RANGOON — Burma’s nationwide census began in earnest on Sunday, accompanied by plenty of controversy but also reports of the population-counting exercise proceeding smoothly.
The census, which is the first attempt at a proper accounting of Burma’s population and demographics in more than 30 years, is set to conclude on April 10.
As enumerators fanned out across the country this week, questions continued to surround the methodology and motivations of the survey, which has been supported by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and financially backed by a handful of foreign governments.
Critics say the census went forward on Sunday despite objections from many ethnic groups, who had lodged a number of complaints including concerns that ethnic subgroups were incorrectly categorized or misspelled. Others lobbied for the omission of questions on race and religion altogether, fearing their inclusion might stoke tensions or lead to violence.
On Monday, ethnic representatives said their requests for consultation and corrections were ignored, with the census proceeding unrevised.
Saw Kyaw Swar, secretary of the Karen Affairs Committee, said suspicions remained that the results of the census might be used for political purposes, despite assurances from the government and the UNFPA that the exercise is a “purely statistical” undertaking.
“The two ministers are conflicting themselves,” said Saw Kyaw Swar from Hpa-an, the capital of Karen State. “As [Immigration and Population Minister] Khin Ye said, it [the census] is not to be used for political reasons. But [Union] Election Commission [chairman] Tin Aye says the voter list will be compiled based on the results of the census.
“It is clear that the census has political motivations.”
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Language barriers could also be a problem in ethnic areas like Shan State, according to Saw Than Myint, cofounder of the Federal Union Party.
“They [the government] have said they will ask help from language experts from the respective areas,” he added.
The FUP cofounder said Shan leaders had already urged the Shan population in Rangoon to identify themselves as their main ethnicity, Shan, as well as their sub-ethnicity. Officially, the census lists more than 30 sub-ethnicities under the Shan umbrella.
Census data collectors have not reached to his home yet, but Nai Ngwe Eain, a resident of Thanbyuzayat Township in Mon State, told The Irrawaddy that enumerators had collected his neighbor’s household information, including questions pertaining to the family’s possessions and what kind of phone line they had.
Respondents will be asked a total of 41 census questions. Primary school teachers have been enlisted to serve as the backbone of the enumeration team, which in total comprises more than 80,000 people.
Sai Aung Myint Khaing, a senior member of the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, said some local residents in rural Shan State were afraid that they might be putting family members at risk of criminal prosecution if they responded to the census honestly, as one question asks about whether any household members are currently working abroad. Those fears are the result of the fact that more than a million Burmese nationals are estimated to be working illegally in Thailand alone.
Others are worried that they will be subject to additional taxation if they fully reveal the extent of their property holdings.
Sai Aung Myint Khaing said many among the nation’s rural population did not understand the census process, and he anticipated that given the length of the questionnaire and potential language barriers between enumerators and respondents, the census process “might take some time to get through.”
Separately, enumerators told The Irrawaddy on Monday that the census questionnaire, which they were told would take about 10 minutes to complete, was taking 45 minutes on average.
Thant Zin, a resident from Dawei in Tenessarim Division, said most people in his town would identify themselves as Dawei, thanks to a recent campaign by the Dawei Nationalities Party. Though ethnic Dawei speak a different language than Burmese, they have long been officially placed under the majority “Bamar” ethnic group.
“Most Dawei will answer as Dawei,” he told The Irrawaddy. Such a response would tally the individual under code No. 502 as ethnic “Tavoyan,” a synonymous appellation that the Burmese government officially recognizes.
“We heard that they put a Dawei from Rangoon under ‘Bamar.’ They corrected it when someone called and complained. We haven’t seen any strange cases here yet,” Thant Zin said.
Aung Naing Oo, an MP from Chaung Sone Township, Mon State, said a campaign was underway to consolidate ethnic Mon representation in the tally.
“We are doing a campaign by public announcement, by car, stickers and vinyl in our township [Chaung Sone] to identify themselves as Mon, [code No.] 601, in the census’s ethnic category, even if they no longer can speak or write Mon but descended from Mon ancestors,” he said.
“Some Mon are timid to identify themselves as Mon since they are listed as ‘Bamar’ on their national identity card or household registration card,” the parliamentarian added.
Census bylaws do not permit any questioning of a respondent’s answers, and enumerators are required to list the responses as they provided. Individuals who do not identify as one of the 135 official ethnicities and sub-ethnicities listed on the census form have been told they ask enumerators to mark them under code No. 914, “Other,” which provides for a write-in blank that allows for self-identification.
In Arakan State, at least, the principle of self-identification appears to have been overridden in recent days, however, with Rohingya Muslims in the state being told they will not be able to identify as they wish.
In the wake of violence in Arakan State, where pre-census tensions have been highest, the UNFPA released a statement on Friday affirming the principle of self-identification.
“In accordance with international standards and human rights principles, and as part of its agreement with the UN and donors, the Government has made a commitment that everyone who is in the country will be counted in the census, and all respondents will have the option to self-identify their ethnicity,” the statement read. “This commitment cannot be honored selectively in the face of intimidation or threats of violence.”
On Monday, UNFPA spokesman William Ryan said the agency was “deeply concerned” over recent indications by the government that Rohingya would not be allowed to self-identify, a restriction that “doesn’t conform with the expectations we had about how the census would be conducted.”
The violence last week prompted a call from the US-based Human Rights Watch for postponement of the census.
In a separate UNFPA press release, also on Friday, the UN agency said a team of 46 national and international observers would witness the census data collection to make sure it met international standards.
“A widely accepted and accurate census will enable evidence-driven planning and policy making for the first time in Myanmar’s history and help push forward its ongoing socio-economic and political reform process,” the agency’s statement read.