RANGOON — Ethnic groups and civil society organizations are raising concerns that data gathered on ethnicity in Burma’s upcoming census could be used for political purposes.
A group of 30 civil society organizations and ethnic groups representing the Chin, Karen, Shan, Mon and Kachin warned Monday that historic mistakes concerning the classification and naming of ethnicity in Burma could be repeated in next month’s nationwide census.
In the first census to be conducted more than 30 years—a process supported by the United Nations—everyone living in Burma will be asked to state their ethnicity. Critics say the process threatens to stir up tensions in the country where conflicts between the central government and ethnic groups have raged since independence.
Kyaw Thu, head of civil society consortium Paung Ku said collecting data on ethnicity was not necessary, and that only demographic information was needed to inform development projects.
“If development is the priority, the data of headcounts—the numbers of people and the age group—is enough to conduct economic projects,” he said.
The number of people in an ethnic group in an area can impact on the political power that group has. Ethnic minister positions within division and state parliaments are given to minority groups with more than 0.01 percent of the population in the area.
Saw Kyaw Swa, secretary of the Karen Affairs Committee, said he was concerned that ethnicity data would impact on the political landscape in the country in years to come.
“We are concerned and deeply worried that the census data will be used in political decisions after 2015 [when national elections are scheduled],” said Saw Kyaw Swa.
“For example, ethnic minorities might no longer be able to have an ethnic minister in every state after the Constitution is amended. There might only be a divisional minister representing all ethnic groups.”
The census will use the controversial list of 135 officially recognized ethnic groups in Burma, which represent “subcategories” of the eight major groups—Burman, Karen, Karreni, Kachin, Chin, Mon, Arakan and Shan. Ethnic groups argue that this could dilute minority populations and therefore deny them political representation.
Minister of Immigration and Population Khin Yi last week insisted that the census will not result in a loss of political representation for ethnic groups.
“It’s true that ethnic minorities worry their groups will disappear, that they will not get the ‘right to govern themselves’ in the upcoming election,” the minister said in Rangoon.
“But the census is not directly related with elections, although it may be indirectly. There will be no such thing as losing the right to govern themselves.”
However, Salai Isaac Khen, coordinator of Chin national supporting committee on the census, said he feared that the data could be used to shape future elections.
“The usage of ‘135 nationalities’ is not a situation in which ethnic are understood and accepted,” Salai Isaac Khen told The Irrawaddy.
“Even though they claim a lot that they will not use the results [of the census] for political purposes, they say that the 135 ethnic groups list is a result of the 1983 census. So they may later claim that there are been such and such ethnic group and population in the 2014 census. It could affect political decisions in the next 10 or 15 years.”
He added that the government had made it difficult for ethnic groups to appeal for changes to the legally enshrined ethnic divisions.
“If ethnic want to make changes to the current number of 135 ethnics, they says go through the Parliament. We assume that it’s designed to make the process difficult,” Salai Isaac Khen said.
Tun Myint Kyaw, local coordinator in Mon State for the European Union-funded Rule of Law Project said that the question of ethnicity should be dropped.
“If [the Ministry of Immigration and Population] has a plan to omit the ethnicity and religion category from the national identity card, why would they still include in the census data collection?” he asked, adding ethic groups do not trust the central government, since in the past it has “twisted” the issue of ethnicity in Burma.
“The number and naming [of ethnic groups] would not be important if this hadn’t been manipulated for profit in the past.”
Khon Ja, an activist with the Kachin Peace Network said the question on ethnicity should be reconsidered, due to the potential tension that could arise and put back the process of national reconciliation in Burma.
Brussels-based NGO the International Crisis Group last week said the questions on ethnicity in the census were “needlessly antagonistic and divisive,” and called for the survey to be amended. The group’s report noted that the number of Muslims in the country is likely to be found to be far higher than has been previously recorded, which could enflame already fraught inter-communal relations.