Myanmar's ongoing census - the first since 1983 - could lead to dramatic revisions in the way the diverse and multi-ethnic country and its economy are analysed, and resources allocated.
The 12-day, US$75-million (Bt2.4 billion) exercise involving 120,000 or so census workers spread out across the country and going door-to-door with a 41-item questionnaire began nine days ago.
Policymakers have thus far been operating in what Myanmar scholar David Steinberg calls a “miasmal mist”.
The last comprehensive census was in 1931. The one in 1983 did not cover many areas where conflict raged between government troops and armed ethnic forces.
“Myanmar’s published population figures range from 48 million to 65 million. No one knows. In the past, statistics of all sorts were manipulated to suit the leadership’s desires,” Professor Steinberg wrote last month.
For instance, Myanmar government officials are hard-pressed to assess the impact of, say, a dam or a road project because they do not know how many people live in the area.
Of the current census, Khaing Khaing Soe, director of Myanmar’s department of population and a member of the Central Census Commission said: “It is very important for the government because they will use this census when they lay down their policy. When they undertake projects, they need to know the number of people in the project area.”
The questionnaire will yield basic data on things like birth and death rates, maternal mortality, household income, employment, sanitation and fuel sources.
“The most basic data is how many people there are in Myanmar; we really have no idea,” said Professor Sean Turnell, a specialist on Myanmar’s economy at Australia’s Macquarie University.
“We have been going on for 40 years about the lack of data on Myanmar,” he said. The numbers that emerge “might make nonsense of the per capita income figures we have”.
Professor Nicholas Farrelly, of Australian National University, who is currently doing research in Myanmar, said: “Across the gamut of Myanmar society, the information available to decision-makers is incomplete and inconsistent.”
The results of the census may even help decision-makers learn more precisely how many Myanmar people have left the country, he said.
“Such information could help a future government plan for the reintegration of Myanmar’s diaspora”, he added.
However, the census continues to be dogged by controversy. The United Nations Population Fund, which is helping Myanmar conduct the census, says it is “deeply concerned” that the government would leave out those in western Rakhine state who identify themselves as “Rohingya”.
This was a “departure from international census standards, human rights principles and agreed procedures”, the agency said.
The Rohingya are a heavily persecuted Muslim minority concentrated in Rakhine state – and widely regarded by local Buddhist Rakhines as illegal Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh out to grab land and Islamise the state.
The view is widely shared by Myanmar’s Buddhist Burman majority, and the term “Rohingya” is not recognised by the Myanmar government.
Media reports say census workers, who are accompanied by armed police, leave if a respondent says he or she is Rohingya.
In Myanmar’s eastern Kachin state, census workers are having difficulty negotiating access to areas controlled by the Kachin Independence Organisation, which could leave out several hundred thousand people.
Also remaining to be negotiated is access to some 130,000 Myanmar people of various ethnic groups living in refugee camps in Thailand. And some areas under the control of Karen armed groups are also not being covered.
“It is critical for this exercise to be depoliticised because it is about dividing up state resources,” Prof Turnell said. “These are areas that are already critically under-served. The big danger is the groups that need to be counted will continue to be under-represented.”
Yet any new and accurate data will be better than the assumptions most policy decisions are currently based on.
The process may not be elegant, said Prof Farrelly, but “even a partial set of data about these matters will be much better than what is available today”.
The results of the census will be made public in August, with details out early next year.