7 March 2014edge review

Photo: A billboard advertising Myanmar’s upcoming census (Chuck Moravec/Flickr).

Myanmar’s new census may recalculate ethnic, religious tensions

An undeniable fact of life in Myanmar is that accurate numbers are hard to come by – no matter what the context. After five decades of isolation, statistics are notoriously unreliable across the board, and the current reformist government, in cooperation with international agencies, is making an effort to remedy this.

Indeed, even an accurate number as simple as the country’s population is not available, owing to improper data collection methods under military rule and the limited extent of central state control across the nation, especially in ethnic-minority areas.

But starting on March 30, an army of census-takers will journey to the most remote corners of the country in an effort to collect some of this much-needed population data as part of the first nationwide census to be held since 1983.

On the surface, this first census in 31 years would seem to provide the foundations for the kind of sound policymaking Myanmar will need to further its development. But, because contentious questions about ethnicity and religion will be asked, the census may serve to undermine the political power of ethnic minorities and perhaps catalyse further violence against Myanmar’s Muslim population.

Last month, conflict monitor International Crisis Group (ICG) issued a “conflict alert,” urging that the census, a collaboration between the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA) and the Myanmar government, be postponed. Central to the ICG’s criticism of the current plans for the census was its adherence to an officially approved list of 135 ethnic groups.

“The classification is related to more than ethnic identity; it will have direct political ramifications,” the ICG report said.

The precise origin of the “135 ethnicities” is shrouded in mystery. After the 1982 citizenship law was passed – which, among other things, stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship and “ethnic minority” status – the number of officially recognized ethnicities was finalized, and it is believed that the number of 135 was the product of consultation between strongman Ne Win and his personal astrologer.

It is an arbitrary figure, because it is impossible to neatly subdivide communities into discrete ethnic groups. The notion of ethnic identity – in any context, let alone in a country as complex as Myanmar – is highly contentious, and ethnic minorities fear that the census will be used to undermine their unity and political leverage.

The 135 ethnicities are subdivided among eight “major” ethnic groups, including the Kachin, Shan, Karen, and Chin. These ethnic groupings are by no means based on sociological, linguistic, racial, scientific or historical criteria: notions of pan-Karen or pan-Kachin identity came about as a response to colonial machinations and fears of domination by the British colonial establishment and, later, by the Bamar majority.

The Kachin, for example, speak a dizzying array of mutually unintelligible languages, and while most are Christian, a substantial number follow Buddhism and traditional forms of animism. That these dissimilar peoples chose to come together under a unified banner – represented politically by the Kachin Independence Organisation – speaks to the perceived threat posed by outsiders and the need to unify to confront well-organised enemies.

If the census is carried out as planned, ethnic minorities will be pressured to declare themselves members of small, sub-ethnic groups, undermining established ethnic-minority political orders.  Section 61 (b) of the 2008 constitution stipulates that regional governments should be comprised of ethnic representatives, with ethnicities comprising 0.1 percent or more of the national population being granted access to the corridors to power.

If ethnic-minority political orders are forced to subdivide themselves in the manner called for in the census, it is likely this will drastically limit their ability to influence the government’s agenda, both regionally and nationally.

“Groups fear that if their communities are subdivided or misclassified, they may be denied that political representation,” the ICG report reads. “There is no possibility to report mixed ethnicity, forcing people into a single identity, to the potential disadvantage of some smaller groups.”

The sheer arbitrariness of the 135 listed ethnicities has raised hackles for other reasons. The Chin, for example, are subdivided into 53 distinct categories. Chin leaders have complained in recent months that many of these categories no longer exist, or are attached to other referents separate from “ethnicity,” such as clan or family affiliations.

Perhaps most worrying is the spectre of the census catalysing further anti-Muslim violence around the country. The 1983 census reported that 4 per cent of Myanmar’s population was Muslim, but that figure was almost certainly underreported for political reasons. Educated guesses put that figure around 10 per cent the country’s population today. If the current census reports this number accurately, Buddhist nationalists are likely to interpret it as a massive spike in the number of Muslims in Myanmar.

There is an unnervingly common belief across Myanmar that Muslims are growing disproportionately to the general population, and pose an existential threat to Buddhism. Although there is no empirical evidence to back up this assertion, the ostensible sudden appearance of millions of Muslims in the official numbers is likely to provoke a violent backlash.

To allay some of these fears, the UNPFA re-structured sections of the census form relating to ethnicity, allowing for individuals to “write in” ethnicities of their own choosing if they do not feel they fit into any one of the established 135, and will allow the declaration multiple ethnic identities.

“The Government has assured UNFPA that international norms and standards will continue to be upheld in the next stages of the census,” Janet Jackson, the head of UNPFA in Myanmar, told the press last month. “Enumerators are trained to ensure that you will have this chance.”

Ethnic-minority leaders claim that they have not been given adequate time or opportunities to educate communities about the political importance of maintaining pan-ethnic unity.

But some ethnic leaders have relented, and have accepted the government’s census plan. Prominently, the Chin National Action Committee recently inked a deal with Myanmar’s immigration minister to re-assess the bounds of ethnic classification after the census data is collected. Whether the government will subsequently allow ethnic minority groups to unify politically after the census results are collected, however, remains to be seen.

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