Wary of Official Census, Burma’s Ethnic Minorities Count Their Own

By Yen Saning 4 December 2013

RANGOON — Before the Burma government conducts a major census next year, ethnic minority groups are collecting their own data, saying they are wary of trusting population statistics from government leaders who in the past allegedly inflated the percentage of ethnic majority Burman people in the country.

Ethnic Shan and ethnic Mon organizations, representing two of Burma’s biggest ethnic minority groups, say they have already started to conduct their own individual census efforts, with plans to finish early next year before the government census begins in March 2014.

“The Shan population is 9 percent of the total population, according to official data. We want to know the true amount,” Sai Kyaut Tint, chairman of the Shan Real Population Collection Committee, told The Irrawaddy. “We will compare the Shan population data from the [government] census with the data that we collect.”

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, compared to an estimation of 50 million people by the World Bank.

The government, which is dominated by the Burman majority, recognizes eight major ethnic minority groups in the country and 135 subgroups. An estimated 40 percent of the population is an ethnic minority, with Shan representing the biggest minority group. Karen represent the second largest, at 7 percent of the population, followed by Arakanese at 3.5 percent, Mon at 2 percent, Kachin at 1.5 percent and Kayah at 0.75 percent, according to government figures.

But ethnic minorities have accused the government of pressuring people in the past to identify as Burman, including on government-distributed national identity cards, to justify the dominance of Burman officials in government. Some ethnic minorities say that in order to secure an identity card, they were forced to officially change their names to sound more Burman.

The Shan Real Population Collection Committee plans to conduct its own census in all areas of the country where Shan people live, including in Rangoon, the country’s commercial capital. “We can expect an ethnic minister for Rangoon Division if we have 0.1 percent of the total [nationwide] population,” Sai Kyaut Tint said.

Mon groups are also counting the number of Mon residents in Rangoon.

In the government census next year, census forms will be distributed to rebel-held areas in Mon State and Karen State, with cooperation from the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and the Karen National Union (KNU), which have signed ceasefires with the government after decades of civil war.

After a pilot test, some areas in Shan, Mon and Karen states have asked for local residents to serve as data collectors in the official census.

“We have translated the questionnaire in Poe Karen [language], in addition to another 12 languages including Myanmar [Burmese],” said Win Myint, a program specialist at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which is working with the government on the census. He was speaking at a meeting on Tuesday at the Karen Women’s Action Group office in Rangoon. “You can self-identify on the ethnicity question, choosing from the official 135 ethnic codes or a special code for all other groups in Myanmar, regardless of eth ethnicity listed on the national identity card.”

Activists say campaigning will be required to urge the Ministry of Immigration and Population to correct the ethnic information on national identity cards. This will likely take a long time, says Nan Khin Aye Oo, a program adviser for the Karen Women’s Action Group.

But the promise of change is raising hopes.

“We need exact data for the census. It is not related with elections or politics,” said Susanna Hla Hla Soe, a prominent Karen activist who is representing civil society groups as a member of an advisory committee for the government’s census office.

In addition to their own population counts, ethnic minority groups are working with the UNFPA on a campaign to raise awareness about accurately listing their ethnic identities for the government census, which will be used for development planning.

“We have been holding community workshops to remind the Mon population in Rangoon to identify as the correct ethnic race in the coming 2014 census,” said Nai Soe Aung, project director of the Rangoon-based Mon Population Data Project.

Unlike the government census three decades ago, the government census next year will be computerized, with questionnaires produced in the United Kingdom that can be scanned. A separate questionnaire will be used for people who live with institutions, such as soldiers in the army, officers in the police force, patients in hospitals and permanent hotel residents.

The census will begin on March 29 and is expected to cost an estimated US$60 million. The data collection will take 12 days, with face-to-face interviews to ensure proper data collection.

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) will be invited to participate. Migrant workers and refugees living outside the country will not be counted.

“All persons in the country will be counted, including IDPs,” Petra Righetti, who is working on census efforts with the UNFPA. “If a refugee is in Thailand, they will not be counted in the Myanmar [Burma] census. However, there is a census question that asks how many family members are living outside the country.”

She added that Burmese refugees in Thailand are counted in the Thai census.

Most refugees in Thailand and most internally displaced people in Burma are ethnic minorities. Many fled from the country or were displaced from their homes during decades-long conflicts between the government and ethnic rebel groups fighting for greater autonomy.

There are also an estimated 3 million migrant workers living in Thailand.