Mon 24 Mar 2014
Filed under: Ethnic Issues,Inside Burma,News
Tensions are increasing between the government and various ethnic minorities in the build up to the 2014 national census, soon to be held between March 30 and April 10.
This will be the first official population census in Myanmar in over 30 years. Despite it being hailed as an important step in the reform process, ethnic minorities have been protesting the Central Census Commission’s use of out-dated ethnic names and groupings. This has led to growing mistrust and suspicions that the government is using the census for political ends.
“As for me, I believe that the census is politics,” said Salai Issac Khin, from the Chin National Action Committee on Census (CNACC).
“Taking a look at the examples of other countries, the 2014 nation-wide census process may have an impact on the country’s politics. As a matter of fact, the commission’s disclosure of 53 Chin nationals is totally wrong. We oppose 41 questions even though the process is aimed at knowing the actual facts and figures on social and economic grounds. And we feel very anxious that these facts and figures collected might be used for the government’s political gains,” he added.
In a joint statement, ethnic organisations demanded for a meeting between the government and ethnic representatives, as well as to postpone the census, and to include ethnic representatives in the collection of census data to ensure transparency.
The Central Census Commission, led by Minister of Immigration and Population U Khin Yi, recently discussed the upcoming census with representatives from ten ‘national races’ in the capital Nay Pyi Taw. At the meeting, they agreed to go ahead and amend the errors only after the completion of process.
Despite the assurances, there continues to be widespread criticism over the commission’s handling of requests made by ethnic groups.
Many have voiced strong disagreement with the 41 questions included in the census, which misspell and wrongly designate ethnic groups and sub groups into 135 officially approved ‘ethnic races’.
Some ethnic groups, such as the Kachin, have voiced concerns that the census will only increase tensions between the government and ethnic armed groups and have urged that the census be postponed until a ceasefire is in place.
The Chin have also protested the commission’s inclusion of 52 groups under the title of “Chin national races” — a number they say that does not represent the social and cultural reality of the area.
The Ministry of Immigration and Population announced that the information collected from the censuses will be used to implement government policies. But ethnic groups are worried that the information will be used for political advantages and have repeatedly called for a meeting to discuss the process and iron out differences.
“It is not appropriate time to collect the census, and there are code name errors. The census-taking process should be only after heads of all national races hold a meeting,” said Daw Khun Jar from the Kachin Peace Network
In western Myanmar, some Rakhine communities have expressed their worry that the census will legitimise the Muslim Rohingya minority, who have been facing persecution as they are not officially recognised by the government. In Myanmar, the group are known officially as ‘Bengali’ and many consider them to be illegal immigrants.
Rakhine social and political organisations asked the government not to use the term ‘Rohingya’ in the census but there has been no reply from according to San Hla Kyaw, vice-chairperson of the Rakhine Literature and Culture Association. He added that if a specific answer was not forthcoming, all Rakhine groups will boycott the census.
Tin Ngwe, a member of the Kaman Social Welfare Association, even ventured to question whether the government was playing various communities against each other.
“The government needs to be decisive and the legislation must be strong enough and rule of law. And I wonder if the government is trying to play this issue of two communities (Rakhine and Bengali) for the upcoming 2015 election,” he said.
The largest ethnic minority in Myanmar is the Kayin, more widely recognised as Karen, and various organisations have protested the census’ inclusion of the former, Burman spelling of their name.
“National census is an essential issue. Regarding the ethnic groups should be taken as soon as possible. I mean 135 ethnic groups is a wrong figure. We demand to reconsider the figure by discussing with the ethnic leaders although the government said they will do it after the census. There are some missing Kayin sub-tribes in the list while some currently revealed in the list are not really existed,” said Nan Su Su Hlaing from the association of Kayin Women.
Mon, Kayah and Shan ethnic communities also pointed out incorrect naming of their ethnic groups. Naga, Pa-ai, and Zome ethnic groups pointed out that they have their own literature, culture and history like other ethnic groups, although the census only recognises them as sub-groups.
In making the list of ethnic people residing in Myanmar, the Immigration Department has said that statistics were originally collected in 1931, during British colonial era, then again in 1953-54 after independence, and in 1961 under the new military regime.
In the past, only 120 national races were recognised but the figure has now been increased to 135 because of more substantial data.
In protest, some ethnic groups have formed committees to carry out their own internal census and collect their own data after asking the government to correct the spelling of names on identity cards and in the national census.