The upcoming national census, scheduled for 30 March and the first conducted in Burma for more than three decades, is proving to be one of the most divisive issues on Burma’s agenda. Representatives of Burma’s numerous ethnic nationalities, as well as of smaller ethnic sub-groups, are raising vociferous objections to the census. Many feel that it violates their right to identity. Such objections generally work in two opposing directions, which only serves to highlight the complexity and dangers of such an exercise.
On the one hand, smaller ethnic sub-groups often feel excluded, threatened or incorrectly classified if they cannot identify as their own ethnic sub-group. For example, the Palaung people have expressed a desire to identify themselves solely as Palaung rather than Shan, on the basis that they are descended from Mon-Khmer and not Shan-Tai ancestry. Indeed, the Palaung State Liberation Front recently issued a statement rejecting the census’s categorization of the Palaung people as one of 33 Shan sub-groups. On the other hand, larger ethnic groups feel that their own wider national identity and cause is undermined if ethnic sub-groups do not identify as, say, Shan. The same dilemmas and frictions are being reported in Chin, Kachin and Karen States. Indeed, such tensions within each state and region are a microcosm of what is happening in Burma overall.
Some groups have recognized the census’s value in terms of development, health and education, but have explicitly denounced the fact that ethnic categorization is included in the census. In a letter to Parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann, 23 Kachin civil society organizations called for either a postponement of the census or the complete omission of Question 8, which asks for ethnic or tribal identification. Ethnic Chin activists recently wrote to the National Census Commission, requesting at least a 30-day delay.
Furthermore, the census represents a grave risk to rights and security in the context of recent anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya violence in Arakan State and across Burma. Despite being classified as “non-citizens,” Rohingya Muslims can identify themselves as Rohingya with the code 194, yet there are concerns that data collectors may simply write “Bengali” for Rohingya, thereby re-igniting smoldering tensions about citizenship. Fears have also been voiced that Muslims of other ethnicities might be told to identify themselves as “Muslim,” which is of course a religious rather than ethnic affiliation, rather than as the ethnic group to which they belong. Since Muslims were allegedly intentionally under-recorded in the last census in 1983 due to political sensitivities at the time, there is a significant risk this time of a violent response to the number of Muslims in Burma if the census is accurately conducted and Muslims are required to state their religion over their ethnicity.
Finally, there has been no transparency or consultation with ethnic groups about the census. Some groups have welcomed the fact that the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is assisting the Burma government, on the basis that it lends the process some legitimacy. Yet the lack of transparency and consultation is a damning indictment of the UN’s – and donors’ – role in the census, while the accusations of inaccuracy and divisiveness only serve to further undermine the credibility of these parties. Moreover, there are real fears about the logistics of collecting the data, both in terms of authorities using the correct forms and accessing remote areas or conflict zones, which would have implications for the accuracy of data recorded on the Kachin, the Palaung of northern Shan State, and the Wa, in particular.
It is clear that this census represents a Pandora’s Box of potential ethnic tensions and conflict. At a time when the Burma government claims to be striving to secure a sustainable peace deal with the armed ethnic groups and cementing political reforms before the 2015 national elections, the timing and nature of the census is strange, to say the least. It risks jeopardizing national reconciliation, undermining the peace process, and exacerbating inter-communal violence.
Therefore this census should be postponed, and only revisited once a comprehensive political settlement has been reached with all ethnic armed groups, political reforms have been properly institutionalized after the 2015 national elections, and inter-communal violence has been tackled head-on and defused. If not, “the census process should be urgently amended to focus only on key demographic questions, postponing those which are needlessly antagonistic and divisive—on ethnicity, religion, citizenship status—to a more appropriate moment,” as International Crisis Group recommends in its “Conflict Alert.”
If the census does include such provocative questions, answers should be based on the choice of the people. Every individual should be allowed to freely state which ethnic group he or she identifies with the most – including stipulating mixed race if applicable – without pressure from anyone, whether the Burma government or other ethnic groups. Such questions are vital, because they have important implications for political representation. The Burma government cannot afford to get this wrong, especially not now, at this highly volatile stage in the country’s reform process.Tags: Burma Partnership, Census, International Crisis Group, Kachin, Palaung State Liberation Front, Rohingya, Shan, United Nations, Violence
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