If conducted properly, the 2014 headcount will both help to consolidate the country’s political reforms process, and drive it

Myanmar is getting ready for a population census in 2014, its first in three decades. The headcount is also expected to prepare the ground for the country’s next general election in 2015, which, it is hoped, will usher in a genuine people’s government. The previous military regime did not feel the need for a census. The last census was in 1983, and Myanmarese born after that have never been enumerated. An accurate count of the population would both be a critical part of the government’s political reforms, as well as one of its main drivers.

The census will enable an accurate estimate of key economic indicators such as GDP, per capita income and other socio-economic data of the country for national development, economic planning and balanced assessment. It would be crucial to several key policies relating to education, health care, housing, employment, sanitation, transport and communication, to name just a few. The process also becomes necessary for delimitation of constituencies and ensuring a fair representation of all the ethnic nationalities in the national and regional legislative bodies. The project will start in April 2014, ahead of the next general election. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has agreed to support Myanmar’s proposed 2014 population and housing census.

After 1931, 1983 census

For years, economists and academics studying Myanmar have been forced to use the government's notoriously unreliable data. The 1983 census failed to count people living in areas where insurgencies were raging. Before that, the last credible census was conducted in 1931, during British rule. The country’s first nationwide census took place in 1891, which was five years after the British annexed Upper Burma. The biggest challenge that faces the reforms process is the ethnic issue. The government has signed some 18 ceasefire agreements with various ethnic militias. But the resolution of these would require addressing the underlying political issues.

Already, there are apprehensions that the census exercise could be used to marginalise ethnic nationalities, especially those in conflict with the government.

Issue of Rohingyas

However, the immediate question in any discussion of the Myanmar census is about the Rohingyas. There are approximately one million Rohingya Muslims living in Rakhine State. They are not counted among the 135 “national races” and hence are not citizens. They were excluded from the 1983 census. Their statelessness has resulted in their persecution. Some 200,000 Rohingyas fled Myanmar and are now living in Bangladesh.

Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law has designated citizens into three categories: 1. full citizens, 2. associate citizens, and 3. naturalised citizens. None of the categories applies to the Rohingya who fall in the category of “non-national” or “foreign residents.” But Rohingya groups insist they have lived in Myanmar for generations. In the recent violence in the Rakhine state clash between the Buddhists and the Rohingyas, which also affected other Muslim groups in the state, more than 200 Rohingya were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.

Persons of Indian origin

The government appointed an investigation commission into the incidents, but it has not been able to finish its task yet though two deadlines have passed. President Thein Sein has pledged to consider new rights for the stateless Rohingya, but the promise falls short of any commitment towards full citizenship rights. The expectation that Aung San Suu Kyi may give strong voice to the problems of the Rohingyas has been belied.

Aside from the Rohingyas, there are about 1,00,000 Chin, who have fled persecution and settled in the areas bordering India’s Mizoram. Several hill tribes live in remote and inaccessible areas and will need to be counted. There are also a large number of native born but non-indigenous people, such as Indians, who are yet not counted and registered. The 1983 census reported approximately 4,28,000 persons of Indian origin (PIO) in Myanmar. It has been estimated (unofficially) that as many as 2.5 million PIOs could be living in Myanmar. Although they have lived in Myanmar for more than four generations, they lack documentation required by the 1982 Burmese citizenship law and are therefore stateless. However, many of them have registered for naturalised citizenship after the government made available this option in the wake of the 2010 elections.

Over and above all this is the challenge of training people to execute the census. If conducted properly, it will help in empowering Myanmar’s ethnic nationalities, provided it is inclusive and conducted according to international standards.

According to U Khin Yi, Chairperson of the National Population and Development Commission, a successful census will require “broad and effective partnership” involving various government sectors, parliamentarians, civil society, the private sector and international organisations.

In order to ensure that the census is universal and inclusive of all national races, Myanmar may even need to review the 1982 citizenship law to bring it in conformity with international conventions, international custom and principle generally recognised with regard to nationality. In addition, it should be brought in line with the principles embodied in the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness of 1961.

Transformation from procedural to substantive democracy has to be inclusive. Conducted in the right spirit, Myanmar’s census would have a big role to play in ensuring that majoritarianism does not get in the way of this.

(Sonu Trivedi teaches Political Science in Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi.)

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