March 13, 2014 5:35 am

Fears Myanmar census could stoke tensions

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Ethnic Kayan women celebrate a religious festival in Myanmar's Shan state.©Ben Marino

Ethnic Kayan women celebrate a religious festival in Myanmar's Shan state

An internationally funded census in Myanmar threatens to undermine the former military dictatorship’s efforts to end more than 60 years of armed internal conflict and fuel a foreign investment boom.

The UN-backed first population survey for more than three decades risks reviving historic ethnic divisions in the country as it opens its doors to international investment, even as the government pushes for a nationwide ceasefire and peace deal, activists and analysts warn.

Faces of a nation

Faces of a nation
Ethnic groups in Myanmar

The Myanmar authorities and international powers say this daunting exercise – in a country estimated to have a population of more than 60m – that will sweep through mountains, plains and multiple conflict zones where the government is fighting ethnic militias will be crucial to targeting resources for the development of a country long closed to the world.

But critics fear both the data-gathering and the results will stoke old tensions that could pull apart a country which officially lists 135 different ethnic groups within its borders.

“I don’t think the UN and the donors have sufficiently taken on board the level of risk with the census,” says Richard Horsey, an independent Yangon-based political analyst. “Their feeling is that these risks are there but are manageable – but I think other people feel that these risks are not manageable.”

The UN – which together with donor countries including Britain, Germany and Australia, is funding 80 per cent of the census’s estimated $75m cost – says people will be able to define themselves as “other” if they don’t feel comfortable with the ethnic definitions. It also claims that “all of the major ethnic organisations” in Myanmar have now agreed to co-operate with the process. Although it will have to overcome some strident opposition if that is true.

Doi Pyi Sar, an official with the Kachin Independence Organisation, a movement in Myanmar’s far north, has said his group and its allies would not allow the survey to take place in zones controlled by them and their armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army.

“This is not the right way to hold a census, and not the right time,” says Mr Doi Pyi Sar, speaking from a region where up to 100,000 displaced people are estimated to be scattered across a web of camps.

The Myanmar government led by Thein Sein, a former general, has met activists and issued a statement in February admitting the census’s approach to ethnicity might not be right – but insisting the survey will go on.

Activists say the exercise, which will start with fieldwork in March and April and lead to a rolling series of results over the next year and beyond, is flawed because it misrepresents Myanmar’s ethnic make-up, just as did the previous disputed national survey carried out by the repressive military junta in 1983.

This latest important test of whether people can trust the three-year-old quasi-civilian administration ahead of elections due in 2015 has reignited historic accusations that the government is attempting to underplay the strength of some minority groups in order to dilute their power and access to resources.

Representatives from the patchwork of ethnicities found to make up just over 30 per cent of the population in 1983 say the drafting of the latest survey could increase the power of the Burman majority, and harm ongoing peace talks between the government and various regional armed groups.

“The main problem will be political,” says Saw Kyaw Zwar, an activist from the Karen people clustered towards the Thai border. “Our voice will be smaller.”

Activists say some of the 135 ethnic groups designated in the latest census questionnaire are not separate entities at all, but people of the same heritage whose home places may simply be separated by a river, forest or some other geographical feature.

The survey is also controversial because it will ask people their religion, an ever more sensitive topic amid deadly conflict between Buddhists and Muslims that has killed scores of people this year in a western region where more than 800,000 people are estimated to be stateless.

The census battle is above all a reminder of the loose political binding in the country also known as Myanmar, where 19th and 20th century British colonialism was laid over millennia of arrivals from China, India and other neighbouring states.

This is not the right way to hold a census, and not the right time

- Doi Pyi Sar, Kachin Independence Organisation

The importance of modern rolling conflicts between ethnically-based groups and the former ruling junta was sometimes obscured internationally by the attention focused on the military’s struggle with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate.

The present-day census-takers setting out by road, rail and foot in a country estimated to have almost doubled its estimated 1983 population of 34m are likely to struggle to reach some contested areas still sealed off by the government as it presses for the first nationwide peace deal since independence in 1948.

The 41-question census has also raised fears that people will choose to lie because they fear that revealing their true ethnicity – and carrying the information on their national identity cards – could trigger discrimination.

Htet Oo Wai, a Yangon-based activist who has long identified herself by her father’s Burman background, rather than her mother’s minority Mon heritage, says many of her friends also labelled themselves Burman.

“They believe that if they are majority group they could have more benefits or other assistance,” she says.

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