RANGOON — Ethnic groups in Burma have expressed concern about the way a national census to be carried out in March classifies ethnic sub-groups, saying that the categories used create confusion and unnecessary divisions.
“Some Karen sub-groups, such as the Kecho and Kebar, have been classified as Karenni, based on government data from 1983,” said Daw Naw Sah Htoo, a central executive committee member of the Kayin Peoples Party, noting one of the more egregious errors.
The issue was discussed at a workshop in Hpa-an, the capital of Karen State, on Thursday. Three Karen community-based organizations represented at the workshop said they would object to the census being conducted unless the Kecho, Kebar and Pa-O were reclassified as Karen sub-groups.
It was also noted that a new “Mon-Karen” group had been created under the label Sar Phyu. The label is supposed to designate Karen who sided with the Mon when they were at war with the ethnic Burmans in the pre-modern era. However, some who attended the workshop pointed out that it is actually the name of a belief system followed by some Karen.
“Some people were forced to change their ethnicity in the past based on their religion. But a Karen is a Karen, whether they are Buddhist or Christian,” said Daw Naw Sah Htoo.
Tu Ja, the chairman of the Kachin State Democracy Party (KSDP), told The Irrawaddy that all sub-groups should be properly classified as belonging to larger groups, rather than labeled in isolation.
“There are six or seven Kachin sub-groups, but they should all be counted as Kachin, and only then should they be identified by their sub-group,” he said, warning that treating each subgroup as completely distinct would harm national reconciliation efforts and reduce trust between ethnic groups and the government.
He added that most ethnic people in Burma, including the Kachin, Mon, Shan, Karen and Arakanese, doubted the validity of the government’s official tally of 135 recognized ethnic groups.
Sai Than Maung, a team leader with the Shan Population Collecting Committee, said that his committee ignores the government’s division of the Shan into 30 sub-groups, choosing instead to treat them all as belonging to one group, the Shan.
Mon civil society activist Mi Kon Chan Non also said that census takers should be able to speak ethnic languages in order to ensure that they get an accurate count of how many people belong to each group. However, she noted that there are also other obstacles to getting an accurate figure.
“I think the Mon in Rangoon will continue to identify themselves as Burmese because it isn’t easy for them to change their ethnic identity on their National Identification Cards,” she said.
Cherry Zahau, a Chin human rights activist, told The Irrawaddy on Friday that Chin communities generally disagree with the practice of labeling people according to their ethnic sub-groups.
“Our official objection on this will come soon,” she said, adding that both the government and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which is assisting with the census, should have collaborated more closely with ethnic communities from the beginning, instead of waiting until the middle of last month to consult with them.
“It should not be done in a rushed manner, as this is the first time in 30 years that Burma will have a census,” she said.