CHAING MAI, Thailand — Speaking at a round table forum in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, Burmese Immigration Minister Khin Yi set out on Monday to explain the upcoming national census to the leadership of Burma’s numerous armed rebel groups.
Khin Yi said the census, which remains the subject of much skepticism in ethnic circles, was necessary in order to help Burma’s future development.
The discussion was well attended by representatives from the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of Burma’s rebel groups. Activists and exiles from a variety of Burma community-based organizations also attended the meeting, which was held at the Holiday Inn hotel.
Khin Yi was joined by his cabinet colleague, Minister Aung Min, who serves as the government’s chief negotiator. Aung Min and his team from the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) were already in Chiang Mai for talks this past weekend with the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT).
During her remarks, Janet Jackson, the Burma-based representative for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which is assisting the government in carrying out the census, stressed that all personal data collected from individuals interviewed in the census would remain confidential.
Jackson praised the level of preparation that has gone into the planning of the census, which she described as exceeding international standards and norms. “There has been a lot of cooperation, including from the non-state armed groups, which is wonderful,” added Jackson, who recently traveled to Shan State to discuss the census at similar public forums.
While several of Burma’s armed rebel groups have signaled that they take will part in the census, it remains to be seen if the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), which has yet to sign a ceasefire with the central government, will participate. Despite losing some of its territory over the past two years of conflict, the KIO continues to control large stretches of Kachin State, meaning that the group’s cooperation is necessary when surveying many of the state’s rural areas.
The UNFPA has so far received US$35 million dollars of the $45 million it requested from international donors to help facilitate the census. Jackson stressed that the UNFPA was assisting Burmese authorities, who are ultimately responsible for carrying it out.
The last official census in Burma was conducted in 1983. Thirty years later, the country’s population size remains unknown, although government estimates put it at about 61 million in 2011.
Ethnic Categories Raise Concerns
One of the more controversial aspects of the census relates to its measuring of ethnicity. While the census survey form will ask individuals to self-identify their ethnicity, respondents will only be allowed to put down one ethnicity. Critics say this will pose a serious problem for those of mixed heritage, including people like Women’s League of Burma (WLB) chairperson Tin Tin Nyo, who told the audience during the question-and-answer session that she would rather identify as Mon and Karen, a reflection of her mixed parentage.
In his closing remarks Khin Yi responded to these concerns by acknowledging that people often hold mixed ethnicity. “The father is a Mon and the mother is a Karen, so he or she must be Mon-Karen, not pure Mon or pure Karen and not Shan,” he said. Despite this admission, it did not appear that he or his colleagues would alter the way the census is set to be carried out.
Tin Tin Nyo also said she had concerns about whether enough was being done to inform people, particularly those in rural areas, about the census. “From my understanding, very few people are aware of the census,” she told the Irrawaddy.
Another stakeholder who attended the forum, Mahn Mahn, the Karen National Union (KNU) joint secretary 2, said he and his colleagues worried about the way in which the survey’s data on ethnicity could be misinterpreted to suggest that there are fewer ethnic people than there really are.
Currently Burma’s government identifies the 11 various Karen subgroups as separate ethnicities, a legacy of the previous regime’s official declaration that there were 135 official ethnic groups in Burma, a policy that still stands today. The issue of how the subgroups will be counted is, according to Mahn Mahn, “our main concern.”
Mahn Mahn maintains that 11 Karen subgroups should be considered as all belonging to the same Karen ethnicity.