Chin Group Says Burma Census Ethnicity Question Caused Confusion

By Yen Saning 9 May 2014

RANGOON — Ethnic Chin organizations have raised yet more concerns with Burma’s nationwide census, which has drawn numerous complaints, particularly over its question on ethnicity.

Most data collection was completed last month for the United Nations-backed census, the first such exercise in Burma for more than 30 years. One question asked by volunteer enumerators was on ethnicity, a sensitive subject in Burma, where the official list of 135 ethnic groups is highly controversial.

The Chin National Action Committee on Census (CNACC), a civil society group formed by Chin political parties and NGOs, issued a statement Friday compiling its observations on the census-taking process.

Burma’s list of ethnicities includes the Chin nationality, under which a bewildering 53 “subgroups” are listed.

In the statement, CNACC requested that in the census everyone identifying under a Chin subgroup be counted together as ethnic Chin.

It urged the government not to use this year’s census for a future revision of the number of Chin subgroups. Instead, the statement called for a public consultation to accurately record the different Chin tribes.

The Chin State government and Burma’s Union Parliament should come up with a transparent plan, together with concerned ethnic representatives and stakeholders, to draw up new list, CNACC said.

Chin ethnic leaders have long contested the official categorization, but an alternative list of Chin subgroups or tribes is not agreed upon. In the existing list, they say there are spelling errors and groups referred to twice by different names.

“In the 41 questions in the census questionnaire, 40 questions have no problem. In the 8th question, on ethnicity, Chin was classified as 53 different ethnicity categories,” CNACC coordinator Salai Isaac Khen said at a press conference Friday.

“Actually, there is only one Chin ethnicity and the subgroups. But the rest 52 subgroups have the same status [as the ethnicity]. Each subgroup is a ‘race,’ and they shouldn’t have ethnic status.”

CNACC monitoring teams outside of Chin State—ethnic Chin also live in significant numbers in Arakan State, Magwe Division, Sagaing Division and Rangoon Division—found that some respondents were not asked their ethnicity, or religion, at all.

Some respondents who asked to be put the Chin ethnicity, under the code “401” on census forms, were instead put into subgroups, monitors found.

Other irregularities recorded included data collection starting earlier than the official census start time, midnight on March 29. Some enumerators were allegedly threatened with fines worth US$500 for not completing data collection on time.

The statement also noted that recording ethnicities heightened tensions in Chin State between ethnic Chin and Zomi people, who refute their categorization as a subgroup of Chin.

Salai Isaac Khen said many respondents also did not understand the questions well as the census was conducted in Burmese.

“The official language use in Chin State is not Burmese. It’s Chin,” he said.

Salai Ceu Bik Thawng, general secretary of Chin National Party said the question on ethnicity sowed confusion among many Chin.

“The names of the 53 subgroups are spelled wrong [in Burmese], most of the locals do not know which they belong to. The spelling in English is even worse,” he said.

“For 99 percent of Chin, most of them do not understand what the 53 subgroups are. Normal enumerators, primary school teachers, had no idea what code to choose.”

An estimated 100,000 Chin are said to be living abroad and were not counted in the census. About 500,000 Chin people live in Chin State, according to historical estimates, which is less than half the total number of ethnic Chin.