07 Apr A flawed exercise: Myanmar’s ill-timed census

Written by Larry Jagan Published in Analysis Read 15511 times

Throughout Myanmar, thousands of government teachers have been fanning out across the country, armed with census questionnaires and visiting every household and completing the forms. They will continue to do this until April 10. They hope to visit the country’s estimated 12 million households. But there are regions – in Kachin and Kayin states and in the Wa region of Shan State –- where census counting has been prohibited by the local ethnic leaders.

The validity of the census has also been thrown into doubt by the government’s decision to ban the Rohinyga from identifying themselves as such.

“It will be acceptable if they use ‘Bengali’; we won’t accept them if they write ‘Rohingya,’ presidential spokesperson U Ye Htut said the day before the census began on March 30. The government refers to the Rohingya as Bengalis because it regards most of them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

The issue of ethnicity, though, is only one of the concerns many Myanmar specialists share about the current census.

It is the first census in Myanmar in 31 years. The data gathered during the exercise is crucial for national planning and development and to provide an accurate population figure for Myanmar. The UN’s population agency, UNFPA,has provided technical assistance to the government on the census and is providing much of the financial support for the exercise.

But it is probably one of the last things the country needs at the moment; it’s already proving to be divisive and disruptive. Many from civil society and the country’s ethnic groups have called for it to be postponed. They have also complained that the promised consultative process did not take place.

“It’s absurd to do this when the country is in the midst of a complicated transition, with a delicately balanced peace process and elections coming up that will redefine the political landscape,” Charles Petrie, a former head of the UN in Myanmar who was forced to leave the country in 2007 and is heavily involved in the country’s peace process, told me.

“But the census is a reality; it is a reality that has to be managed both in terms of its rollout, but also its possible implications to the political transition and the ceasefires,” Mr Petrie said. “So the census has to succeed; the implications of it going wrong are too dramatic to consider,” he said.

In reality it is still possible to go badly wrong and may even cause further violence.

“The census should be a tool for empowerment, not marginalisation,” said U Myo Win,who heads the Yangon-based educational NGO,Smile. “In Myanmar, it could be a tool for both,” he added. “But now it only risks more violence.”

The lack of accurate population data has been lamented by academics, aid workers, donors and the UN for years – but has not prevented economic development or the astounding reform process of President U TheinSein’s government.

“Accurate information on the social, economic and demographic characteristics of people and households is critical to development planning and good governance,” said William Ryan, UNFPA’s Bangkok-based regional communications advisor.

“Census data can help policymakers to plan for future schools, health facilities, roads, urban infrastructure and more. It can help reduce poverty by identifying disadvantaged communities and gaps in services, and it can strengthen local communities and help foster participation in decision-making,” Mr Ryan said.

Myanmar experts though, while not disputing the need for such information, feel the timing is inappropriate, many of the questions insensitive and the process flawed.

“At this stage of Myanmar's economic reform process, at this level of detail, and at this time of heightened ethnic and religious tension, the census is an unnecessary and dangerous distraction,” said Sean Turnell, a specialist on the Myanmar economy at Sydney’s Macquarie University.

But successive previous Myanmar governments believed it was in their interests to keep the country’s population statistics secret, or at least, opaque. So what’s changed: the promise of lots of money from donors now, and in the future, has seduced the politicians and bureaucrats in Nay Pyi Taw alike. About US$74 million is being spent on the census: the Myanmar government, to show its good faith, has promised to contribute $15 million.

“Imagine what this expenditure in health and education could immediately produce to benefit the people of Myanmar,” said Kachin activistDawLahpaiSeng Rau, former head of the Metta Foundation and a 2011 Magsaysay Award winner. What is worse is that millions of dollars was spent overseas so will not help create jobs or income inside Myanmar. The census questionnaires are understood to have been printed by a British company at a cost of millions of dollars.

The idea of the census seems to have emerged some four years ago, say UN sources. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon supported the idea and promoted the census when he visited Myanmar in mid-2012. The United Nations promised to provide technical support and financial assistance in an agreement authorised during his trip and subsequently signed by Vijay Nambiar, the UN Secretary-General’s special adviser on Myanmar.

Since then the UN has single-mindedly promoted the idea, dismissing stark warnings from consultants and others and putting its head in the sand when the dangers were raised. It’s understood that the questions for the census were drafted in September 2012 with only UN agencies present. “It’s designed to make UN agencies lives easier,” said a UN source who was not authorised to speak on the record. “It’s a typical UN approach constantly used in consolidated appeals; every agency – even the smallest – wants their say,” he added.

It is all related to the Millennium Development Goals– the UN’s eight minimum development goals that are targeted to be achieved by the end of next year – rather than the priorities and needs of the Myanmar Government.

In fact the census – with its 41 questions – is mainly in the interests of the UN and donors rather than the Myanmar government. Its unnecessary questions seek information ranging from car ownership and energy sources used for lighting. That is not to say that accurate figures for a host of development areas that the questionnaire covers are not important. But the census should have been conducted at a more appropriate time – when the answers would accurately reflect reality.

“Many of the queries translate poorly into Burmese,” said David Steinberg, a Myanmar specialistat Georgetown University in Washington. “Can anyone reasonably expect the 1000,000 enumerators to be sufficiently trained to ask and record such complicated data across more than ten million households?” he said.

UNFPA disputes this. “Training was given on inter-personal and communication skills, interviewing skills, map reading, why each question is important and filling-in the questionnaire,” the UNFPA said in response to an email enquiry. “They [enumerators] are trained to write responses as given by respondents. There are field instruction manuals that detail all the processes and how to fill in the question. The training period was five days,” UNFPA said.

The ethnic rebel groups which have raised objections to the census, such as the Kachin Independence Organisation and the Karen National Union, have been at pains to stress that they are not opposed to the exercise but to its timing.

“The KIO is not opposing the idea of the census collection, only the timing,” said the KIO’s deputy foreign affairs chief, Gawlu La Awng, adding that there should have been more prior consultation. “There is also a lot of confusion and disagreement amongst the ethnic groups and within the Kachin over the collection method and procedures,” Gawlu La Awng said.

The armed ethnic groups have been concerned that the continuing fighting with government forces in their areaswould make conducting the census dangerous and impossible. “The census will not be carried out in KIO-controlled areas as it’s not appropriate to do so while the armed conflict is still ongoing,” said Gawlu La Awng. ?Some other armed ethnic groups are of the same opinion. The KNU will also only allow limited census collection in areas under its control.

But more generally the census, with its questions on citizenship, ethnicity and religion are causing widespread resentment, misunderstanding and mistrust and the census exercise risks fracturing the fragile peace process.

“The census is threatening to destroy the very peace we’ve all been working for,” said DawLahpaiSeng Rau. “It’s senseless – and should have waited until the ceasefires and the framework for political dialogue were in place.”    

“Providing accurate data, including on current religious practice and ethnicity, can help to end speculation and rumours,” said UNFPA’s country representative in Myanmar, Janet Jackson. “This information can help efforts to promote inclusiveness and reconciliation which underpin the reform effort,” Ms Jackson said.

But a crucial question that both the government and the UN have completely ducked, is how the data gathered in the census will provide an accurate picture of the state of the nation when many citizens are wary of answering census questions truthfully.

“No one will provide accurate answers, as they don’t trust government officials and the military,” said U Win No, 70, a retired civil servant, who was involved in Myanmar’s last census. “The whole exercise will be bogus, with fearful people still under the old military mind-set, filling in the forms as the authorities expect, rather than truthfully.”

The advertising campaign and posters plastered in some cities – urging people to participate in the census – and the radio and TV announcements,have been dismissed by some distrustful citizensas government propaganda. And not all citizens are persuaded that the census is a worthy exercises.

Even the leader of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, U KhunHtunOo, told me he felt there was a hidden agenda behind the census, though he didn’t know what. “We must fill in the census – and we’re already doing it in Shan State. If we don’t we’ll lose our ethnic status and become stateless,” he said, adding that a fear factor would compel people to participate in the census.

“It’s our tradition in Myanmar to quietly disobey government and military instructions if we don’t agree with them, rather than openly protest,” said DawLahpaiSeng Rau. “And I just wont fill in answers to any questions that I don’t like,” she added.

Many of the census questions – such as income and property ownership – are more sensitive in Myanmar than they would be in many other countries and would alarm some respondents, said National League for Democracy spokesman, U Nyan Win, adding that no one would believe that such questions were not for taxation purposes.

“Nothing is confidential in Myanmar,” he said.

The question about religion will prove to be contentious throughout the country, said U Myo Win, a Muslim. Most Muslims would not appreciate representatives of the state entering their homes and asking about their religion, he said.

“I think religion is a spiritual issue,” he said. “We don’t need to mention it to strangers. They shouldn’t list our race and religion. That’s not democratic. It’s discrimination.”

“We live under a hidden apartheid policy,” U Myo Win said. “We don’t trust people who want to know who’s Muslim and where we live. So many of us are afraid to even say we’re Muslim for our own security.

If the questionable validity of the census was not enough, there is a danger it could further exacerbate communal tensions in northern Rakhine State, where the mainly stateless Rohingya are concentrated.
There is a risk that government’s insistence the Rohingya be described as Bengalis could further stir communal passions in the state.

Even the head of a recent government enquiry into the alleged deaths of Rohingya at Du CheeYar Tan village in Rakhine State admitted that there was deep mistrust between the two communities. “It’s still very volatile in Arakan, where a small incident can trigger a major riot,” U Kyaw Yin Hlaing told a seminar in Bangkok last month.

The fact that ‘Rohingya’ is not on the government’s officially accepted list of 135 ethnic groups has resulted in the census falling short of international standards, despite UNFPA’s insistence to the contrary.

“The census gives all individuals the right to choose their own answers to questions, including choosing their own ethnicity,” the UN agency said in an email. “If not in the list of 135, individuals can describe their own ethnicity under a separate option for ‘other’.  The right to self-identify is a human right and has been included in many countries as part of international practice,” it said.

Human rights activist believe this was never the intention of the Myanmar government. “One of the most fundamental ways that the government institutionalises its pervasive discrimination against the Rohingya is by excluding them from the so-called list of ethnic races of Burma – which is akin to both denying their identity and blocking them from any realistic shot at acquiring citizenship,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy director, Asia division, of US-based Human Rights Watch, “It's nothing less than a complete denial of their rights,” Mr Robertson said.

In the end the census may prove to have been pointless and a waste of money. Lessons have not been learned from the past. The recent attempts to complete a census in Afghanistan failed because of the security situation – with the UN and donors losing millions of dollars.

Then there was the Nigerian example, when the government decided it didn’t like the outcome and cancelled the provisional results of a census in 1975. What made the 1973 census volatile was the fact that it was part of a transition plan by the military to hand over power to civilians. But the provisional figures showed an increase in population in the former Northern Region, which raised traditional fears of domination and threatened the stability of the newly formed federation.

“All that Myanmar needs at this point is basic demographic data population size and distribution,” said Professor Steinberg. “Whatever the results, they will be disputed internally and externally, with a certain loss of regime credibility,” he wrote in a recent commentary for the Nikkei Asian Review.