Myanmar’s controversial census has inflamed ethnic tensions at a critical moment in the peace process. Releasing the data will require great political sensitivity to avoid further violence, all the more so with elections scheduled for 2015.
Myanmar’s first census in 30 years will provide important information for national planning and development. But its controversial collection of ethnic and religious data sparked conflict, particularly in Rakhine State, where it prompted attacks on aid groups, boycott threats from the Rakhine, and a government decision to block Rohingya self-identification; and in Kachin State, where clashes between the military and the Kachin Independence Organisation caused hundreds to flee. In its latest briefing, Counting the Costs: Myanmar’s Problematic Census, the International Crisis Group identifies the failures – on the part of the UN and donors, as well as the government – that have turned the census into a flashpoint, and outlines the risks that the release of the census data, planned in several phases during the coming year and a half, may bring.
The briefing’s major findings and recommendations are:
The serious problems created by the census were neither inevitable, nor unforeseen. They are the result of the way in which data on the potentially divisive subjects of ethnicity, religion and citizenship status are being collected, insensitive to local circumstances and citizens’ needs, and with insufficient consultation with key constituencies when the census was designed.
The responsibility lies partly with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), which largely guided the design and preparatory work and which did not heed early warnings about the risks and the required revisions. It also lies with the government, under whose authority the census was conducted, and with donors who provided insufficient political oversight.
In light of the heightened intercommunal tensions and the country’s ongoing efforts to end a decades-long civil war, releasing the census data carries risks of renewed violence and should be handled with great sensitivity, especially data on religion and ethnicity that can have social and political ramifications. In view of the 2015 elections, the government should ensure better security, including an army presence in Rakhine State, and demonstrate that it is ready to protect all minorities. Donors and the UN should accept their share of responsibility for the flaws in the census. Lessons must be learned to improve future donor-sponsored initiatives in Myanmar, including support to the peace process and the elections.
“A census that was more sensitive to political realities, or one conducted at a less volatile time, could have limited or avoided some of the problems now being stoked” says Jonathan Prentice, Acting Asia Program Director. “Risks do not end with the enumeration. There are no easy mitigation strategies: not releasing the most sensitive data has downsides, just as does their publication. Myanmar’s authorities will have to do a lot more to ensure protection of vulnerable communities, while its international partners will need to work with it – rather than point the finger – to ensure the census does not further complicate the country’s transition”.