Myanmar’s Controversial Census

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Myanmar’s Controversial Census

Rights groups are outraged that the census has failed to recognize an oppressed minority.

Myanmar’s Controversial Census
Credit: REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

Provisional results from Myanmar’s first census in 30 years released over the weekend show that the country has nearly 9 million fewer people in it than originally thought, as rights groups decry the absence of data recognizing its oppressed Muslim Rohingya population.

According to the provisional results, Myanmar now has a population of 51.41 million, falling short of the estimated 60 million previously believed to be living in the country that was once all but closed off to the world.

Though rights groups consider the $50 million census largely successful, they have also criticized it for not being in line with international standards, as Rohingya Muslims were not included in the list of 135 official ethnic groups in Myanmar, a sign that the country has no intension of recognizing them as citizens.

“The exclusion of the Rohingya from the census was a betrayal of the very principles and purpose of conducting the census, and the international donors and UN agencies who were involved are complicit in this exclusion,” David Mathieson, senior researcher on Myanmar for Human Rights Watch, told The Diplomat by e-mail.

“The Rohingya have the right to self-identify and should be accorded the rights of citizens. The census [in] refusing to do so doesn’t solve the problem of stateless Rohingya, it exacerbates it and the government shouldn’t be caving to extremists and their racist agendas,” he said. “All the people living in Arakan [Rakhine State] should have been counted, and those people who self-identify as Rohingya and can prove eligibility should be granted citizenship.”

Where the provisional census data gives a sense of Myanmar’s long unknown population, it also omitted key indicators, including the total composition of the ethnic groups that live in it, choosing instead to release such data in May of next year, around the time of the next general elections.

“There are still concerns that ethnicity data being released around the elections could spark communal violence,” said Mathieson.

Myanmar’s Minister of Immigration and Population U Khin Ye said during a press conference announcing the preliminary results on August 30 that the Rohingya were not counted as Rohingya based on a technicality, while an official copy of the provisional results defended the action as a security measure to avoid the possibility of violence due to inter-communal tensions.

“They are holding household cards stating that they are Bengali [a term considered derogatory for Rohingya] even though they self-identified themselves to be Rohingya, which is not allowed, so we did not accept that and instead classified them as ‘unidentified,” the minister said.

Rights groups have pegged the number of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar to be at about 800,000.

The census, which was conducted by the Ministry of Immigration and Population with the help of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), shows that a total of 50.21 million people were counted during the 12-day mission, which started on March 30. An additional 1.20 million people embedded within conflict areas in Rakhine, Kayin and Kachin States were meanwhile said to be inaccessible to the census mission, though they were counted based on a pre-census mapping of households by immigration officers.

Aside from the shortfall in the number representing the total population, the census also shows that the average number of people per household is lower than expected at 4.4, while women outnumber men by nearly 2 million.

To achieve the figures, 115,000 enumerators were dispatched to survey nearly 11 million homes, according to the UNFPA.

Still, the official provisional census results show that some parts of Kachin State controlled by the rebel Kachin Independence Organisation were not enumerated, while enumerators in Rakhine State were unable to access some Rohingya villages and camps.

“In Kachin State, the non-state armed group, Kachin Independent Organization (KIO) did not allow enumerators to count people in villages situated in the areas they occupy. This was despite negotiations between the government and their leaders,” the provisional census data states, adding that 97 villages were not counted there.

Areas within Kachin and Rakhine States comprise some of the final holding grounds of ethnic rebel groups who have taken up arms against the government, which has long been dominated by the country’s ethnic Burman majority, since the country gained independence in 1948.

In Kachin State alone, the number of civilians displaced by conflict number approximately 120,000 since 2011, when a 17-year-old ceasefire between the government and the rebel Kachin Independence Army collapsed.

Even with the release of more reliable population data, some experts said that it is unlikely they will have much of an impact on economic activity as much of the statistics that comprise what is known of Myanmar are still largely unreliable.

“The numbers were always dodgy. Indeed, they remain so. The population number is just the denominator of the per capita GDP [gross domestic product] equation. The numerator — the estimates of aggregate GDP — has no more credibility,” said Sean Turnell, an expert on the economy of Myanmar at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.

Not everybody agrees however.

“One of the fine points to be taken from the census is that Myanmar’s consumer market has now shrunk from 60 million to 51 million, which is not much when compared to other Asian countries, but the figure shows outside businesses that Myanmar is quite an attractive place to invest, said Aung Thura, CEO at capital market and research firm Thura Swiss.

“As an economy, we can still see that Myanmar has the same production capacity and the same purchasing power, but now that the number of people has changed, you would also have to readapt estimates when calculating consumer income,” he said.

Despite the drawbacks, the UNFPA considers the census to a triumph as it represents the most accurate population data released on Myanmar since the last census was conducted in 1983.

“The census is a valuable national resource,” Janet Jackson, the UNFPA’s representative in Myanmar, said during a press conference on August 30. “For the first time in decades, the country will have data it needs to put roads, schools, health facilities and other essential infrastructure where people need them most.”

The data also gives a clearer picture of the population density of Myanmar’s largest cities. According to the census, Yangon has 5.20 million residents, more than four times the population of the country’s second biggest city, Mandalay. Myanmar’s capital of Naypyidaw meanwhile has 1.15 million inhabitants. Of the total population, 29.6 percent are said to be living in urban areas.

“These preliminary data reveal that Myanmar’s cities are becoming denser. They are also expanding quickly, with many living along the edges of cities that have grown without any planning whatsoever,” said Jackson.

Philip Heijmans is a Yangon-based journalist.