Ethnicity without Meaning, Data without Context
The 2014 Population and Housing Census is the most significant ethnic and political boundary-making exercise since 1931, however its colonial-era designations and simplifications are likely to raise ethnic tensions at a critical time in the peace process.
Ethnic politics and statistics have long been among the most contested issues in Myanmar. With one of the most diverse populations in Asia, Myanmar has been home to ethnic conflict and political discord through every governmental era since independence from Great Britain in 1948.
Under the Thein Sein government, which assumed office in 2011, a new political system is emerging, and hopes are continuing that the country is set on the path towards modernity and political reform. However many serious tensions remain over political freedoms and ethnic nationality rights.
In particular, despite ceasefire offers by the government to ethnic opposition forces, many minority groups have expressed concerns that their peoples will be marginalised during another time of political and economic change. Such perceptions are especially acute among communities where the impact of conflict remains.
Many ethnic groups fear that the timing and methodology of the 2014 census, with an unwarranted array of questions and overseen by law enforcement officers, will further diminish the political status of minority peoples. The designation of "135 national races" in the country is widely regarded as confusing and wrong.
Citizenship rights for some people could even be under threat. The scheduling of the census in the year before a key general election - and before political agreements have been achieved in the ceasefire talks - is only deepening concerns. Unreliable data that results from the census could have negative impact on political debate and ethnic representation in the legislatures.
Instead of creating the opportunity to improve inter-ethnic understanding and citizenship rights at a critical moment in the country's history, the census promises to compound old grievances with a new generation of complexities. Such fundamental challenges should be addressed before proceeding.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The 2014 Population and Housing Census is likely to undertake the most significant ethnic and political boundary making in the country since the last British census in 1931. However, by using flawed designations that date from the colonial era and ignoring the considerable complexity of the present political situation in Myanmar, the census is likely to raise ethnic tensions at precisely the moment that peace negotiations are focused on building trust.
Ethnic politics, democratic reform and conflict resolution are at a critical juncture. If carried out in an inclusive, transparent and ethically implemented fashion, a census could support national reconciliation and momentum towards reform. Instead, many ethnic groups fear that its timing, format and methodology, with an unwarranted array of questions and overseen by law enforcement officers, will further diminish and marginalise the political status of non- Bamar groups. Citizenship rights for some people could even be under threat, based on census results.
The timing of the census in the year before a key general election raises additional concerns. Statistical reports that result from it could have confusing and negative impact on political debate and ethnic representation in the legislatures, as defined by the 2008 constitution. There are many communities and internally- displaced persons in the conflict zones of the ethnic borderlands who will not be properly included as well as others with marginal legal status who would prefer to disappear in an official counting exercise.
Through inclusive dialogue, planning and timing, many of these controversies could have been addressed. The UNFPA and Western government donors, with a projected US$74 million budget, have a special responsibility to ensure accurate research, definitions, data collection and inclusion in any process of this magnitude.
Difficulties have been treated purely as technical problems with simple, “one-size- fits-all” solutions, rather than as fundamentally political and ethnic challenges that need resolution. Instead of creating the opportunity to improve inter-ethnic understanding and citizenship rights, the census promises to compound old grievances with a new generation of complexities.
picture by Samuli Mangostani