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Myanmar looking for trouble with census

Questions about contentious issues such as citizenship could intensify racial conflict, spur more intercommunal strife

One has to wonder what Myanmar is really up to with its plan to carry out a nationwide census knowing that such a move risks inflaming communal violence and religious tension at a critical time.

The country is going through a peace process with armed ethnic groups and democratic transition and carrying out a census with questions that are contentious could put these initiatives in jeopardy.

Fears that the census may be a possible flash point were raised by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), but concern has been voiced repeatedly by the international community about violence directed at Muslims, as well as the shaky peace initiatives with armed ethnic groups.

Unfortunately, the leadership in Nay Pyi Taw decided to turn a deaf ear to these concerns and stated that the census planned for late next month to early April will go ahead, as scheduled.

Yes, a census is a good thing for national planning and development, if managed with sensitivity. But the leaders in Myanmar need to ponder the possible negative consequences of asking questions at this point in time about ethnicity, citizenship, race relations, communal violence and stateless people, like the Rohingya, who the Myanmar authorities insist on calling "Bengali" to try to minimise any link to areas where they live in Rakhine state and areas along the country's western border.

ICG said the census, which is being assisted by the United Nations Population Fund, was "ill-advised" and "fraught with danger", because of the possibility that it could fuel ethnic tensions.

"A postponement by the government, United Nations and donors can demonstrate that they are sensitive to the serious risks presented by the census as currently conceived, and that they are willing to respond to the deep reservations expressed by many important groups in the country," the ICG said.

The most disturbing point about the upcoming census is that it is based on the much criticised classification list of 135 ethnic groups that was drawn up in the early 1980s.

Some of these groups, like the Chin and its numerous sub-groups, for example, are pretty much based on the locality of their respective villages but have no anthropological basis in ethno-linguistic terms.

Myanmar should proceed only in areas with little political risk or ethnic tension, or limit the census to key demographic questions, such as age, sex and marital status.

Instead of doing something that may exacerbate intercommunal relations, which are already tense, perhaps Myanmar's leaders should think about doing more in terms of promoting racial harmony. They need to stop turning a blind eye to the anti-Muslim campaign that has begun to move dangerously toward being ethnic cleansing.

Another sad reality is that rights defenders who flourished during the oppressive years when the Myanmar military was gunning people down and chasing opponents out of the cities and into the jungle, seem to be less vocal about violence against Muslims and the Rohingya.

Whatever happened to that passion and plea for the sake of humanity and the greater good of mankind? The world likes to believe that it meant something and that something was universal.


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