Myanmar is preparing to conduct is first census in three decades next spring when data gatherers will comb ethnic conflict zones and cities driven by new growth to gauge population patterns.
Minister of Immigration and Population Khin Yi said that more than 100,000 workers and volunteers would carry out the 12-day census in a massive logistical exercise starting March 30 and costing tens of millions of dollars.
They will coordinate with local community and religious leaders to collect data in border areas long controlled by armed ethnic rebel groups, he said.
“We have explained to all authorities and regional officers around the country about the process of the census, and they have agreed with us on general issues,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Rights groups say Myanmar has thousands of people who lack identity cards or other documentation because they were born in refugee camps, insurgent-controlled areas, or migrant worker communities.
Current estimates say Myanmar’s population has about doubled to 60 million people since the last census was conducted in 1983 under the former military regime.
But that census and those before it were plagued with inaccuracies in counting the country’s ethnic populations, including hill tribes in remote border areas or others in rebel-controlled territory.
'Not related to politics or citizenship'
Khin Yi said the 2014 census will count all of those living in Myanmar regardless of citizenship status, which is closely linked to ethnicity under the country’s stratified citizenship laws.
Those not listed as part of Myanmar’s official 135 recognized ethnic groups—such as Rohingyas, members of an unrecognized minority—will be counted as having “other” ethnicity, he said.
“The census is not related to politics or citizenship,” he said at a press conference in Yangon on the census plans earlier this week.
“If some are not from one of Myanmar’s 135 ethnic groups, their citizenship will not disappear and they will be listed as of ‘other’ ethnicity.”
The United Nations and foreign governments including the U.S., U.K., and Australia have pledged to help fund the U.S. $60 million census, which will draw on a pilot project carried out in 20 townships this past March and April.
President Thein Sein has stressed that better population data is crucial to crafting policies that will further the country’s further development as it emerges from decades of political isolation under military rule.
Reforms instituted over the past few years have ushered in a flood of international investment bringing booming growth to Myanmar’s cities, while waves of migrant workers continue to head outside of the country’s borders seeking opportunities in neighboring Thailand.
Khin Yi said information collected in the census would be used to aid in national development policies, pledging that personal data collected from individuals will be kept “confidential.”
“We are going to use the information for the country’s development and in its interest,” he said.
“We will not give away the detailed data from the census and not let any organization know. We will not give the details even to the police if they ask,” he said.
He also said that the government is anxious to determine the number of undocumented migrant Myanmar nationals in Thailand, but that the data will not be used to nab those who head there to work without proper documentation.
“We just want to know how many citizens there are living and working in Thailand. We don’t want to know how they went there, whether legally or illegally.”
Smart ID cards
In conjunction with the census, the ministry is also working on rolling out electronic ID cards to replace the current paper identification card carried by all citizens.
Khin Yi said he could not say when the new smart ID cards will be introduced, but the plan is that eventually they will replace all paper cards.
The ministry is working on the project with international specialists and is considering tenders from several foreign companies to build a data system, he said.
“We will listen to what those businesses who propose working with us on it have to say, and choose through a tender system one who can do it at an affordable cost and with good quality,” he told RFA.
Current ID cards issued in Myanmar are often filled out with handwritten data including name, father’s name, ID number, date and place of birth, ethnicity, religion, height, and blood type.
Reported by Myo Zaw Ko for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.