For a long time, many in Myanmar have held two affiliations – what it says on their national registration cards and what it says in their hearts. They’re hoping the 2014 census can help change that.

As with ethnic groups nationwide, Mandalay Region’s minorities see the census as not just about their status as citizens.They say it’s more about recognition of their ethnic identity and the way in which the rest of the country interacts with them.

U Thu Ohn, chair of the city’s Meithei Chin Affairs Association, said his association had encouraged members of their ethnic group – which has the census code 402, for Meitei – to “proudly” count themselves as a subsection of the Chin people rather than as part of the Bamar majority.

Although they are considered a Chin sub-group, most Meithei Kathe reside in other parts of the country, particularly Mandalay. Originally from Manipur – now part of India but at one time a province controlled by Burmese kings – they were brought back to central Myanmar as prisoners, and served as horsemen in the army, craftsmen and astrologers.

More than 6000 Meithei, or Meithei Kathe, were listed in the 1931 census, and in the 1982 census, Kathe were considered part of the Chin ethnic group. While U Thu Ohn estimates there are more than 4000 Kathe now, many are not recognised as such on their identification, particularly those living outside Chin State. He said he hoped that listing themselves under their “real race” would help to clear up confusion about where exactly the Meithei Kathe people reside.

“When officials talked to southern Chin ethnic groups they said that Meithei Kathe were not found there. But a chairperson had heard that Kathe are in Mandalay and contacted me to check whether his information was right or wrong. I told him, ‘Yes’.”

Daw Nweni Hlaing, a member of Mandalay University’s history department who is of Meithei Chin ethnicity, said she had discussed the Meithei people in meetings with Chin leaders. These meetings had been positive in terms of building connections between the Meithei and their Chin brethren, she said.

Ensuring that the Meithei Kathe are recognised as Chin is important for their identity and to “pay homage to our ancestors, said Daw Nweni Hlaing, who has written a history of the Meithei.

While they live in Mandalay, “our language, tradition and lifestyle are the same as Chin ethnics”.

Despite her allegiance, her NRC currently lists her as a Bamar Buddhist. She says she identified as Meithei when answering the current census but responded as Buddhist. “We revere traditional [nat] spirits and Buddha, as well as believing in Hinduism.”

U Thu Ohn said he hoped that greater recognition would ease Kathe integration into non-Chin surroundings.

“People from upper Sagaing show they are Kathe in their NRCs [national registration cards]. And as they live together with Chin ethnic people, there is no problem for them.”

Not so with those in Mandalay Region, he said: While most are listed as Bamar, the paper doesn’t change the reality. And it’s causing problems for those who judge them by appearance and assume they must be of foreign extraction instead of being born and raised in Myanmar for generations.

“Although we were initially allowed to list Myanmar race and Buddhist religion on our national registration cards, related departments later told us we look Indian or Chinese and told us to identify our real race as related to our features,” said U Thu Ohn. “If we can show our real ethnic identity, we will never face these kinds of problems again.”

U Thu Ohn told The Myanmar Times that ethnic identity is “important” to those in his organisation, and he fears that if they do not register themselves properly in sufficient numbers they will lose official recognition.

“If there are not enough people to be designated an ethnic group after the census collection process, [our ethnic group] will be removed from the ethnic identity list. We can’t accept this happening because our ethnic group is here for real.”

So far, U Thu Ohn added, counts had been “successful” in his ward – just under 250,000 households were counted on March 31 and 31, according to reports in the state-run Mirror newspaper on April 4 – and he said he looked forward to a better future because of it.

“Under this new government, I will hold an NRC showing my real ethnicity,” he said.

While Kathe people with distinctive features found they were being distinguished as non-Bamar, those of other ethnic groups say they sometimes struggle to be recognised as members of their ethnic groups or faiths.

Pathi Muslim Ko Zaw Min Tun, founder of Hteik Tan education service, said that those without features suggesting mixed-race heritage were not being asked about their faith or ethnic identity by census enumerators, who assume they are Bamar Buddhists.

“One of my friend’s families in Kyaukse was not asked their religion and race because their appearance does not look [mixed],” he said. “They then told the census collector about their ethnicity. They said four or five households faced the same.”

He said this made some of Muslim faith suspicious. “The [government] tried to spread public awareness about the census, but they didn’t reach everyone,” he said.

Some see the census as an opportunity to improve relations between Muslims and Buddhists, however.

U Khin Maung Htwe, a cardiologist, has identified himself as an ethnically Bamar Muslim in the past. To his family’s surprise, however, he gave his ethnic identity as Pathi instead, marking the “914” category for “other”, or non-recognised, ethnic groups. He hasn’t changed his background or his beliefs; he just thinks that a new Myanmar Muslim identity is called for in 2014 – and inspiration for his choice comes from 1000 years back.

“In the reign of the Bagan kings,” he said, “Myanmar people who believed in Islam were identified as Pathi, and the king appointed a head of Pathi religion at that time.”

Today, however, Pathi is not recognised as an official ethnic group – just as the Chinese Muslim Panthay community is not recognised, as The Myanmar Times has previously reported.

U Khin Maung Htwe said the influence of integrationist Muslim politician and national martyr U Razak, who was assassinated with General Aung San in 1947, may have inspired Muslims to consider themselves ethnically Bamar. He said it was an approach that worked “in his time” but is no longer ideal.

“We identified as Bamar in the time of U Razak because we believed in his dignity as a politician and educationalist when he said that Muslims must be the same as Buddhists. Everything was convenient until 1990 for minority Muslims although they identified as Bamar.”

In 1990, a policy change at the Immigration Department meant that Muslims were no longer permitted to identify as Bamar. Integration, he said, meant many Muslims weren’t counted as such and since then have been excluded from the national identity. “Subsequently, most people have said there are no Myanmar people who believe in Islam. Even the Ministry of Immigration and Population speaks like that.”

After misplacing his NRC in Yangon, he said, he was issued a replacement that identified him as Indian Myanmar.

“We now need to try to make the formerly used ethnic group name Pathi reappear because during this time it is not possible to identify as Myanmar Muslim.”

He said past experiences like this have led him to keep an eye on how his data is processed. While enumerators have been asking households to pre-fill some information on a separate form that they can then enter onto official documentation, U Khin Maung Htwe said he had asked them to do it in his presence because he was “suspicious” about whether they would fill it accurately.

“[Enumerators] left a form for me to complete and send back to the ward administration office. I completed it but didn’t send it back because I’d like to see [how they fill it out].”

For all his skepticism about the process, however, U Khin Maung Htwe said his desire to identify himself as Pathi did not mean he was less of a Myanmar citizen, or that the blood flowing in his body was not Bamar.

“I never stay silent when someone insults Myanmar. I am always trying hard to be a good citizen and a good civil servant.”

Translation by Thiri Min Htun