RANGOON — Following calls to delay Burma’s first census in 30 years, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) has defended the decision to begin data collection as scheduled at the end of next month.
The UNFPA, which is providing technical assistance to the Burma government for the census, said it would be logistically impractical or a waste of resources to postpone any part of data collection, including questions covering ethnicity and religion.
Some ethnic minority activists in the country have recently called for a delay to the entire census survey, while an international NGO has recommended that the government amend the survey to include only key demographic questions, postponing more sensitive questions to another time.
“The international standard is to conduct a census every 10 years. Any delay in undertaking the census would delay the use of reliable data for planning, policymaking and development,” Janet Jackson, the UNFPA representative in Burma, told The Irrawaddy on Monday.
“Undertaking a nationwide census is a large investment requiring considerable financial expense, extensive human resources and advance planning,” she said in an email. “Massive logistical arrangements have been made for this census, including training of enumerators, publicity activities, and production of information materials in local languages for delivery to all townships. Delaying the census at this stage would be an enormous waste of resources already committed.”
She added that census data could not be gathered in bits and pieces at different times, with certain questions asked now and others asked at a later date. “A fixed time reference is critical to the reliability of the data, removing any doubt in terms of duplication, coverage, transparency and trust in the process,” she said.
Her comments came after the International Crisis Group (ICG) urged the Burma’s census organizers to only ask demographic questions covering age, sex and marital status during the survey, while postponing data collection on ethnicity, religion and citizenship status until a later time. “This will provide the most important data without touching at this stage on the more controversial issues of identity and citizenship,” the Brussels-based NGO said in a “conflict alert” statement on Feb. 12.
The ICG acknowledged that accurate demographic data was necessary for national planning and development, but warned that Burma’s census survey included flaws in the classification system for ethnicity. It also cautioned that questions about religion could feed into anti-Muslim sentiment that has led to outbreaks of sectarian violence.
“In addition to navigating its political transition from authoritarian military rule to democratic governance, [Burma] is struggling to end decades-old, multiple and overlapping ethnic conflicts in its peripheries,” the ICG said. “At the same time, recent months have seen an increasingly virulent Burman-Buddhist nationalist movement lead to assaults on Muslim minority communities. A census which risks further increasing these tensions is ill-advised.”
Jackson said the Burma government had approved the inclusion of questions on ethnicity, religion and type of identity card to obtain demographic and socioeconomic information that it considered critical to understanding the country’s development needs.
But ethnic activists have raised concerns, saying the classification breakdown of 135 ethnic groups is too divisive. Others have said the survey inaccurately classifies certain ethnic subgroups or tribes as belonging to unrelated larger ethnic groups. The stakes are high, they say, because ethnic groups that pass a certain population threshold are entitled to ethnically delineated political constituencies, with representatives appointed as ministers of local government.
“It is accepted that these classifications are not perfect, but provisions are in place to address their limitations, particularly by allowing every respondent to self-identify with any ethnicity or nationality as they wish, including mixed ethnicity,” Jackson said. Respondents who do not identify with one of the 135 ethnic groups can describe themselves as “other” and orally report their ethnic affiliations to the enumerator, she said, adding that those responses would later be sub-coded during data processing.
“The government’s stated intention is then to open the issue of ethnicity up to dialogue, entering into a consultative process with ethnic leaders on how ethnicities should be classified or grouped. The census is not the last word on ethnicity, therefore, but a stepping-stone for a much wider and open consultation that can redefine ethnicity in [Burma].”
Asked about the political ramifications of the census, specifically related to ethnically delineated constituencies, she said data from the survey would be used for limited purposes.
“The government has stated clearly that the census is a purely statistical exercise totally separate from processes of national registration, citizenship, election voter registration and taxation. It has signed a commitment not to use census data for any such purpose,” she said.
She added that over the past four months, a government team led by Minister of Immigration and Population Khin Yi has held town hall meetings and discussions about the census with leaders of ethnic political organizations and armed groups around the country, including in remote areas and self-administered zones. “Concerns on ethnicity have been addressed by clarifying that people will be free to state their ethnic identity as they wish, confidentially,” she said.
The nationwide census will begin at the end of next month, from March 29 to April 10, and tens of millions of dollars have been spent to prepare. The last nationwide census was conducted in 1983, under the military regime of Gen Ne Win.
As the start date draws closer, ethnic groups have called on the government to postpone the census until their concerns about ethnic classification are resolved. In a letter to President Thein Sein, the immigration minister and a chairman of the central census commission, ethnic Chin activists have called for at least a 30-day delay of data collection, citing concerns about potential conflicts between various tribes in Chin State. In a separate letter to Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann, ethnic Kachin civil society groups also requested a postponement in data collection, recommending that the question about ethnic affiliation should be dropped altogether if a resolution was not reached regarding complaints about inaccurate classification.
However, others say a delay is not the answer.
“It is impossible to postpone the census process because the government is organizing it countrywide,” Hau Khen Kham, the speaker of the Chin State Parliament, told The Irrawaddy on Monday. He said the census was first and foremost about counting the population, not classifying ethnic groups, and added that if people were still concerned about classification they could submit complaints to the state legislature, which would discuss the matter.
Speaking on Feb. 10, Minister Khin Yi defended the need to move forward with the census and to include questions about ethnicity and religious affiliation. He said many other countries around the world did not include such questions in their census surveys, but that Burma would need to do so because its statistics were much more out-of-date.