UN-led census triggers ethnic sensitivities in Myanmar

Villagers of Kyauk Ka Char in Shan State, Myanmar. Ethnic groups and international organizations in the country have expressed discontent over a United Nations-led census, which is reportedly rife with sensitive components. Photo by: Mark Garten / U.N.

Ethnic groups and international organizations have expressed their discontent on a United Nations-led census in Myanmar set to take place late next month tagged as “risky” given the country’s still delicate situation of democratic transition following decades of military rule.

The census, to be conducted by the government and the U.N. Population Fund with the support of a host of international donors, is reportedly rife with sensitive components including ethnicity, religion and citizenship status — delicate issues that might hamper peace-building efforts in the country, where various ethnic conflicts have affected and displaced thousands of local residents, according to the International Crisis Group.

In a statement, the Brussels-based think tank have raised the alarm over the consultation, saying that pushing for the nationwide census is “risky” and insensitive to the diverse ethnic groups that make up the Southeast Asian nation in its rich history that goes way back.

“The census process should be urgently amended to focus only on key demographic questions, postponing those which are needlessly antagonistic and divisive — ethnicity, religion, citizenship status — to a more appropriate moment. By doing so, the government, the U.N. and donors can demonstrate that they are sensitive to the serious risks presented by the census as currently conceived.”

Ethnic conflict, especially in border areas, has plagued Myanmar practically since independence in 1948. Last month, a Norwegian-led peace initiative in the country was close to shutting down after not fully achieving its intended objectives as tensions remain in some areas.

Despite embracing democracy in late 2010, peace in the border areas is still an issue that needs to be resolved with finality for the country to fully unleash what many multilateral institutions and donors consider a tremendous potential for development in the coming years.

A sensitive issue

The planned census, scheduled to take place from March 30 to April 10, is supposed to serve as a necessary first step for Myanmar’s progressive development plan.

According to the government and UNFPA, there’s a need for “accurate, relevant and timely information in order to develop appropriate policies and programs for the improvement of living standards of all people in the country” — but one ethnic group pointed out the consultation should be sensitive enough to include everyone and not alienate or marginalize smaller groups.

“A census is the basic step to a country’s sustainable economic and political development,” Anthony Pu Kap Khan Khual, central executive committee member of the Zomi Congress for Democracy, told Devex. “But for the very upcoming Burma census, [it] seems like the identity of non-Bamar nationalities [are] being threatened.”

The issue is deeply rooted in the socio-political structure of the Southeast Asian nation.

Aside from the continuing conflicts involving religious differences and marginalization, inaccurate classification of ethnic groups has also irked the ZCD and Palaung State Liberation Front, among others.

For the planned census, the UNFPA document revealed that all citizens within Myanmar’s border during the survey period will be counted. However,  the ethnic classification system is based on 1980 figures including a total of 135 local groups, when in reality it’s much more complicated than that.

Asked about the issue on the ethnic classification system, Khual said many questions remain unanswered that could significantly affect the census results and the long-term development of the country — an issue that could have been addressed if thorough consultations with all the groups were done.

“Who surveyed these 135 ethnic [groups]? What kind of mandate from the government was given to collect it? Were the 135 groups aware of it when [data] was being collected? Was there any consensus from who were being counted?” Khual said.

He added: “The … codes overlap. It is for some codes only [include] geography name, some codes are only just [based on] accent difference, and some ethnic [groups] are not listed in the codes. It is very important to have consultations. It is very important for the ethnic [groups] to discuss this before the census and it should be done by the government to hold a discussion thoroughly so that the census fair and square.”

Making it right

For the ICG, addressing the issue by adjusting the census to a more sensitive and considerate national activity is the most logical thing to do lest the government and the rest of the international community want to see the development momentum gained by Myanmar in the past couple of years lose steam.

“There is still time to adjust the process by limiting the census to just the key demographic questions on age, sex and marital status. This will provide the most important data without touching at this stage on the controversial issues of identity and citizenship.”

So how can the government and the international community best engage local ethnic groups, avoid potential conflict in the future, ensure sustainable peace efforts and help fast-track Myanmar’s development?

Khual said one word just about sums up the solution: “Listen.”

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.

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