With Myanmar’s first national census in 30 years in full swing on Monday, activists raised concerns that up to 400,000 people in conflict-ridden Kachin state could be left out of the survey.
The 12-day undertaking kicked off Sunday morning with 120,000 enumerators fanning out across the country, knocking door-to-door to collect demographic data for the first full national census since 1983.
The massive U.S. $75 million exercise is aimed at providing the government with up-to-date social, economic, and demographic information it hopes to use to boost development as the country emerges from decades under military rule.
Census workers are filling out a 41-point form with queries ranging from gender, education level, and birth rates to households’ access to water, and are classifying respondents according to a list of 135 recognized “national races.”
But ethnic rebel groups and rights groups have raised concerns that minorities will not be counted accurately amid ongoing conflict between government groups and rebel militias.
In northern Myanmar’s Kachin state, more than 30 percent of the population will not be counted if government officials do not receive permission from the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) to conduct the census in their territory, the Kachin Peace Network activist group said Monday.
“The government discussed with other ethnic armed groups about the census, but not with the KIO. For that reason … some 300,000 to 400,000 Kachin people living in KIO-controlled areas will not be on the list,” the group’s director Khon Ja told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
The figure includes thousands of Kachins living in refugee camps in KIO-controlled areas, though those in camps in government-controlled areas will be counted in the census, she said.
'Wait and see'
Government officials in Kachin state said they were going to “wait and see” whether they could get permission to send census-takers to specific KIO-controlled areas.
“We told our workers to wait and see about the situation and negotiate with local residents about collecting census data in KIO areas, as we have heard that many villages will not participate in the census,” immigration official Khine Khine Soe in the Kachin capital Myitkyina said.
But Khon Ja said that no census takers have traveled to rebel-controlled areas as of yet.
“Census workers haven’t conducted the survey in KIO-controlled areas so far,” she said.
In Kachin state townships where census workers have already been sent, KIO-controlled areas within the townships have been excluded, she said.
Many areas are too dangerous for census workers to reach amid ongoing skirmishes between Kachin soldiers and government troops.
Myanmar’s largest armed rebel group, the KIO is still embroiled in fighting with government troops three years after a 17-year cease-fire agreement was shattered, even though they are participating in talks with government negotiators on a nationwide cease-fire agreement.
Most of Myanmar’s other ethnic rebel groups have agreed to work with officials to administer the census in their areas.
Earlier this month, a group of 20 Kachin civil society organizations said they would refuse to recognize the results of the census because it “does not cover the entire country” and there were problems with coding on the question about ethnicity.
Rohingyas in Rakhine state
International rights groups have also raised concerns about how the census will affect ethnic minority Muslim Rohingyas in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, another of the country’s conflict-torn regions.
Rohingyas are not among the 135 official ethnic races, but code numbers used on the census forms allow for the use of “other” which gives people the right to define their own identity in the allotted blank space.
Officials have said in recent days, however, that the Rohingyas are not an official ‘ethnic race’ and will therefore not be registered as such on the census.
The Democratic Voice of Burma news agency said reports from Rakhine state suggest census collectors are ignoring answers of “Rohingya” and preferring to leave the section blank.
Buddhist Rakhine groups have threatened to boycott the process over suspicions that the census will allow Muslims to include themselves as Rohingya, therefore legitimizing their ethnic status.
The government considers Rohingyas illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, although many have lived in the country for generations. The U.N. says they are among the world's most persecuted minorities.
Reported by Yadanar Oo, Kyaw Thu, and Kyaw Myo Min for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.