RANGOON — The release of preliminary findings from Burma’s census in the coming months must be handled with great sensitivity to minimize the risk of further problems related to the population tally, a Brussels-based NGO focusing on conflict issues warned Thursday.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) said Burma’s census “has proved to be highly controversial and deeply divisive.” While acknowledging the importance of the population data for Burma’s government, development partners and investors, the ICG pointed out that the census “has also created political tensions and sparked conflict at a crucial moment in the country’s transition and peace process.”
Preliminary findings from a manual count of the census forms will be released in August and will include at least population and gender data down to the divisional and township levels in Burma. Finalized population data is not due to be announced until May of next year.
The ICG warning comes a little more than a month after enumerators fanned out across Burma to conduct the country’s first census in more than 30 years, a 12-day effort that was marred by controversy prior to and during the exercise.
Most notably, some populations identifying as Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State were left out of the census after they attempted to have themselves listed as Rohingya in the questionnaire’s ethnicity section. Elsewhere, in Kachin State, territories controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), an ethnic Kachin rebel group, refused to allow enumerators to carry out the census.
In both Arakan and Kachin states, the census has been blamed for stoking tensions and violence.
The ICG on Thursday said the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) had failed to take responsibility “for designing and pushing ahead with a flawed process in the face of clear warnings from multiple quarters.” The ICG said the UN agency and donors to the census process had instead deflected blame, criticizing the government for its last-minute decision to forbid self-identification as “Rohingya.”
Burma’s government does not recognize the term Rohingya, instead using the word “Bengali” to describe the beleaguered Muslim minority, who it contends are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. After initial assurances that self-identification would be allowed, the government later backtracked and said no one attempting to identify as Rohingya would be counted in the census.
Myint Kyaing, director general of Burma’s Immigration and Population Department under the ministry of the same name, said negotiations with Rohingya communities initially passed over by enumerators had been ongoing since April 11, a day after the census-taking was supposed to have wrapped up.
“Some identified as ‘Bengali’ as is on the white cards they hold, some asked just to fill in ‘914’ [the numeric code for ‘other’], or not to fill in anything under ‘ethnicity,’” he told The Irrawaddy. “They do want to be listed as ‘Rohingya,’ but as the state does not accept ‘Rohingya,’ they are being collected as saying, writing nothing [under the ethnicity question].”
Khin Yi, the minister of immigration and population, said at a press conference last week that only 20,000 of the estimated 1 million “Bengalis” in Arakan State had been included in the census.
Further negotiations to conduct the census in Kachin State took place during a recent meeting between Khin Ye and Gen. Gun Maw, an ethnic Kachin rebel leader, though plans to conduct the census in areas where enumerators were not granted access last month have not yet been put into action, Myint Kyaing said.
“We are still negotiating whether to use our own enumerators or [enlist] KIA members to collect after attending training,” Myint Kyaing told The Irrawaddy, referring to the Kachin Independence Army, the KIO’s armed wing.
Khin Yi said the census was successfully conducted in almost all areas where ethnic armed groups are still active, with the exception of about 25 village tracts, consisting of 97 villages, in Kachin State. The KIO controls a section of the Burmese-Chinese border, and its territory includes camps for thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs).
“The authorities, through their public statements, the behavior of law enforcement personnel and in the laws enacted have to do a lot more to demonstrate that the state’s concern is for the welfare of all,” the ICG said in its statement Thursday.
“Equally, a census that was more sensitive to political realities, or one conducted at a less volatile time, could have limited or avoided some of the problems now being stoked. Further risks exist in the timing and manner in which census data are released.”
The ICG, which honored Burma President Thein Sein with its “In Pursuit of Peace Award” last year, said in a February 2014 “Conflict Alert” that the census “should be urgently amended to focus only on key demographic questions, postponing those which are needlessly antagonistic and divisive—on ethnicity, religion, citizenship status—to a more appropriate moment.”