LAIZA, Kachin State — About 80,000 people living in areas controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) will be left out of Burma’s nationwide census, a rebel spokesman told The Irrawaddy this week.
Numerous ethnic organizations and NGOs have raised concerns that United Nations-backed census could be divisive. Objections range from fears that the results will have a political impact or be used by groups with an agenda, to complaints around the categorizations of ethnic groups into subgroups of other ethnicities.
But while most of Burma’s ethnic armed groups—who are in talks with the government toward a nationwide ceasefire agreement—have agreed to work with the government to administer the census in rebel-controlled areas, this is not the case here in Kachin State.
Fighting between the Burma Army and the KIO’s military wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) since a ceasefire broke down in 2011 has left about 100,000 people residing in temporary shelters, at least half of them in 22 camps in rebel administered areas. Many people are divided from family members, and many have misplaced their identification documents while fleeing violence.
KIO spokesman and joint secretary La Nan said the organization was not ready to conduct a census of the population living in its areas—about 80,000 people in total.
“There has been no invitation or initiations by any organization to conduct a census so far,” La Nan told The Irrawaddy in an interview at the KIO’s headquarters in Laiza, on the Burmese-Chinese border.
“The census is a state project and we will not do it right now.”
He dismissed a letter sent from Naypyidaw to the Kachin State government and forwarded to the KIO, which invited the group to send representatives to the launch of the census in Naypyidaw last week. The letter arrived just a day before the meeting took place, La Nan said, adding that he also took exception to a reference in the letter to ethnic armed groups “coming under the rule of law.”
La Nan said that the KIO already had records of all the people in its area and in its camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Doi Be Za, the officer in charge of the KIO’s IDPs and Refugees Relief Committee, said that more time was needed to conduct a census in conflict-affected parts of Kachin.
“The practical tasks of collecting the census need to be flexible with the time and situation. It will not get support from the people if it is conducted right now,” he said, adding that local civil society groups were discussing how to conduct a census in the future.
Organizations representing ethnic groups in Kachin State say that the government’s list of 135 recognized ethnic groups, which includes 12 groups in the state as subgroups of Kachin, is “incorrect.” The Kachin National Council said in a statement that “the census procedure is seen as alienating and breaking up ethnic national identity.”
In government-controlled parts of Kachin, the local government has reportedly decided to begin the census early to account for potential delays caused by the ongoing conflict. While in most of the country the census will not begin until March 30, the Democratic Voice of Burma said Thursday that it was already underway in Kachin’s Putao, Machanbaw, Nawngmun and Suprabum.
Among the ethnic armed groups, only the Kachin and Ta’ang National Liberation Army—both of which have regular clashes with government troops—have said they will not allow the government to conduct the census in areas under their control.
De De Poe Jaine, the general secretary of the Ta’ang Women’s Organization (TWO) said the ethnic group, known as Palaung in Burmese, also rejected the subgroup system, which places it within the broader Shan ethnicity.
“We were descended from Mon-Khmer race, not from the Shan. Thus, we should not be placed under it,” said De De Poe Jaine. “Instead, we should have given a specific code for us. We will make demands for our rights at different levels.”
She also said it was not a good idea to conduct the census in conflict-afflicted areas.
“One thing I am certain of is that if a census is conducted in an unpeaceful land, it will end up with inaccurate data. That’s why we have also called for the postponement of 2014 census until a genuine peace plan has been made,” said De De Poe Jaine.
Additional reporting by Thuzar in Rangoon.