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COUNTING ON TRUST

Myanmar’s first census in 30 years has been extended by more than a month. It started on March 30 and was to end on April 10, but now the government of President Thein Sein has said it will continue until the end of May this year. A terse but unusually brief government press note cited “technical and logistical problems” for extending the huge Western-funded exercise. It involved around 100,000 school teachers who doubled as enumerators, traversing cities and countryside, mostly on foot in the humid summer, expecting to count out anything between 50 to 65 million citizens.

On April 10, when the census was supposed to end, trucks with loudspeakers kept reminding citizens to get themselves counted and posters plastered across shops, ferries, buildings and buses repeated the same message. Then came the extension.

This is perhaps the most comprehensive demographic exercise since the last British census in the country in 1931. It could have much impact in the way Myanmar organizes itself internally. But by using flawed designations from the colonial era and ignoring the complexity of the present political landscape, the census has raised huge ethnic tensions at precisely the moment that peace negotiations in the country were trying to focus on building trust. It was important to finalize the census methodology in consultation with representatives of the country’s many ethnic groups, some of whom have now signed ceasefires with the government after years of armed conflict. But that has not happened and the census appears to be ending up as a top-down exercise.

The Kachin Independence Organisation, the most powerful separatist rebel group on Myanmar’s borders, has prevented the census operation in areas it controls — perhaps to drive home their angst at the forestalled peace negotiations. The KIO has now called for American presence in the peace talks it is having with the Myanmar government, saying there can be no hope unless foreign powers like the United States of America get involved in Myanmar’s fledgling peace process.

The Karens, another rebellious nationality on the Myanmar-Thailand border, are angry that thousands of Karen refugees living in camps in Thailand will not be counted — and therefore will never be treated as citizens. But the worst was in store in Myanmar’s tormented western state of Rakhine. Furious protests by Buddhist Rakhine groups gave authorities the necessary excuse not to treat the Rohingyas as a category. The Rohingya Muslims, numbering around one million, have been dubbed ‘Bengali infiltrators’ by Rakhine and Burman political groups and even Thein Sein has said they are not Myanmarese. The pro-democracy icon, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, has been strangely silent on the Rohingyas who faced huge violence several times during the last two years.

The enumerators made it clear to the Muslim descendants of Arab traders that they cannot register as ‘Rohingyas’. That has upset the Rohingyas and various groups have called for the census to stop. The implications are serious — unless they can register as Rohingyas, the ethnic category will stand de-recognized with no chance of securing citizenship in the future, written off as ‘illegal Bengali migrants’ from Bangladesh. That would mean Rohingyas would have to look to Bangladesh and possibly India, where they have already migrated in large numbers, for shelter.

The Rohingyas were almost wholly deprived of citizenship rights in 1982 and thousands have fled to Bangladesh and have tried their luck by illegally migrating to West or South-east Asia. Many have entered India, where they are mistaken as Bangladeshi migrants. Senior US officials have recently visited both Bangladesh and Myanmar to find a solution to the Rohingya problem because it is increasingly becoming a regional issue. Not much has been achieved because the Thein Sein regime remains as hard-fisted on the issue as previous military juntas. Even Aung Sang Suu Kyi has preferred silence, being perhaps keen not to upset majoritarian sentiments.

Ethnic politics and statistics have been among the most contested issues in Myanmar. With one of the most diverse populations in Asia, Myanmar degenerated into ethnic conflict that exploded into multiple armed insurgencies after independence. No government in post-colonial Myanmar could manage ethnic aspirations and prevent armed insurrections. The government of Thein Sein, which took charge in 2011, tried to work out a ceasefire with the ethnic insurgent groups and bring them back to the table. A new political system looked like emerging and there were hopes that the country was set on the path towards modernity and political reform.

However, serious tensions persist over political freedoms and ethnic nationality rights. In particular, in spite of ceasefire offers by the government to ethnic opposition forces, many minority groups feel their peoples will be marginalized through the process of sweeping political and economic changes now unfolding in the country. Such perceptions are especially acute among communities where the impact of conflict remains.

Many ethnic groups fear that the timing and methodology of the 2014 census, with an unwarranted array of questions and overseen by law enforcement officers, will further diminish the political status of minority peoples. The designation of 135 national races in the country is widely regarded as confusing and wrong. Going ahead with the census in the year before a key general election is due in 2015 has only deepened concerns, specially because no political agreements have yet been reached in the ceasefire talks. Unreliable data that result from the census could have a negative impact on political debate and ethnic representation in the legislatures.

Instead of creating the opportunity to improve inter-ethnic understanding and citizenship rights at a critical moment in the country’s history, the census threatens to aggravate old wounds along with a new generation of complexities. Such fundamental challenges should be addressed before proceeding with the census. Or else the census will only raise ethnic tensions at a moment when the peace negotiations were looking to build trust. Ethnic politics, democratic reform and conflict resolution are all at a crossroads in Myanmar. If carried out in an inclusive and transparent manner with due concern for ethnic minorities, a census could support national reconciliation and boost the process of reforms. Instead, many ethnic groups fear that its timing, format and methodology will further diminish and marginalize the position of non- Bamar (non-Burmese) groups. Citizenship rights for some people, like the Rohingyas, could even be under serious threat.

The United Nations Population Fund and several Western governments are supporting the census with a projected budget of $74 million. They have a responsibility to ensure not merely accurate research and data collection but also an inclusive process that does not exclude any minority group. But so far, such problems have just been treated purely as technical problems with sweeping solutions, rather than as fundamentally political and ethnic challenges that need resolution. Instead of creating the opportunity to improve inter-ethnic understanding and a modern inclusive regime of citizenship rights, the Myanmar census promises to create more difficulties than solutions to the country’s myriad problems.