at less that 57,000 people, or 0.1 percent, of the total population.

The figures used by the Election Commission in making its decision to reject a bid by Mon parties to contest in Rangoon did not, however, accurately reflect the reality on the ground, according to the Mon Literature and Culture Committee in Rangoon, which estimates that the city is home to about 100,000 Mon people.

To prevent a similar scenario in 2015, when Burma holds its next national elections, the Nationalities Brotherhood Forum, an alliance of Chin, Mon, Shan, Arakanese, Karen and Karenni political parties, released a statement on Aug.19 to ask the Burmese government to let ethnic people use their own ethnic titles on identification cards and in the 2014 census.

“The country will prepare its census lists soon and the government should allow ethnic people to use their names and also even allow them to put their religious beliefs on the house lists,” the group said in a joint statement.

However, when contacted by The Irrawaddy on Thursday, the head of the government agency that will oversee the census said that there are no plans to meet this demand.

“They don’t have the option of rejecting ‘Maung’ or ‘U’,” said Myint Kyaing, the director general of the government’s Department of Population, Ministry of Immigration and Population.

Myint Kyaing said that the census, which will receive support from the United Nations, will be carried out by 100,000 schoolteachers, while a further 20,000 people—mostly high school teachers and university professors—will manage the census list.

This week, Dr Babatunde Osotimehin, the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, paid an official visit to Burma to meet with President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw for discussions about the census and other issues related to Burma’s population.

To prepare for the start of the census on April 1, 2014, the government has begun forming committees that will draw up lists and maps for different regions, said Myint Kyaing.

While he appeared to dismiss ethnic concerns about the use of Burmese forms of address, Myint Kyaing said that the census would include Rohingyas living in western Burma’s Arakan State—a controversial decision, given that the Rohingya are not recognized as one of Burma’s ethnic groups.

“They will be included because they are human beings,” he said. According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, there are 800,000 Rohingya, a Muslim minority culturally related to the Bengali people of neighboring Bangladesh, living in Arakan State.

Another problem facing the census planners is the legacy of decades of ethnic conflict and poverty, which have forced untold numbers to flee to neighboring countries for safety or in search of work.

According to the Thai Burma Border Consortium, an umbrella group that oversees humanitarian support for refugees from Burma, there are more than 400,000 displaced people along the Thai-Burmese border. There are also believed to be as many as two million migrant workers from Burma living in Thailand alone.