The census will begin early in the self-administered ethnic Wa zone of eastern Burma, according to the United Wa State Army (UWSA).
Other ethnic minority groups have pushed to delay the nationwide census, which is scheduled to begin on March 29, but the Wa have recruited enumerators who will start collecting data two weeks earlier because they will need more time to reach the majority of residents, who live in remote mountainous areas of northeastern Shan State.
“Transportation in our Wa region is so difficult. Even if you can see one village in the distance, it takes at least a half a day to reach it because the villages are in the highlands,” Aung Myint, a UWSA spokesman, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday.
Wa leaders have recruited about 1,000 enumerators, all local educated residents, to communicate with the estimated 45,000 or so Wa people in their zone, most of whom speak the Wa dialect.
Aung Myint said the enumerators would begin a weeklong training program on March 15, led by the government team, to learn how to conduct the census and record data. After that, he said, they would begin the census.
The 2008 military-backed Constitution allows the Wa to operate a self-administered zone in northeastern Shan State. Five other ethnic groups also have self-administered zones, including the Naga, Danu, Pa-O, Palaung and Kokang.
The Wa zone officially comprises six townships east of the Salween River, but the UWSA spokesman said Wa leaders had agreed with the government to collect data in 23 townships. This includes a southern Wa zone that is not officially recognized as autonomous by the Constitution. “It would lead to confusion if the census was only taken in six townships. We have had our own 23 townships for over 20 years,” he said.
Burma has not conducted a nationwide census since 1983, and that population count did not include residents in Wa territory.
On Saturday, 17 Wa leaders led by UWSA deputy commander-in-chief Kyauk Kyone Tan will attend a census opening ceremony in Naypyidaw. The government has also invited leaders of 13 other ethnic rebel groups, all of which have signed ceasefire deals. Thus far, the UWSA, the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) have confirmed their attendance, according to Hla Maung Shwe, a special adviser to the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), which sent the invitations.
However, KNU secretary Pado Saw Kwe Htoo Win said his group received the invitation on Wednesday and was still deciding whether to attend. He told The Irrawaddy that ethnic Karen enumerators would collect data in Karen State during the regular census period, from March 29 to April 10, but added that concerns remained over the classification of ethnic subgroups in the survey.
A number of ethnic civil society groups around the country have called on the government to postpone the census until these concerns are resolved. Some have said the current classification is overly divisive, while others say it inaccurately links certain ethnic subgroups to the wrong major ethnic group.
For the UWSA leaders, the trip to Naypyidaw will be their first in five years. The delegation will likely meet with Burmese Vice President Sai Mauk Kham, who is chairman of the peace-working committee in Naypyidaw, according to Hla Maung Shwe of the MPC, who added that the meeting schedule had not yet been confirmed.
There has also been speculation of a meeting with President Thein Sein. “It depends on the president’s schedule, whether he is free to meet with us,” UWSA spokesman Aung Myint said. “Even if we meet, it will just be greeting and paying respect to our elder.”
He said the UWSA would also meet in March with Thein Zaw, vice chairman of the peace-working committee, to discuss their demands for an autonomous Wa state. This demand has been raised in Parliament by Sai Paung Nap, a lawmaker for the Wa Democratic Party.