RANGOON — For the first time in more than three decades, Burma released data on the populations of the country’s different religious groups, based on the results of the 2014 census.
The information was publicly launched by the Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Population, on Thursday in the capital Naypyidaw.
The ministry said that the size of the non-enumerated populations—groups that were not counted in the census—in Karen and Kachin states were not large enough to change the proportion of religious groups at the Union or state levels. However, the non-enumerated population in western Burma—an estimated 1.09 million people who identify as Rohingya—is significant enough to have an impact on the proportion of religious groups at both the state and Union level.
According to the figures, Buddhists constitute 87.9 percent of the country, Christians make up 6.2 percent, Muslims comprise 4.3 percent, animists are counted at 0.8 percent and Hindus are listed at 0.5 percent. People who identify with other religions constitute 0.2 percent and 0.1 percent identified as following no religion. These percentages represent the composition of Burma’s total population of 51.4 million, including a non-enumerated population of approximately 1.2 million.
In comparison to the 1983 and 1973 censuses carried out by ex-dictator Ne Win’s military regime, the 2014 figures revealed a slight decrease in the percentage of Buddhist population and a small increase in the percentage of Christian and Muslim populations.
The 1983 census reported that the Buddhist population was 89.4 percent, the Christian population was 4.9 percent, and the Muslim population was 3.9 percent—a figure believed by some to be a low estimation.
“Some people would like to make a bigger problem and raise rumors, if [this information] is concealed. So we released the data and we don’t have any concerns with it,” Thein Swe, Minister for Labor, Immigration and Population told The Irrawaddy.
Due to ongoing debates, publication of the census figures for religious and ethnic data was delayed after other results were made public in May of 2015 under the previous, Thein Sein-led government.
Concerns over social unrest reportedly contributed to the postponement, but the ministry’s permanent secretary denied this, telling The Irrawaddy earlier in July that the delay was due to a need for further analysis of and consultations regarding the data, adding that there was no significant change from the 1983 census.
The figures published on Thursday also revealed that Burma’s Muslim population had increased by only 0.4 percent; in recent years ultranationalists have stoked tension in the country by alleging that the Muslim community is growing at a much faster rate than other religious groups.
The demographic information also revealed the population of each religious group at the state and division level.
According to the enumerated data, Shan State has the largest number of Christians in Burma—nearly 570,000, out of its 5.8 million residents. Kachin State was a close second, with 555,000 Christians. But the states with the highest proportions of Christians are Chin State—more than 85 percent—and Karenni State, with nearly 46 percent.
Mon State has the largest Muslim population in proportion to its enumerated population, at 5.8 percent of its 205,000 residents. Rangoon Division has the highest number of Muslims, according to enumerated data: 345,600, or 4.7 percent of the total divisional population of 7.4 million.
If the estimated non-enumerated population were to be included—many of whom are Muslims—Arakan State would have the largest Muslim minority, but only around 28,000 were officially enumerated for the census.
In the case of the enumerated population of Burma, Buddhists make up 89.8 percent of the population, Christians 6.3 percent and Muslims 2.3 percent.
According to the ministry, census data on Burma’s diverse composition of ethnic groups will still not be released for another “four or five months” due a stated need for further statistical analysis and consultations with leaders from ethnic minority groups.
This information, and its categorization, also has the capacity to inflame tensions, given the longstanding demands of Burma’s various ethnic minority groups for greater autonomy and participation in political decision-making.
Additional reporting by Htet Naing Zaw from Naypyidaw.