Myanmar’s National Census: Fuelling Ethnic Crises

18 Jun, 2014    ·   4522

Aparupa Bhattacherjee argues that Myanmar's national census process, in its current form, will lead to darker days for the country's socio-political fabric

Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Research Officer
The nationwide census that was carried out from March to May 2014 in Myanmar was an essential step in the country’s preparation for the 2015 general elections. The previous census was held 31 years ago in 1983, under the military junta government. Thus, a new census was essential. However, the census-conducting process and the subsequent results may lead to the already volatile social situation in Myanmar flaring up. The census process has therefore led to severe criticism of the government both from within and outside the country.

Why is Myanmar’s 2014 census controversial? Why is the process aggravating existing tensions in the country’s society?

The Ethno-linguistic Mosaic of Myanmar's Society
The Myanmarese society is divided into several ethnic and linguistic groups. Some ethnic groups belong to specific regions – such as the Shan community of the Shan province, the Kachin community of Kachin province, and the Karen community of Karen province, to name a few. These people are therefore referred to as taingyinthar (literally sons of the geographical division) in the Burmese language. These groups are further divided into several other sub-groups. Sub-divisions exist on the basis of clans, villages, languages, religious groups, and other criteria.  As a result, there are several individuals who identify themselves with more than one identity. For instance, an ethnic Kachin can also be a ’Maru’ or ’Rawang’ choosing their church groups.

Furthermore, internal migration and inter-ethnic marriages have resulted in the blending of several ethnic identities. Such a mix has led to the formation of perceived identities. An ethnic a Karen by birth might not identify himself/herself as Karen but with the identity that the person has gained through marriage/residence in a region for a long time – generating a perceived identity. Children born of alliance between people from two different ethnic groups might identify themselves with both the ethnic groups, and or to the region they have settled in.

The Census Fuel to the Ethnic Fire
The 2014 census has either failed to recognise the complexity of the ethno-linguistic fabric of the Myanmarese society or has tried to oversimplify it. The census form allows a person to choose only one ethnic identity. This has invited confusion and anger among the citizenry due to the aforementioned reasons. This issue will have political implications, given how many supporters of ethnic political parties might choose their sub-groups instead of their overarching ethnic identity in the forms. This will affect the strength of the ethnicity-based political parties.

Furthermore, the 2014 census form, like the one in 1983, identifies 135 taingyinthar ethnic groups; and each group is further divided into different categories.  However, different ethnic groups with no connections have carelessly been clubbed together under one ethnic group. For example, several groups in Shan provinces – such as the Palaung, Lahu and Intha – are listed as sub-groups of the Shan ethnic group; but they are neither similar to the Shan group not to each other. This carelessness has agitated the ethnic groups.

Additionally, the ongoing conflict in Kachin and Shan provinces has disallowed the census from being conducted in the whole of the former, and parts of the latter. The conflict between the Kachin Independence Army and the Tatmadaw has resulted in some residents migrating to China and some having to shift to Internally Displaced People’s (IDP) camps. This hence fuels fears that that the census will be unfair. This has also been inferred as ploy by the government that comprises mainly of ethnic Barmars to misrepresent percentage of the minorities.  This will also lead to the over-representation of the Barmars who are already the majority 60 per cent (according to the previous census) and the under-representation of those ethnic groups whose members have either migrated to neighbouring countries or settled in the IDP camps.

Several non-ethnic groups in Myanmar, such as the Panthay Muslims, Gurkhas, people of Indian origin, and those others who have lived in the country for centuries and are in large numbers, did not find a mention in the form. They had to register themselves either in the ‘others’ category or according to the country of their origin – thus angering these groups. The situation is the same for the Rohingyas. Earlier, in March, Naypyidaw announced the prohibition on using the term ‘Rohingya’ and made them register as ‘Bengalis’ in the census form. This action not only denied the Rohingyas their identity but also ratified the Buddhist radicals’ demand that the term Rohingya should not be included in the census form.

Ominous Implications
The census result that is scheduled to be declared in early 2015 might lead to the further violence. According to the previous census, there were only four per cent Muslims in Myanmar, and any increase in this percentage may lead to escalation of violence by Buddhist radicals.  Moreover, the result may also highlight the gradual process of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people. A national census is essential for the comprehensive development of every country. However, in Myanmar, it appears to be ringing the warning bells.