Final Census Results Released, Sans Ethnic and Religious Data

By Yen Saning 29 May 2015

RANGOON — Most of Burma’s finalized census data were released on Friday, with the country’s population clocking in at 51,486,253 people, a number that includes an estimated 1.2 million heads that were not counted in Arakan, Kachin and Karen states.

The non-enumerated total breaks down to 46,600 people in Kachin State, 69,753 in Karen State, and 1,090,000 in Arakan State. In Kachin and Karen states, conflict between the government and ethnic armed groups prevented enumerators from entering rebel-controlled areas, while in Arakan State the vast majority of those uncounted were Rohingya, a Muslim minority group that the government does not recognize.

A controversial last-minute policy change saw the government refuse to tally individuals self-identifying as Rohingya, contravening UN census guidelines and earning international criticism.

The census was conducted in March and April of 2014, and marked the first attempt to carry out a nationwide population count in more than three decades. The massive data set includes demographic characteristics and living conditions, detailing population size and growth, age and sex, marital status, migration, births and deaths, education, employment, disability, and housing conditions and amenities in each of Burma’s 330 townships.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which supported the Burmese government in conducting the census, said in a press release on Friday that additional information on the population’s ethnic and religious makeup, occupational profile and maternal mortality rate are due to be released next year, requiring more time for analysis and consultation.

Vijay Nambiar, special adviser to the secretary-general on Burma, congratulated the government on a “monumental achievement” at a ceremony marking the census results’ release, while noting shortcomings in the process, specifically the controversy over self-identifying Rohingya and disagreements over how to categorize the country’s ethnic diversity.

“The official list of ethnic groups used in the census was also a source of disagreement and misgivings. The Government has wisely decided to convene a consultative process to revise the categorization to represent Myanmar’s ethnic diversity more accurately before it releases ethnic data,” Nambiar said.

In May 2014, the International Crisis Group released a report warning of potential risks surrounding the timing of the census and publication of its results. It warned that disagreements over how to categorize ethnic identities and the possibility that “the total number of Muslims in the country may be much higher than expected,” could potentially stoke tensions at a time when Burma is preparing to hold a landmark general election, which is due in early November.

On Friday, there was no explicit indication from the United Nations that the election was a factor in delaying the release of ethnic and religious data, but a UNFPA official told The Irrawaddy early this month that the government had made the decision “in consideration of the sensitivities of this data.”

Reflecting just how politicized the census in Burma has become since the United Nations first offered its assistance in 2012, the executive director of the UNFPA waded into another domestic source of recent controversy in remarks on Friday. Indirectly referencing a recently passed Population Control Law that has been criticized by women’s rights advocates, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin joined the legislation’s detractors in voicing concern over its restrictions.

“Every woman and couple has the right to freely determine the number, timing and spacing of their children, free of discrimination, violence and coercion,” he said. “Coercive laws regulating the number or spacing of children violate human rights, and contradict the Government’s national commitments and international obligations.”

After Decades of Guesswork, Hard Numbers

Burma has an annual population growth rate of 0.89 percent, one of the lowest in the region, and saw its birth rate fall to an average of 2.3 children per family, down from 4.7 in 1983.

Sixty-two out of every 1,000 children born die before the age of 1, with the infant mortality rate almost 40 percent higher in rural areas.

Half of the population is under the age of 27.

Average life expectancy is 67 years, one of the lowest in Southeast Asia, while women live six years longer than men.

Urban dwellers account for less than 30 percent of the population, with Rangoon Division and neighboring Irrawaddy Division the two most populace administrative territories, home to 7.36 million and 6.18 million people, respectively.

With additional reporting by Andrew D. Kaspar.