The refusal of the Myanmar government to allow north Rakhine Muslim communities to self-identify as 'Rohingya' highlights the tussle between this community and the state over its right to claim its own ethnic identity, and ultimately citizenship in Myanmar.
The unexpected number of people who self-identified as 'other' in the ethnic category also questions the validity of the 135 ethnic categories endorsed by the state and opens up questions about how ethnic groupings and the ethnic landscape are perceived by the population at large.
The Myanmar story doesn't end here
Nicholas Farrelly: East Asia Forum - 29 December 2014
Myanmar had a big year in 2014. The country held its first census in 30 years. The lead-up to the national count was plagued by criticism and uncertainty. Many predicted that efforts to quantify the population, and determine its ethnic, religious, socio-economic and geographical characteristics, would end in disaster. As doomsday scenarios proliferated it was easy to lose sight of the fact that in Myanmar new things need to be done, and that they all carry some level of risk.
Admittedly the census was inadequate for many reasons. It may not have generated an accurate headline number about who lives in the country, and it failed to get a clear picture of different ethnic and religious cohorts. The counting in Rakhine State was especially poor, but its failings merely amplified patterns apparent elsewhere in the country. Even in posh areas of Yangon the census hardly lived up to expectations. Basic socio-economic data is likely wrong.
But the census was a good example of how the country handled the pressures of 2014, and was clearly worth the investment. It helped drive a new conversation about who lives in Myanmar, what they’re doing, and how they think of themselves. Continue reading.....
FAQs on the Myanmar Census process
UNFPA Myanmar - 10 December 2014
A new UNFPA-supported booklet: "Questions and Answers about Myanmar’s Census", seeks to address questions that have arisen in the wake of the 2014 Myanmar Population and Housing Census. Through extensive consultation, different communities across Myanmar have shown interest, raised concerns and also become more curious about the census and the "what's next" after the population count. This publication is part of a larger effort to shape a people-centred approach to census data release and dissemination. It aims to help to build public trust, understanding, acceptance and use of census data at all levels. The questions raised and answered provided all emanate from consultations with diverse and numerous groups in states and regions in Myanmar.
Some points of particular interest:
- All available evidence so far indicates that the population census in Myanmar has been conducted properly and that information should be of good quality.
- The areas that have been missed have been clearly identified. The census results will be reported for all areas where information could be collected, which in percentage terms covered nearly all of the country (about 98%).
- It is clear that the 135 code list is a listing that not everyone in the country recognizes nor accepts. Government has acknowledged the need to address the challenge of how people self-identify in terms of ethnicity.
- The census did make provision for “mixed blood” identification. However, it is important to understand that the census is not a tool to define ethnicity and or assign codes to ethnic groups.
- The Government made a commitment to undertake a consultative process to review and replace the currently contested “135” ethnic classification listing. Once done, this would require Parliamentary approval before coming into effect.
'Census data can empower all communities'
Janet Jackson UNFPA Myanmar - Mizzima 10 November 2014
"The census was not only about having a headcount. It was to gain insight into the living conditions of the people in Myanmar. The data allows community leaders, policy makers, researchers, economists, academicians and others to gain more insight and understanding and be able to better define where inequalities and needs exist so that standards of living can be improved. Census data reports will be available to everyone. This can support meaningful discussions between the Union and the regions and States and communities. Census data can empower all communties, including ethnic, youth, women and religious leaders to be part of the development process."
UN weighs in on blame game over census tensions
Myanmar Times - 13 September 2014
The head of the United Nations’ technical advisory board for Myanmar’s census has dismissed criticisms of the process and blamed civil society and human rights groups for having “inflamed” tensions surrounding the count.
Paul Cheung, chair the International Technical Advisory Board, a group of international experts assembled by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to advise the government, said critics of the census had made the situation worse. He said the criticisms had harmed the UN’s efforts to discreetly resolve some of the more contentious issues surrounding the count.
“The so-called ‘civil society groups’ have their own agenda. Personally I think they inflamed the situation,” said Mr Cheung, a professor in social policy and analytics at the National University of Singapore who headed the UN Statistics Division until 2012.
Daw Khon Ja, a program director with the Kachin Women’s Peace Network, said that her organisation and others had made many attempts to warn the government and UN of the likely problems with the census but these were ignored. “The census methodologies were not conflict sensitive, they did not comply with [the] ‘Do No Harm’ principle and were not appropriate for Myanmar,” she said. “The Central Census Commission, [and] especially the UNFPA and technical teams, should have listened to [the warnings] and the ethnic CSOs since the beginning.”
The “quite diplomacy” approach espoused by Mr Cheung also came in for criticism. Dave Mathieson, a Yangon-based researcher with Human Rights Watch, said this had only contributed to the problems. “There is a standard trope in elite circles about ‘quiet diplomacy’,” he said, “which actually means ‘tunnel diplomacy’ and in everyday parlance means mumbling to bullies, not standing up to them ... That isn’t diplomacy, it’s called accommodation, and it’s the method of apologists.”
Derek Tonkin writes: The criticisms of the UN approach on the 'Rohingya' issue were fully justified. However, there was something demonic, almost fanatic about the clear intention of some human rights organisations to wreck the census in any way that they could.
On balance, it was right that the census went ahead, despite its faults and the risks involved. It is only regrettable that in Rakhine State the UN got it wrong from the start and should not have insisted on 'self-identification' for the 'Rohingya' in a situation where the reaction from the non-Muslim population was so predictable, leaving the government with no choice but to renege on their reluctant acquiescence to 'self-identification' and thus incurring considerable international opprobrium. Other unique solutions for Rakhine State should have been explored, but were not.
Population Census: Provisional Results
New Light of Myanmar - 31 August 2014
Union Minister for Immigration and Population U Khin Yi announced at a press conference on 30 August the provisional results of the population census. Myanmar's population was 51,419,420 according to the 12-day nationwide census starting from midnight on 29 March 2014. 50,213,067 are persons enumerated and 1,206,353 are estimates from parts of northern Rakhine, Kachin and Kayin states who were not counted. There were more women (26.59 million) than men (24.82 million). Myanmar's 10,889,348 households had an average household size of 4.4 persons. The urban population amounted to 14,864,119 persons or 29.6% of the total population.
[The UN Population Fund has at the same time released a nine-page summary of the provisional results, available at this link.]
U Khin Yi said the census enumeration did not cover every household or population in the three districts Maungdaw, Mrauk U and Sittway, of Rakhine State and it could not be completed in 25 village-tracts in Kachin State. But, for some villages in Hpapun Township, the ministry was provided with a summary count of households and people by sex by KNU headquartered in these areas.
The Union Minister, who is also the chair of Myanmar’s Central Census Commission, continued that the mission rated the quality of enumeration as 7.5 out of 10 and a few observers even cited this as one of the best enumeration exercises they had seen in their observation of censuses.
According to the Commission, the main results of the 2014 Census will be released in May 2015, followed by thematic reports from November 2015 onwards. During the 12-day national census, 98% of the population within the borders of the country had been enumerated. The last census in Myanmar was conducted in 1983.
- Commentary: Myanmar's missing millions: Banyan - The Economist
- Commentary: Myanmar's controversial census:Philip Heijmans - The Diplomat
- Missing nine million may be abroad - Eleven Media
- Burma reveals initial census data - DVB
- Nationwide population totals over 51 million - Xin Hua
- Myanmar census shows population 9 million fewer than estimated - AFP
Findings of the Census Observation Mission
UNFPA - 14 August 2014
The Mission described the Myanmar Census as successful on the whole and in line with international standards, except in Rakhine, where almost all communities that wanted to self-identify as “Rohingya” (who the Government call Bengali) were not counted. At the time of the observation, it was noted that some parts of Kachin State, controlled by the Kachin Independence Organisation were not enumerated.
The International Technical Advisory Board (ITAB), a group of 15 experts from different countries and institutions involved in censuses and statistics internationally, will work with the Department of Population (DoP) to find ways of credibly estimating the population of the areas that were left out of the enumeration.
An independent evaluation of the census process itself has been planned.
The Observers highlighted the need to find a solution to the failure of enumeration in the northern area of Rakhine.
The fullCensus Observation Mission Report includes the following statement on Page 93:
"In the Rohingya/Bengali areas, the observers declared the census process a complete failure. It appeared to them that the local Rohingya/Bengali populations very much wanted to participate in the census but were prevented from doing so by the census field staff and the Department of Population officials. The observers concluded that any claims of a Rohingya/Bengali respondent refusing to take part should be refuted, at least in the areas they observed. In technical terms, a ‘refusal’ occurs when a respondent or groups of respondents do not want to participate in the census, which was never witnessed by the observers."
- Myanmar's census falls 9 million short of estimate - BBC News Asia
- Census awaits data on 800,000 people, official says - Eleven Media
- Enumeration of Rohingya a "complete failure": Census observers - Myanmar Times
- Myanmar asks for shunning Rohingya name - Al Jazeera
- Population and Housing Census Law No. 19 of 2013 (in English and Burmese)
- Sample census form (in English - for completion by the enumerator)
- International Technical Advisory Board to the Census - UNFPA
- Newsletter: Census Edition - Preliminary debriefing held on 11 April 2014
- Census Handbook (in English and in Burmese)
- Frequently Asked Questions and Answers (in English and in Burmese)
- UNFPA website on Myanmar and the Myanmar Census
- Facebook - UNFPA Myanmar
- UK support for the 2014 Burma Census - DFID July 2013
- Population of Burma: Analysis of the 1973 Census - EW Population Institute
- Results of the 1983 Census in Rakhine State - Ministry of Home Affairs
- Tables on Race and Language from the 1921 Census
- Tables on Race and Language from the 1931 Census
Proposals by International Experts following their meeting 23-24 July 2014
Press release UNFPA - 28 July 2014
Overall, the International Technical Advisory Board considered the status of data collection and data processing satisfactory and largely successful. Currently, all the questionnaires have been returned from the field. Preparation of the provisional results is progressing according to the proposed timeline. Provisional results will provide the total population of Myanmar, by male and female, disaggregated by state, district, and township and will be released at the end of August 2014, as planned.
The bulk of the main census data will be announced in the first quarter of 2015. The remaining data including ethnicity, occupation and industry, will be available at a later date as it takes more time to process and analyse.
Members recognised that there were some concentrated areas in the country that were not enumerated. These refer to enumeration areas in Northern Rakhine, as well as some areas of Kayin and Kachin State. The Board considered alternative options for the estimation of populations in non-enumerated areas. The Board advised that population estimates could be developed based on the pre-enumeration mapping. These would provide an estimated total population for Myanmar. The ITAB also recommended developing other options for surveying the areas that were not enumerated to collect information on the socio-economic profile of specific groups.
- New method for population data collecton process in Maungdaw - Kaladan Press
- Census ethnicity data release delayed until after the elections - Myanmar Times
- Experts recommend estimates to finalise count - Myanmar Times
- Sittwe court extends verification activist's detention - DVB
International experts meet to discuss issues relating to the Census
Press Release UNFPA - 23 July 2014
An advisory group of census experts from around the world will meet on 23 and 24 July 2014, the fourth meeting of the International Technical Advisory Board (ITAB) and the first meeting following the census enumeration.
One key issue that members will discuss is possible ways to respond to the under-coverage of households in the Rakhine and Kachin States. In Rakhine, areas occupied by specific Muslim populations, were not counted in the census following the Government’s decision to refuse to allow them to self-identify as Rohingya. Populations were left out or only partially enumerated in a number of non-state controlled areas of Kachin.
Members will also discuss the Observation Mission Report. The Ministry of Immigration and Population, to support transparency efforts on data collection for the census, invited an Independent Census Observation Mission to Myanmar. The Mission comprised 47 experienced observers, 23 international and 24 Myanmar nationals. These teams of experts were composed of statisticians, census experts, demographers and social scientists. They are currently in the process of finalising their report that will be available, together with a summary of key findings, on both the Department of Population and UNFPAs’ websites.
Derek Tonkin writes: The UNFPA has been slow to respond to criticisms that the Census was little short of a fiasco. No doubt it has taken time to collate reports, but apart from preliminary comments from international observersindicating that the Census was on the whole succesful, there has been silence from UNFPA and international observers over the past three months. UNFPA public relations have fallen well short of what has been needed.
Written Question on the conduct of the Census
Hugo Swire: House of Commons - 26 June 2014
Extract: Reports from independent international observers of the census suggest that, with the exception of Rakhine State and parts of Kachin State, the enumeration process appears to have been largely carried out effectively. We continue to monitor the process closely. There has not been a census in Burma for 30 years, and this census will provide a vital source of data to inform better government service delivery.
We are concerned by reports of the census being used as a pretext for one incident of localised violence in Kachin State. However, we do not believe that there is a link between the census and recent violence elsewhere in Kachin. Conflict in Kachin State has been ongoing for almost three years, and the challenges of census data collection in the area reflected the continued lack of trust on the ground. We continue to support strongly government and ethnic group efforts to reach a sustainable peace, through a ceasefire and political dialogue that can help bring an end to human rights abuses in ceasefire areas.
Similarly our assessment is that recent violence in Rakhine has been caused by underlying intercommunal tensions that have previously led to violence there. We were deeply disappointed that, in the case of the Rohingya, the Burmese Government contravened its long-standing assurance that all individuals would have the right to self-identify their ethnic origin in the census. We have been clear that this decision is contrary to international norms and standards on census conduct. I summoned the Burmese ambassador to make these points.
Derek Tonkin writes: The deep disappointment which the UN Population Fund and Western Governments have expressed about the last-minute change in policy by the Myanmar authorities on self-identification is easy enough to articulate, but shows little understanding of the predicament in which the Myanmar Government found itself as a result of its ill-judged, and indeed naive decision to agree to self-identification in the first place, only to realise that a result of their decision had been to light a potential powder-keg of raw emotion among Rakhine Buddhists.
To have ignored the situation could have resulted in a veritable explosion of resentment and a boycott of the Census process in many parts of Rakhine State. Though the authorities may indeed be criticised because of their original decision, it was surely only prudent for them in the circumstances to change their policy in the interests of stability in Rakhine State and of ensuring that so far as possible the Census was completed.
In such circumstances, Western criticism of the decision to 'renege' on their original undertaking, given quite possibly against their better judgement, might be seen as little more than political posturing in a situation where the Myanmar Government might have been wiser to resist pressures to agree unreservedly to self-identification, whatever the international norms might be held to be.
Latest News and Views
- Villagers summoned for meeting about Census in Maungdaw - Kaladan Press
- Everbody counts, except in Burma's census - Jack Healey Huffington Post
- Census remains stalled over Rohingya issue - Mizzima
- Ministry closes book on its missing census data - The Myanmar Times
- Census data may be used 'politically' says official - The Irrawaddy
- Panthay Muslims protect their name - Myanmar Times
Written Question on the conduct of the recent Census
Baroness Warsi: House of Lords - 19 June 2014
Extract: "The UK, UN and other international donors argued strongly for the right of all people to be enumerated fairly and to be able, where necessary, to self-identify their ethnicity in the census. In most areas where the census was conducted, self-identification was permitted. We were deeply disappointed that, in the case of the Rohingya, the Burmese government contravened its long-standing assurance that all individuals would have the right to self-identify their ethnic origin. We have been clear that this decision is contrary to international norms and standards on census conduct.
"Reports from independent international observers of the census suggest that, with the exception of Rakhine and parts of Kachin state, the enumeration process appears to have been largely carried out effectively. We continue to closely monitor the process."
Government resumes citizenship verification of Rohingyas
The Irrawaddy - 16 June 2014
Immigration officials have restarted their verification process in parts of Arakan State where most Rohingyas agreed to identify as Bengali two months ago during the nationwide census, after being told that they would not be counted if they did not identify this way.
As a pilot project in Myebon Township, immigration officials are accepting citizenship applications from anyone who identifies as Bengali, according to Maung Maung Than, director-general of the Department of Immigration and National Registration.
About 3,042 Muslims live in the township, the department says. Of these, 47 people have already applied for citizenship, according to Maung Maung Than, who added that applications would be considered according to the 1982 Citizenship Law.
Derek Tonkin writes: This would seem to establish a link between registering under the census and applying for citizenship. The report would suggest that only those who have agreed to take part in the census are eligible to apply for citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law.
In terms of race, the vast majority of Rohingyas are of Bengali origin, though this may go back several decades, if not centuries. 'Rohingya' on the other hand might reasonably be claimed by many as an emerging ethnicity, where the term implies more than racial origin, but also covers such attributes as culture, dialect and social cohesion.
Counting the Costs: Myanmar's Problematic Census
International Crisis Group - 15 May 2015
This Update Briefing by the ICG concludes that "the need for a census in Myanmar, and the value of the data that it can collect, have never been in doubt. Yet the way in which the process has been designed and implemented has been flawed and insufficiently sensitive to the political and conflict risks at this sensitive stage in Myanmar’s transition. The responsibility for the failures in the process and the damage that it has caused lies partly with UNFPA, which largely guided the design and preparatory work, and partly with the government, under whose authority the census is being conducted. But there has also been a lack of political oversight from the UN system, and from census donors who funded the majority of the process and were aware of the risks."
Derek Tonkin writes: In the light of their critical 'Conflict Alert' dated 12 February 2014, it was not unexpected that the ICG's latest offering seeks to justify their earlier concerns. Yet any analysis at this stage is surely premature. A determined effort is being made to resolve outstanding issues connected with the census in both Rakhine and Kachin States. As the British Ambassador has already pointed out, the worst fears, that the census might not take place at all because the situation was too volatile, have not been realised, and the actual census itself seems to have taken place without incident. The census has been observed by international monitors and their report is awaited with keen interest.
The ICG has recently been showing a touch of activism, which may reflect new appointments to the body. This manifests itself in the uncritical use of alarmist reports, an elitist 'holier-than-thou' approach and a seeming determination to put the worst possible interpretation on events. A more positive approach might be to see the census as a catalyst to highlighting issues, exposing them to international attention, educating the Myanmar authorities on the need to reform radically the archaic system of ethnic identity based on 135 supposed racial groups, and even pointing the way towards possible solutions by openly confronting intractable problems.
There was never likely to be a right time for the census and the only fail-safe possibility would have been to postpone the operation indefinitely. As this was never a realistic option, it was in my view only sensible that the census went ahead, despite ideological opposition from the activist mafia and from risk-averse consultancies lacking in political courage and vision.
- UNFPA response to the ICG Update Briefing - UNFPA Press Release
- Ethnic groups visit data processing facilities - UNFPA Press Release
- Myanmar to complete census in Kachin-controlled areas - Eleven Media
Interview with British Ambassador Andrew Patrick
Mizzima Business Weekly - 8 May 2014
In a wide-ranging interview with Hans Hulst of Myanmar Business Weekly, British Ambassador Andrew Patrick made a number of points:
- What happened in Rakhine is very disappointing, but in most of the rest of the country, as far as I can tell, the census has actually been collected without incident. The data will be incredibly useful.
- So I think one of the risks hasn’t yet come to pass, which was the idea we wouldn’t get this far because the situation would be too volatile.
- Of course when we use it, that’s not to say we’re expecting some sort of special status or a recognition of the Rohingya as an ethnic group. That is for the Burmese parliament to decide.
- It is pretty important for us and the media not to lose sight of the fact that the Rakhine community has good reason to be angry and disappointed. Rakhine is the second least developed part of the country. Only a minority of that community supports violence.
Renewed fighting not linked to census-taking
The Irrawaddy - 7 May 2014
Khin Yi, the minister responsible for the United Nations-backed national census, held a press conference at the Rangoon Division Parliament on Wednesday, in which he explained the government’s efforts to collect data in conflict areas, as well as in Arakan State, where Muslims have been declined the right to self-identify their ethnicity in the census. “What is happening in Kachin is not because of census data collection,” said Khin Yi, when asked to comment on a news report that quoted President’s Office Minister Aung Min, the government’s chief peace negotiator, linking the fighting to the census-taking process.
“What Aung Min said might be misunderstood. We collect data only when we have permission for collection. We will continue to negotiate to collect in Kachin without giving up,” Khin Yi said. Khin Yi said the census was successfully conducted in almost all areas where ethnic armed groups are still active, with the exception of about 25 village tracts, consisting of 97 villages, in Kachin State. The KIO controls a section of the Burmese-Chinese border, and its territory includes camps for thousands of internally displaced persons.
The minister said he would continue making efforts to have the census fully completed in Kachin State, as well as in Arakan State, where many people were also not counted during the initial 12 days of data collection, which ended on April 10. He noted that under census rules, data can still be collected for six to eight weeks after the initial collection. Despite saying ahead of the census that Muslims in Arakan State who call themselves Rohingya would be able to do so in the census, the government at the last minute declared that the term would not be allowed in the census. The government does not recognize Rohingya as an ethnic group and Muslims in Arakan State have been passed over by enumerators unless they agree to complete the census under the government’s preferred term, Bengali.
Khin Yi said there were in total about 1.33 million “Bengalis” in Burma and an estimated 300,000 people had been counted as such in the census. In Arakan State, he said, only 20,000 of the estimated 1.05 million “Bengali” population in the state had been included in the census.
Census collection winds down
Myanmar Times - 25 April 2014
Nearly all data collection for the national census is set to end this week but debate over the process is likely to continue as the government moves on to analysing the results – a process that will begin in the first half of May.
The major problems occurred in Rakhine State, where enumerators refused to accept data from Muslims who wanted to self-identify as Rohingya, and Kachin State, where the census could not be conducted in areas controlled by the Kachin Independence Army. The Ministry of Immigration and Population said the decision on self-identification was taken because allowing Muslims to identify as “Rohingya” could create “serious problems” in the state and elsewhere, because many perceive it as a step toward granting them citizenship.....
International observers reported that the process “went smoothly” in most parts of the country, apart from Rakhine State. “The events in Rakhine state had cast a cloud over what was otherwise appears to have been a promising census,” said UNFPA representative for Myanmar Janet Jackson. The positive reports are only “preliminary” assessments, however. “A more conclusive report is in preparation", the statement said.
Ministry of Immigration and Population officials have dismissed most of the criticisms, with some last week describing the process as “very successful”. More than 90 percent of the population has already been counted and officials say they are working to gather the “missing” data in Rakhine and Kachin states.
Derek Tonkin writes: There was never likely to be a right time to hold the census, and with general elections planned in late 2015 it was better to complete the task now rather than postpone it, possibly indefinitely. International groups which criticised the holding of the census are unlikely to admit that their worst fears have not been realised. No one expected a completely trouble free exercise and provided the technical objectives of the census are independently judged to have been substantially achieved, then the decision to go ahead with the census would seem to have been fully justified.
- Myanmar's unreliable narrators: Matthew Gibbons - New Mandala
- Rohingya oppose the proposal of Immigration Head - Kaladan News
- More than 6,000 Bengali families participate in census - New Light of Myanmar
- Statement by Solidarity Burma and Rakhaing Communities in North America
- Hundreds of Arakanese to gather for Conference - The Irrawaddy
- Press Release: ARNO confutes Rohingya accept Bengali classification
2014 Nationwide Census covers nearly 11 million households
New Light of Myanmar - 23 April 2014
According to the Ministry of Immigration and Population, the 12-day census process covered 10,719,887 households altogether. Attempts were made to disrupt the census in some 231 villages in Kachin State, and 110 villages remain to be counted. In Rakhine State there has also been some technical delay in the counting process. A further statement would be issued in due course.
- Census 'extended in Kachin and Rakhine State until 10 June' - Mizzima
- (Some) Rohingya accept Bengali classification - DPA/Bangkok Post
- Army makes a mockery of the Census and its backers - Burma Partnership
- Census exercise extended to end of April - RFA
- Don't count on it: Banyan - The Economist
- Old identity, new identfication for Mandalay minorities - Myanmar Times
- Hundreds flee as census related clashes break out in Kachin - DVB
- First census in 30 years completed amid controversy - VOA
Government accuses UK of interfering in Rakhine
Myanmar Times - 10 April 2014
Presidential spokesperson U Ye Htut has accused Britain of interfering in Myanmar's internal affairs after it summoned the Myanmar Ambassador in an effort to convince the government to allow humanitarian aid activities to resume in Rakhine State.
"The president has already explained to the secretary-general of the UN [Ban Ki-moon] that the government has taken the necessary measures to ensure the safety and protection of all international organisations [working in Rakhine State]," U Ye Htut said. "So we don't need to say anything more."
U Ye Htut, who is also a deputy minister for information, also took issue with Britain's usage of the term "Rohingya" in a statement issued following the meeting with the ambassador. He said no official documents from the British colonial period had ever referred to Muslims in Rakhine State as Rohingya. "It's unreasonable for the British to now urge recognition of the term," he said. "It appears they are trying to intervene in our internal affairs and we don't accept it."
- The 'Rohingya' Identity - The British Experience in Arakan 1826 - 1948
- The 'Rohingya' Identity - Further thoughts
- The 'Rohingya' Idenity - Arithmetic of the Absurd
Derek Tonkin examines the British experience in coping with the Muslim issue in Arakan in their censuses [1872, 1881, 1901, 1911, 1921, 1931, 1941]
- Myanmar's first census in three decades extended amid controversy - Reuters
- Text of Statement by Commission of Inquiry (Burmese text)
- Govt. to protect NGOs after sluggish response to Sittwe riots - DVB
- Commission criticizes Arakan Govt's 'weak' handling of riots - The Irrawaddy
Deep concern expressed about conduct of the census
FCO Press Release - 7 April 2014
"Minister for Asia, the Rt Hon Hugo Swire MP, summoned the Burmese Ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 7 April. He called on the Burmese Government urgently to restore humanitarian access to all communities in need, and to ensure the security of humanitarian aid workers and all communities in Rakhine State.
"He also expressed the Government’s deep concern about the conduct of the census - in particular the reversal of the Burmese Government’s commitment to allow the Rohingya to self-identify their ethnicity. We have repeatedly urged the Burmese Government to ensure the conduct of the census meets international norms and standards. We are engaging in further discussions, together with the UN and other donors, on further steps we might take."
- House of Commons: Concerns expressed about the conduct of the census
- As census winds down, 85% of Burmese population counted - The Irrawaddy
- A flawed exercise: Myanmar's ill-timed census: Larry Jagan - Mizzima
Myanmar: Quintana comments on the current census
OHCHR News - 7 April 2014
In further comment on the situation in Rakhine State, UN Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana said that self-identification for the Rohingya has been at the root of some protests in the past in Rakhine State that led to violence and human rights violations and abuses for which there is yet to be accountability. “The ongoing census risks this cycle repeating itself. Self-identification should constitute a pillar of the collection of ethnically disaggregated data. It is related to respect for the rights of individuals to assert their own identity. To deny self-identification is therefore a violation of human rights.”
During his latest mission to the country last February, the Special Rapporteur heard from a range of ethnic groups that the ethnic categories included in the census did not reflect how they identified themselves. “It is not only in Rakhine State that people object to the ethnic categories included in the census,” he noted. “It became clear during my discussions with communities in Kachin State that the Government has approached the census without sufficient or meaningful consultation with all affected communities.”
Census was doomed from the start - and the UN knew it
Bill O'Toole: The Myanmar Times - 7 April 2014
Experts say the census was “doomed from the start”, and that donors and the UN had more than enough warning of the likely problems but did little to act on them. In particular, a risk assessment commissioned by donors “clearly warned” of many of the problems facing the program now, including flawed data and the inflaming of ethnic tensions, a person familiar with the report told The Myanmar Times.
Derek Tonkin writes: It is not yet clear whether households where there were problems are to be recorded or not. Even if the ethnic question is voided, the other 40 questions could be answered. It is not in the interests of the State not to partially complete forms.
Latest News and Comment on the Census
- 'Rohingya' poses problem - Article in The New Light of Myanmar
- Myanmar up for the count: Nicholas Farrelly - ANU 1 April 2014
- Census marred by controversy over ethnic question - The Irrawaddy
- Reported experiences of the census in 'Rohingya' villages - Rohingya Blogger
- Chapter XII on 'Race' and related Tables from the 1931 Census
- Some remarkable popular concerns at the 1881 Census - Network Myanmar
Government rejects 'Rohingya' census classification
The Irrawaddy - 31 March 2014
Burmese officials said the government has made a last-minute change to its position on registering the ethnicity of the Muslim minority in northern Arakan State during the current national census, saying enumerators would refuse to register any respondent who identifies themselves as Rohingya.
The decision means the government is backing away fromearlier promises that the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)-funded census would be implemented in accordance with international standards, which allow any respondents to identify their own ethnicity. Continue reading.....
Derek Tonkin writes: There is no easy solution to this dilemma. 'Rohingya' is generally seen as a self-designation, and is not universally recognised as an ethnic description. The British conducted eight censuses from 1872 to 1941, but in the voluminous reports issued on each occasion (except for 1941, when most of the data were lost), the term 'Rohingya' is not to be found. It is therefore perhaps more appropriate to see 'Rohingya' as a post-Second World War political label, though in the 1950s and 1960s the term was used very infrequently in Government publications and official speeches to designate Muslim residents in northern Rakhine State.
Though the British designated Muslim residents in Arakan by race as Chittagonian, Bengali and Arakan Mohamedan, by language they were all classified as Bengali speakers. The British acknowledged the limitations of this ethno-linguistic approach. Arakan Kaman, Zerbadis and other Muslim or part-Muslim groups (Chulia, Kaka, Maimon, Nursapuri, Oriya, Pathan etc.) were classified separately.
- US concern over events in Rakhine State - US State Department
- Ban Ki-moon calls President over census concerns - Myanmar Times
- Census procedures raise 'serious questions': UNFPA - Myanmar Times
- Aid groups see dire crisis for Rohingya in Myanmar - Associated Press
Latest News on the Census
- Some refuse to be registered as Bengali - Eleven Media
- Experts to estimate census data in contested areas [1%] - Eleven Media
- Census disrupted in two States by Kachin Independence Army - Global Times
- Panthay Muslims protect their name - Myanmar Times
- Rakhine community stops boycott over census - Shanghai Daily
- Religious tensions cloud Myanmar census - New York Times
Rioting targets foreign aid workers in Sittwe
- Myanmar bans Muslims from registering as 'Rohingya' in census - AFP
- Postpone flawed census to avert violence - Human Rights Watch
- Aid workers flee, girl killed as attacks continue in Sittwe - The Irrawaddy
- Government pledges to investigate Sittwe riot - DVB
- US deeply concerned by mob violence in Sittwe - US Embassy Press Release
- UNFPA responds to reports linking Sittwe riots to tensions over census - Mizzima
Building consensus on the census
Democratic Voice of Burma - 22 March 2014
DVB’s Angus Watson spoke to Janet Jackson, Myanmar Representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and her assistant Hla Hla Aye, about the international agency’s role in the upcoming census, its significance and the potential pitfalls.
Arakan officials ask Rohingya to leave census race question blank
The Irrawaddy - 25 March 2014
The Arakan State government has asked Muslim leaders in Sittwe to urge their fellow followers of Islam not to identify their “race” in Burma’s upcoming census, with authorities worried that allowing Rohingya Muslims to self-identify as such could spark a violent backlash from Buddhists in the troubled region.
State authorities including Police Col. Tun Oo met Muslim community leaders on Tuesday morning and told them that the request was intended to defuse tensions in the State, which has seen protests by Arakanese Buddhists against the census in recent weeks that continued in Sittwe on Tuesday. The census, Burma’s first in more than 30 years, will officially begin next week.
Derek Tonkin writes: An insight into the tense state of relations between Buddhists and Muslims in Sittwe (Akyab) almost a century ago is to found in the extract at this link from the "Burma Gazetteer: Akyab District" compiled by Commissioner RB Smart and printed in 1917: "That the Arakanese are being pushed out of Arakan before the steady wave of Chittagonian immigration from the west is only too well known.....the Arakanese not having been accustomed to hard manual labour for generations cannot and will not do it now; it has to be brought home to him that if he will not do more for himself he must give way to the thrifty and hard-working Chittagonian and his only reply is to move on......the Arakanese proper are not likely to survive long."
Latest News about the Census
- Monks call on Rakhine families to fly 'Sasana' flag - Eleven Media
- The census - Another complexity in Burma? - The Irrawaddy
- Ethnic groups voice concerns over census - Eleven Media
- Why donors should insist the census be postponed - Burma Partnership
- Badly needed census may have come too soon: Angus Watson - DVB
- Arakanese threaten to boycott census over Rohingya issue - DVB
- European Burma Network joins calls to postpone census - BNI
- Too much information - The Economist
- Bumese Islamic group issues census directives - DVB
- Rakhine State protest opposes 'Rohingya' as census category - BNI
- Myanmar: Counting Problems - Strategy Page
- UN Population Fund to hold meeting with ethnic organizations - Eleven Media
Historical Note on the Ethno-Linguistic Classification at the 1931 Census
Extract from Paragraph 99, Chapter X, Volume I of the Census of Burma 1931
"99. Classification Scheme - The classification scheme for languages is the same as that adopted at the 1921 census……For the sake of convenience all Chinese languages have been regarded as indigenous…..this classification of languages lays no claim to finality and is merely based on the scanty materials collected up-to-date. After the 1921 census, Mr Taylor.....was on special duty in this connection, but apparently nothing further has been published .The non-indigenous languages were formed into three artificial groups X, Y, Z, representing Indian, European, and Other languages respectively.
"The classification scheme for races is the same as for languages, the only difference being that an additional group S has been formed to represent the Indo-Burman races, who do not have separate languages. Each race or language group has been subdivided and the words "race" and "language" are used in this Report to denote the lowest classes into which the groups have been subdivided. The names of these races and languages are given in Part IB of Imperial Table XV (Language) and Part I of Imperial Table XVII (Race) respectively."
Derek Tonkin writes: These Tables are reproduced because they help to identify, if you add up the separate divisions, some 135 indigenous races and languages in what was in essence a convenient ethno-linguistic classification originally prepared for the 1921 census and not claiming any profound scientific basis, derived as it was from admittedly "scanty materials" and seemingly not updated for the 1931 census.
An extract from Chapter XII of Part I of the Census of Burma Report, covering Sections 141 (Indians), 142 (Indian Races) and 143 (Indo-Burman Races).
Derek Tonkin continues: I have asked myself whether the 'Arakan-Mahomedans' resident in Akyab (Sittwe) and tabulated as S1 in Imperial Table XVII, including 26,153 males and 25,462 females, might be the antecedents of present-day Rohingyas. I have yet to discover what has happened to them since 1945. They are classed separately from 'Arakan-Kaman' (S3), Chittagonian (X7) and Bengali (X3). I do not know how many of the other 13 Indian and 2 Indo-Burman recorded races who included Muslims might also have been resident in Arakan, presumably very few.
The Baxter Report 1941 recorded that: “There was an Arakanese Muslim community settled so long in Akyab (Sittwe) District that it had for all intents and purposes to be regarded as an indigenous race. There were also a few Mahomedan Kamans in Arakan and a small but long established Muslim community around Moulmein which could not be regarded as Indian” (Paragraph 7 of Chapter II). Baxter would no doubt have had these 51,615 'Arakan Mahomedans' in mind when he spoke of "an Arakanese Muslim community" quite separate from Chittagonians and Bengalis (whom the 1931 Census noted could have been amalgamated “but there is no harm done in giving separate figures for them”.)
From 1942 there must have been a traumatic internal migration of Muslims in Arakan as they went north to escape communal violence in the wake of the Japanese invasion and the Buddhists went south. This would surely have resulted in an amorphous melting pot of the Muslim population in Arakan from 1942 onwards and the resultant geographic and political polarisation of the Muslim and Buddhist communities, though only some of the Muslim community could reasonably trace their ancestry back to the 'Arakan Mahomedans', while others would be the descendants of Chittagonian and Bengali immigrants.
- [Expatriate] Karen worldwide call for census to be postponed - BCUK
- Fears Myanmar census could stoke tensions - Financial Times
- Myanmar Census: Risk or reward for Rohingya Muslims - AFP
- Bengalis not assigned to take census: Government official - Eleven Media
Two constrasting views on the Myanmar Census
The Identity Politics of Myanmar's Census
Robert Taylor: Nikkei Asian Review - 7 March 2014
The writer observes that "while one can appreciate the well-intentioned motives behind some of these warnings [of resultant ethnic or religious tensions], ignoring the multifaceted nature of identity-group conflict in Myanmar, as in any other country, does not resolve these vexing issues. Indeed, hiding from reality gives those opposed to the census license to invent all kinds of claims, and leaves those who would dispute them lacking the data needed to confound them.
"The problem is not the resulting census data but people's understanding of what that data represents. Myanmar is not alone in a world that is struggling to understand how emotionally charged concepts such as race, religion, citizenship, human rights and so-called group rights are not the stuff of reality but the stuff of fiction, law and states -- all of which are man-made and fast changing." Continue reading.....
Census: clarification, obfuscation or provocation?
David I Steinberg: Nikkei Asian Review - 7 March 2014
The writer argues that the results of the national census which has already started in remoter areas of Myanmar, "appear unlikely to provide much clarity, despite the good-faith efforts of President Thein Sein's government. An unmanageable 41 questions will be asked, as each U.N. agency wants to gather its own sets of specialized data. Many of these queries translate poorly into Burmese. Can anyone reasonably expect the 100,000 enumerators to be sufficiently trained to ask and record such complicated data across more than 10 million households?
He concludes: "All censuses are politically charged. The best solution is to get good data. By the U.N.'s own guidelines, the questionnaire should be simple and culturally appropriate, translated into major languages, and pretested and post-tested to ensure credibility. All that Myanmar needs at this point is basic demographic data on population size and distribution. To that end, the census should be cut to five or six politically and culturally neutral questions that can be reliably asked in the current context." Continue reading.....
Derek Tonkin writes: At this late stage it may be impossible to postpone or even curtail the planned census which will shortly be in full swing, but it is to be hoped that when declaring the results , the Myanmar authorities will have the good sense to interpret the results sensibly and dispassionately.
Democratic Voice of Burma - 3 March 2014
President Thein Sein on Saturday pledged that the upcoming census will be conducted in accordance with international standards and human rights principles, at an opening ceremony held in Naypyidaw.
Thein Sein, joined by representatives of the government, political parties and leaders of ethnic armed groups, urged civilians to respond to all questions without “any hesitations”, assuring that their information will be kept confidential. The president described the survey as, “a noble process, making an investment for at least a decade”, which he said will provide data necessary for the country’s development and impressed the importance of giving accurate information.
"The British Government is providing significant funding to the census in 2014 because it will be a vital source of data to inform better government service delivery, help the government manage public finances more transparently, and underpin private investment and job creation. We, and other donors, have been working with the Burmese Government and the UN to manage and mitigate the risks, including ethnic tensions, which could be associated with the census to ensure as peaceful, credible and complete a process as possible.
"The census form contains a space that enables people to self-identify their ethnicity, such as Rohingya. The form and census process are being discussed between the Government and members of the Rohingya community and other ethnic groups."
Ethnic representatives call off postponement of census after talks
UNFPA - 26 February 2014
A group consisting of representatives from 10 ethnic groups and civil society from across Myanmar agreed during talks held in in Nay Pyi Taw on 26 February 2014 with government officials and UNFPA to put aside concerns over the categorization of ethnicity until after the data collection has taken place in the South-East Asian country.Continue reading.....
The Democratic Voice of Burma has also reported that representatives from 10 ethnic organisations are prepared to shelve concerns over categorisation of ethnic groups in Burma until after the census has been conducted. The collective was previously of the opinion that the official listing of 135 distinct ethnic groups could cause discord, hence the questionnaire should be adjusted to avoid controversy.
Burma’s ethnic groups have been fervent in their criticism of a census that the International Crisis Group have too labelled 'divisive'. The new statement is the first indication of a changing sentiment.
Derek Tonkin writes: Apart from numerous ethnic groups, external organisations like the International Crisis Group, the Transnational Institute in the Netherlands and the Burma Campaign UK have expressed reservations about the forthcoming census and have recommended either postponement or radical simplification.
There is never likely to be an ideal time for a census, and with general elections due in November next year, a postponed census might prove to be a serious mistake. It is far better that the Myanmar Government should stand by the courage of their convictions and go ahead with the census as planned, especially as donors and the UN Population Fund are supporting them in this endeavour. No doubt the census and its results will encounter problems, but a census is urgently needed and the matters raised by ICG, TNI and BCUK should alert the authorities to take due account of possible difficulties and to ensure that these are mitigated.
On balance, the arguments in favour of going ahead with the census seem to far outweigh the repercussions of yielding to pressures from Western institutes and which in any case are seemingly not supported by their governments.
Theodore Sheha, a development and public policy consultant working in Myanmar, argues that the forthcoming Myanmar Census offers an opportunity for the country to collect the most up-to-date data, which will go a long way in facilitating development planning, allocation of national and international aid resources, as well as understanding the demographic and socio-economic characteristics of the country - an opportunity which has eluded the people of Myanmar for the past 31 years.
- Myanmar census a Pandora's box - Bangkok Post
- Teachers fear language problems could derail census in Rakhine - Myanmar Times
Ethnicity without Meaning: Data without Context
Transnational Institute Briefing No. 13 - February 2014
The 2014 Population and Housing Census is likely to undertake the most significant ethnic and political boundary-making in the country since the last British census in 1931. However, by using flawed designations that date from the colonial era and ignoring the considerable complexity of the present political situation in Myanmar, the census is likely to raise ethnic tensions at precisely the moment that peace negotiations are focused on building trust. Continue reading.....
Derek Tonkin writes: A remarkably informative and very well researched analysis of the complex situation in which the national census is taking place. However, while highlighting the many complex and currently insoluble issues which are likely to arise, the authors do not go so far as to recommend the postponement of the census, though this is implicit in their comments..
Burma's Census: Not worth dying for
Burma Briefing: The Burma Campaign UK - February 2014
In the current Burma context, the census could lead to violent attacks against religious minorities, increase ethnic tensions, and provide inaccurate data. On balance, the potential risks appear to outweigh the potential benefits. As a result, Burma Campaign UK believes the census should be postponed to avoid these very real risks, which could include conflict and loss of life. Read the full report.....
- Delaying cenuses would be an enormous waste of resources: UNFPA
- Verification of Rohingya in Arakan - Nurul Islam, Kaladan Press
- No code name for Rohingya in census: Minister Khin Yi - Eleven Media
Myanmar Conflict Alert: A Risky Census
International Crisis Group - 12 February 2014
This briefing note by the ICG argues that "the nationwide census planned for 30 March to 10 April 2014 risks inflaming tensions at a critical moment in Myanmar’s peace process and democratic transition. The census process should be urgently amended to focus only on key demographic questions, postponing those which are needlessly antagonistic and divisive - on ethnicity, religion, citizenship status - to a more appropriate moment."
A Burmese version of the ICG report is at this link.
The briefing note, which merits careful and detailed reading, makes several important points, including:
- The coming census, consisting of 41 questions, is overly complicated and fraught with danger.
- Recent months have seen an increasingly virulent Burman-Buddhist nationalist movement lead to assaults on Muslim minority communities. A census which risks further increasing these tensions is ill-advised.
- There are many flaws in the ethnic classification system being used for the census, which is based on an old and much-criticised list of 135 groups produced in the 1980s.
- There is no possibility to report mixed ethnicity, forcing people into a single identity, to the potential disadvantage of some smaller groups.
- Currently, it is widely believed that Myanmar’s population is 4 per cent Muslim. The real figure collected in the 1983 census could have been over 10 per cent. The results of the current census could therefore be mistakenly interpreted as providing evidence for a three-fold increase in the Muslim population in the country over the last 30 years.
- The next two years will be highly volatile. A poorly timed census that enters into controversial areas of ethnicity and religion in an ill-conceived way will further complicate the situation.
- Plans have proceeded with apparently little concern at the political level - by government, the United Nations and donors - over the potential risks.
- There is still time to adjust the process by limiting the census to just the key demographic questions on age, sex and marital status - that is, the first six questions on the census form.
Government dismisses call to postpone census - Mizzima 14 February 2014
Related report: On 20 January 2014 Baroness Nye, a Labour Peer in the House of Lords and Board Member of the Burma Campaign UK , put a Written Question: "To ask Her Majesty’s Government what guarantees have been received from the government of Burma that ethnic Rohingya will be allowed to register as Rohingya in the 2014 census in Burma".
The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Warsi) (Conservative) replied:
"British officials hold regular discussions with Burmese officials, members of the Rohingya and other ethnic community leaders about the upcoming census. Our Ambassador most recently raised it with local authorities and communities during his visit to Rakhine State in December 2013.
"We understand that the census form will contain a blank space where people can self-identify their ethnicity, such as Rohingya. This is being discussed between the government and members of the Rohingya community.
"The British Government is providing significant funding support to the census in 2014 because it will be a vital source of data to inform better government service delivery, help the government manage public finances more transparently, and underpin private investment and job creation. We, with other donors, have been lobbying the Burmese government and the UN to manage the political risks and ethnic tensions that could be associated with the census to ensure as complete and credible a process as possible."
Derek Tonkin writes: The implication in the ICG Conflict Alert is that donor governments should be doing more than simply 'lobbying' on this highly sensitive and potentially divisive issue. It is however no surprise to learn that the Government has stated that it will go ahead with the census as planned.
Ethnic minorities decry census, jostle for advantage
The Irrawaddy - 10 February 2014
Members of Burma’s largest ethnic minority groups and smaller ethnic subgroups are voicing concerns over a census due to be conducted late next month, with the survey’s system of classification criticized as inaccurate by some, and unnecessarily divisive by others.
Major ethnic groups like the Karen, Chin and Kachin have complained that they are being robbed of some subgroups, claiming they owe lineage to the larger respective ethnic identities but have been incorrectly placed elsewhere under the current categorization scheme. Other voices from among the ranks of Burma’s biggest ethnic minorities have called for categorizing the scores of ethnic subgroups under the primary ethnic groups rather than giving an individual code number to each. Continue reading.....
Chin ask to postpone census dates
Chinland Guardian - 30 January 2014
The Chin National Action Committee on Census 2014 (CNACC) have made an appeal to the Central Census Commission of Burma to re-arrange the dates for the nationwide census taking.
The committee comprising 21 members from Chin political parties, civil society organizations and scholars requested that the census schedule be put off by at least 30 more days.
In a statement released on Monday, they indicated that the Chin, like other ethnic nationalities, needed more time to make enough preparation for the census collection planned for between 29 March to 10 April 2014.
Additionally, there has been confusion among ethnic nationalities over the list of tribal names collected and coded by the government for the upcoming census taking as its contents are inaccurate, wrongly categorized and misspelled. Continue reading.....
Burmese census will offer ethnicity of choice
Democratic Voice of Burma - 27 January 2014
Dr Nyi Nyi, director general of Burma’s Department of Population, said on Friday that each person in the country shall be given the opportunity to refer to themselves by whatever ethnicity they choose in the upcoming national census.
Speaking at a press conference in Naypyidaw, Nyi Nyi said that the decision to expand the parameters of “ethnicity” was in response to concerns raised by various ethnic leaders over the harm to national unity which may arise from forcing people to identify themselves as an ethnicity that they say does not represent their group or sub-group.
Asked whether the ability to choose one’s own ethnicity in the upcoming census would extend to the Rohingya Muslim community - referred to by many Burmese as “Bengalis” and widely regarded as illegal immigrants - Nyi Nyi said, “The Rohingya issue is a recent case. We have conducted censuses in 1973 and 1983, and each person was permitted to refer to themselves by the ethnicity of their choice. We intend to do the same at the upcoming census – we will register anyone under any ethnic entity that they refer to themselves.”