RANGOON — Burma’s national census agency says that as of Sunday, 85 percent of the country’s estimated population had participated in the census, which ends on Thursday. However, critics have questioned the accuracy of the data, particularly concerning religion.
“We will finish collecting census data by April 10, after visiting everywhere we could reach,” Nyi Nyi, a government official and a member of the census agency, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday. “The census has covered the entire country except some places in KIO areas and in Arakan State, in Bengali villages, where they refused to take part.”
In northern Burma, leaders of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) declined to participate in the 12-day census, as armed conflict with the Burma Army continues. In western Burma’s Arakan State, enumerators were instructed by the government not to record information for anyone who identified as Rohingya, a Muslim minority group. The government refers to the Rohingya as “Bengali” to suggest that they immigrated to Burma from Bangladesh.
According to the census law, anyone who refuses to participate in the census can be fined up to 50,000 kyats (US$50) or imprisoned for one month.
After formal data collection ends on Thursday, the census agency will conduct negotiations to attempt to return to parts of the country that were not counted and collect demographic data later. However, there is limited time before data will need to be analyzed and published, said Nyi Nyi, who is also director of the Population Department in the Ministry of Immigration and Population.
The initial data summed up by enumerators manually will be released in August, while computerized results will be released in February or March 2015, he said.
But some critics have questioned the accuracy of the data, particularly when it comes to the question about religion. In certain cases, enumerators refused to record that respondents identifying as Muslim belonged to ethnic groups officially recognized by the government, according to Thet Ko from Minority Affair, a civil society group that conducts research on Burma’s ethnic minority groups.
“Among ethnic people, there are Muslims. Some identified as Mon, Karen and Bamar, but the enumerators did not write down this answer, as if there were no Muslim ethnic people. It seems that census training lacked an element of ethnic awareness,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Data about ethnicity may be published later than the general population count because it must be analyzed manually, according to Khin Yi, the minister of immigration and population.
The categorization of ethnicity has been highly controversial among ethnic minority groups, with some criticizing the breakdown of 135 groups and subgroups as overly simplistic or inaccurate.
In the Mon State capital of Moulmein, however, it appears that data collection has thus far proceeded largely without problems, says Naw Sah Htoo, a member of the central executive committee of the Kayin People’s Party. “I just answered Karen, 301, instead of a Karen subgroup, because everyone knows me as Karen,” she said, referring to the code recorded by enumerators for her ethnicity.
Many Shan migrants working abroad returned to their native southern Shan State to be counted, according to Sai Aung Myint Khaing, a senior member of the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party. “They feared they would lose their citizenship if they were not present during the data collection,” he said.
He said an estimated hundreds if not thousands of migrants returned home for the census, with many staying to pay respects to their elders ahead of the major Buddhist holiday of Thingyan.
Requests by the Palaung State Liberation Front for the ethnic Palaung people to be classified as distinct from the Shan were rejected, added Sai Aung Myint Khaing, who said the Palaung were listed in the census as a subgroup of the Shan. “Later when political dialogue occurs, there might be discussions on ethnicity,” he said.
Burma has an estimated population of 60 million people and last conducted a nationwide census over 30 years ago.