Identity Hurdle Snags Tenasserim Mon’s Ethnic Affairs Minister Push

By Yen Saning 6 February 2015

RANGOON — A count of the Mon population in Tenasserim Division has found that more than 62,000 people identify as a member of the ethnic minority, but with about two-thirds of that total lacking official documentation bearing out their ethnicity claim, the chance to elect a minister to represent their interests may be missed.

Under Burma’s Constitution, ethnic groups in the country are entitled to an ethnic affairs minister if they comprise at least 0.1 percent of the national population within a given state or division. Based on the results of the 2014 census, which put Burma’s population at 51 million people, an ethnic Mon population of at least 51,000 people is required to be entitled to an ethnic affairs minister.

But about two-thirds of the 62,000 self-identifying Mon in Tenasserim Division either lack national identity cards or are not identified as Mon on their ID, the committee that carried out the survey says. That includes nearly 9,000 people who said their national ID card does not reflect their true ethnicity, with the majority of these cases instead identified as a member of the majority Bamar ethnic group.

“Some people cannot even speak Burmese but they were listed as Bamar on their IDs,” said Ngwe Lay, a communications officer for the Mon State-based Mon Population Survey Committee. “The project aimed to get an accurate list of the Mon population living in the region and to get a Mon ethnic minister elected if we met 0.1 percent of the nationwide population.”

The Mon Population Survey Committee began its head count for Tenasserim Division in December 2013 and concluded in November 2014.

In a report submitted to 13 government bodies including Tenasserim and Mon regional governments, both houses of Parliament and the Union Election Commission, the committee suggested that the issues be resolved by ensuring prompt issuance of national ID cards to those without such documentation, and allowing people who claim to have been misidentified on their ID card to have the document changed.

The report was submitted in November, but thus far none of the government entities to which it was sent has replied to the committee.

“We have asked that IDs be issued quickly, in time for the upcoming election,” Ngwe Lay said. “We heard that the local immigration has started a project to make IDs in Yephyu Township after we submitted our report,” Ngwe Lay said.

A determination on states’ and divisions’ eligibility for ethnic affairs ministers will be made prior to the national election slated for late this year.

Hla Maung Cho, deputy director of the Union Election Commission (UEC), said that determination would depend solely on the ethnic population figure tallied in the 2014 census. Though the Ministry of Immigration announced Burma’s total population in August of last year, it has said a breakdown along ethnic lines will not be made public until May 2015.

A separate Mon-led effort to count the ethnic group’s population in Rangoon came to an end after one year, with organizers coming up short in their attempt to achieve the threshold required for ethnic affairs minister eligibility. A lack of funding meant the Mon Population Data Project only tallied 41,000 Mon living in Rangoon Division, though the group claims the total population stands at about 100,000.

“The Rangoon immigration said if individual people want to change their ethnic ID, they will have to change it accordance with procedures. It’s difficult to change it, but we do explain and encourage people to get it changed,” said Nai Soe Aung of the Mon Population Data Project.

“Our ethnic population in Rangoon Division, although we have enough [for an ethnic affairs minister], we weren’t eligible to choose our own minister in 2010. We weren’t given a chance to choose someone to represent the Mon population in Rangoon Division. So, we started to count our population with this aim,” he said.

In the 2010 general election, areas with sizeable Mon populations including Rangoon Division, Pegu Division and Tenasserim Division were not allotted an ethnic affairs minister seat, with the government’s official population counts putting the ethnic minority below the 57,000 people that constituted 0.1 percent of the 57 million people Burma is said to have in the 2008 Constitution.

There is currently only one Mon ethnic affairs minister nationwide, in Karen State.