Tue 25 Mar 2014
Filed under: Ethnic Issues,Human Rights,Opinion
IT seemed like a good idea at the time. Among the many things Myanmar lacks after half a century of military dictatorship are data, of any sort. For a new government managing the transition to democracy, basic facts about the country are essential. Hence, a census. There has not been one in Myanmar since 1983, and it is a normal step in the economic development of any poverty-stricken country.
But however well-intentioned, the census has provoked a political crisis at a time when the country can ill afford one. The questions stray beyond the collection of run-of-the-mill data—household incomes and the like—into the minefields of race and religion. These are extremely sensitive issues in a diverse country with a long history of ethnic conflict. Sensitivities are particularly acute at a time when relations between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority have been scarred by serious violence.
Among the 41 questions that the 100,000 or so census-takers, mostly young school-teachers, have to ask every household in Myanmar is one on race. But respondents can only choose from an anachronistic, inaccurate and divisive list of 135 ethnic groups. The list reinforces the impression of a government that represents only the ethnic-Burman majority. Myanmar’s government has been at war for decades with most of the country’s ethnic minorities, which make up about 40% of the country’s population.
There was virtually no consultation with groups such as the Karen, Shan and Chin in drawing up the list. If the authorities had asked them, argues Cheery Zahao, an ethnic-Chin human-rights activist, they might have realised how inaccurate and insulting the categories are. There are 53 Chin subgroups on the list, for instance, many of which the Chin themselves do not acknowledge, raising old suspicions that the census results will be used by the Burmans to keep the Chin politically divided and thus weaker. Moreover, the Chin list includes groups that are not Chin at all, such as the Naga and Meithei. Both of these are separate minorities that live in Chin state in Myanmar, though most of their ethnic kin live over the border in India.
The categories do not acknowledge the millions of mixed-race people or people of South Asian descent. Respondents are free to define their own ethnicity, but people are fearful that if they do enter a category that is not on the list of prescribed “nationalities”, they will be classed as foreigners. Consequently, says Ms Cheery Zahau, “most people don’t trust the process.”
Indeed, the census has deepened a sense of suspicion just as the government wants to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement with Myanmar’s armed ethnic groups and their political representatives. The census, and the way it has been conducted, looks like the work of a government that cannot throw off the shackles of its old, authoritarian ways.
In particular, the census has sparked further tension in Rakhine state, in the west, scene of sectarian violence between the Buddhist—ethnic Rakhine—majority and the Muslim Rohingya minority. Hundreds were killed in 2012 as Sittwe and other towns were ethnically cleansed of Rohingyas; about 140,000 of those displaced now live in refugee camps near the coast.
On March 16th Rakhine mobs protested across the state, egged on by Wirathu, a Buddhist-chauvinist monk. They demanded that the census be stopped or changed. The Rakhine do not want the Rohingyas to be able to define their ethnicity. They fear this will confer the status of a separate group, boost their numbers (by encouraging illegal immigration from Bangladesh) and help them win some rights.
The Rakhine mobs may yet get their way, which would make a flawed census even worse. There are also fears of a backlash from Buddhist nationalists, should the census show, as many think it will, that the Muslim population is more than double the official estimate of 4m (out of a population of 60m). Sensible though it seemed at the time, a census is something Myanmar could do without.