The Census: Another Complexity in Burma?

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 24 March 2014

Burma has never had a shortage of complexities. The latest additional one is the national census, which is likely to bring about more problems than fruits after its scheduled period between March 30 and April 10.

No doubt the country, which has not had a census since 1983, seriously needs accurate information about its population as one step on the way to development. The government previously estimated the population to be about 60 million.

The results might even escalate the country’s current volatile political situation, which has a long list of crucial issues such as the unsettled conflicts with ethnic armed groups, rising demands for constitutional amendments, hot-blooded religious conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims and so on.

It sounds worrying. There have been countless complaints from ethnic groups and international organizations. Some of them have urged the government and its main assistant, the United Nations Population Fund, to postpone it. But the government seems to be determined to carry it out as scheduled.

For many, the core problem is that the upcoming census’ 41 questions include ethnicity, in addition to the usual demographic questions of age, sex and marital status.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

Burma is officially comprised of 135 ethnicities and needs figures for its respective ethnic populations. Even from this point, it is complex. In fact, some Burman and people of other ethnicities have doubts about the official list of 135 ethnicities.

So, it’s a debatable question if ethnicity should be included this time. Complaints have emerged across the country—from north to south and from west to east.

In northern Burma, where fighting between the government troops and Kachin Independence Army has occasionally broken out, many ethnic Kachin groups recently called for the postponement of the census.

The Kachin ethnic group is divided into 12 sub-groups in the official list. Tu Ja, the chairman of the Kachin State Democracy Party, told the Irrawaddy earlier this year that the sub-groups should in fact be categorized into larger groups, rather than labeled in isolation. He also warned that treating each sub-group as completely distinct would harm national reconciliation efforts and affect trust between ethnic groups and the government.

None of the ethnic groups believe the government’s figure for the population of the Burmans, the biggest ethnic group that dominates the government and its high-ranking official positions. The government estimates that 60 percent of the population is ethnic Burman, but many ethnic groups think that figure is deliberately inflated.

Likewise, each ethnic group is concerned its population will be categorized within other groups. According to the current official figures, ethnic Shan represents the biggest minority group at 9 percent while Karen represents the second largest, at 7 percent of the population, Arakan at 3.5 percent, Mon at 2 percent, Kachin at 1.5 percent and Karenni at 0.75 percent.

Within almost every ethnic group, there are sub-groups. Some of those sub-groups also don’t want be classified in any of the main ethnic groups. For instance, the government has categorized the ethnic Shan into 33 sub-groups and the ethnic Chin into 53. Although some sub-groups seem to accept it, Shan people want them all to belong to one group, the Shan. Tribes like the Palaung, a.k.a. Ta’aung, and Pa-O say they don’t belong to the Shan group at all.

Similar problems exist in the Karen, Karreni, Chin and so on.

Western Burma seems to be more sensitive due to tensions between Buddhists and Muslims. Among the census’s numeric codes for the 135 ethnicities, there is no code for Rohingya, the Muslim minority. Rohingya have asked for a code to be used, but the government has said Rohingya must be recorded in the “other” category. Many ethnic Arakanese and some other ethnic groups don’t agree the term Rohingya should even be allowed in the “other” category. Recently many ethnic Arakanese have expressed their sheer disagreement saying if Rohingya is allowed even in the “other” category, the census would be a fraud.

Many ethnic groups have criticized the government’s lack of comprehensive collaboration with concerned groups in communities. International organizations like the Brussels-based International Crisis Group and Netherlands-based Transnational Institute have also criticized the census and called for at least some parts of it to be postponed.

President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government should heed ethnic people’s concerns and it might be worth postponing the census for some time in order not to add more complexity into the country’s ongoing conflicts.