Myanmar Census Confronted by Ethnic and Racial Tensions

Yesterday, Myanmar started conducting its first national census in over 30 years. The census is an important exercise, one will give the government much needed information about the total population and demographics which it has lacked for three decades. But what should be an opportunity to move forward in the democratization process for the country is instead becoming yet another controversial development in the Myanmar’s bumpy transition out of international isolation.

Chief among concerns is the government’s overall approach to ethnicity in the census questionnaire. Not only does it ask very detailed questions about ethnicity and religion but as Elliott Prasse-Freeman pointed out late last year, it also forces a very diverse society to identify with just one ethnicity and group when Myanmar is far more of a melting pot of its 135 recognized ethnic groups. This proposes an absolute view of ethnicity that could further divide the country in light of growing ethnic and religious tensions. As with the collection of any type of personal information by the government, the major question is how it will be used by the government. It is unclear whether enough reform and democratization has occurred for people not to be concerned about the collection of incredibly detailed personal information, particularly about religion and ethnicity.

These general concerns don’t take into account the controversy surrounding treatment of Rohingya Muslims who under a 1982 law are not granted Myanmar citizenship despite a long history in the country. Often referred to as one of the most marginalized groups in the world by the UN, the plight of the Rohingya has only worsened in recent years due to inter-communal violence with Buddhists that erupted in Rakhine State in 2012. Since then hundreds of Rohingya have been killed and an estimated 140,000 displaced in what Human Rights Watch has called a campaign of ethnic cleansing. As Myanmar continues to take promising steps towards democratization with successful parliamentary elections in 2012 and a planned general election in 2015, the issue of the Rohingya remains a difficult thorn in Myanmar’s new image.

The national census offers little to fix this. Initially there were hopes the Rohingya would be included in the census but significant pushback by the Buddhist community complicated those efforts. Even the rumor that Rohingya would be included led to a new campaign of sectarian marking, with people hanging Buddhist flags outside their homes to signify who is, and who is not, Buddhist. When a Western aid worker took down a flag from their office building last week, hundreds of Buddhists attacked the building and forced the government to put international aid workers under protective custody. This comes after the government banned Doctors Without Borders (MSF) from operating in Rakhine State due to what they called a “Rohingya bias” as MSF became the primary provider of medical care of the increasingly displaced population. With such tensions, the option of “Rohingya” has been left off the census in favor of the foreign “Bengali”, further signaling that things are unlikely to change and the Rohingya will remain stateless and marginalized for the foreseeable future.

Given the inter-communal and sectarian violence that has wracked Rakhine state for the last two years and the ongoing ethnic tensions throughout the country that are deeply rooted in decades of strife, it makes little sense to risk the democratization process on an ill-timed and poorly thought out census. The International Crisis Group raised a plausible compromise where only the first six questions on the questionnaire – those dealing with age, sex and marital status – could be asked, successfully giving the government the information it needs to meet the development and governance needs of the people while also not unnecessarily stirring the pot with issues that need much more thought and planning. Obviously, such suggestions went unheeded. Thus while the census exercise will wrap up by April 10, the real concern is what impact it will have on an already fragile transitional state and its most vulnerable populations.