By ignoring more than one million Muslim Rohingya, the government is sowing the seeds for more bitter ethnic conflict
Myanmar’s government claims its first national census in three decades will bring about reconciliation in a country rife with religious and ethnic tensions. But the survey, which began on Sunday, appears more likely to intensify the divisions among communities.
Conducting a census is a normal process for any government. It provides vital demographic information on the size of the population, its different ethnic and religious groups, how they live and how well they live. States routinely use this information to provide more effective and efficient services to their citizens.
An accurate picture of the population is truly needed in Myanmar, which only recently emerged from decades of military rule and is undergoing a process of sweeping reform. Until now the government has had to rely on 30-year-old information from the last census, taken in 1983. The population is thought to total around 60 million, but the precise numbers and facts about their everyday lives are lacking.
However, many fear that the census’ omission of certain ethnic identities will inflame ethno-religious tensions.
The Muslim Rohingya, for example, are not allowed to identify themselves as such. The authorities maintain that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, despite the fact that many of them arrived in Myanmar generations ago. More than one million Rohingya live in western Rakhine State, but they are not recognised as Myanmar citizens and are thus offered little protection or benefits under the law.
Over the past two years, longstanding tension between Myanmar’s Muslims and the Buddhist Bamar majority, who make up 40 per cent of the population, has erupted in deadly violence. A series of clashes has killed nearly 300, mainly Muslims, and caused 240,000 to flee their homes for refugee camps. The violence has spread from Rakhine to many other parts of the country.
Many among Rakhine’s Buddhist majority are worried that the census could lend legitimacy to the Rohingya’s bid for citizenship. Such anxiety is echoed elsewhere as the country’s many different ethnic groups seek greater control over their future.
Ethnic groups such as the Kachin and the Wa have expressed concern that the government is using the census to stifle their bids for autonomy. Such groups are refusing to cooperate with the count in their territory.
Many others protest that their group has been placed in the wrong census category among the 135 ethnic groups recognised by the authorities. For example, the Tai Nai, or Red Shan, whose members are spread across the Sagaing region and Shan and Kachin states, complains it has not been included among the 33 sub-tribes of the Shan as it should have been.
The government has vowed to finish the task by April 10 and says anyone who stands in the way of the census-takers will be punished.
The fact is that few would obstruct the process if they knew it aimed at an accurate reflection of the ethnic and social circumstances of the whole country. Rather than pushing through with this flawed census, the government needs to heed the calls from its diverse population and adjust the process to fit the real current situation. Otherwise, Myanmar will remain stuck in the mire of its ethnic tensions for years to come.