Myanmar census a Pandora's Box

YANGON - As Myanmar's first nationwide census in 31 years nears, ethnic minority groups are stepping up a campaign to postpone the exercise for a few more months or risk a political backlash.

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The census, to be conducted between March 30 and April 10, contains 41 questions, the most controversial of which is number eight on ethnicity, providing a list of 135 answers to choose from.

The list, dating back to the 1982 Citizens' Act that defined indigenous ethnic groups, is confusing, dividing the main ethnic groups into scores of sub-groups that sometimes indicate different clans, dialect groups or just different spellings of the same group.

Myanmar is an ethnically diverse and divided country, where the central government has been fighting ethnic-based insurgent groups since gaining independence from Britain in 1948.

The British divided the country up into regions and territories defined by the country's leading ethnic groups - the Chin, Kachin, Kayin (Karen), Kayah (Karenni), Mon, Rakhine and Shan states.

Burmans, the majority ethnic group in what was previously called Burma, account for more than 60% of the estimated population of 60 million.

Come census time, the remaining 40% of the population will need to identify themselves as one of 134 other ethnic groups, and many are suspicious of the Burman-run government's motives in setting the question.

"We see the government's intention is to try to divide the ethnic groups using the census results," the Palaung State Liberation Front, an ethnic rebel groups based in Shan state in north-eastern Myanmar, said in a petition to the government.

Ethnic civil and insurgent groups want the census postponed until their concerns have been addressed.

"This census will further weaken the ethnic minority groups, because many Burmese, such as those of Indian descent, will opt to be Burmans because it will make it easier for them to get jobs," said Bertil Lintner, author of several books on Myanmar insurgencies.

The census includes more than 33 Shan sub-groups. The predominantly Christian Chin, whose traditional home is the Chin State in western Myanmar, have been divided into 53 different sub-groups.

"Many Chin are confused and worried that we will become more divided by this census," said Salai Bawi Thang, a spokeswoman for the Chin Human Rights Organisation.

The census comes at a time when the government of President Thein Sein has made tentative ceasefire agreements with a dozen ethnic insurgent groups, all of which are in danger of coming undone.

Insurgent groups will know if their concerns have been heeded by March 1, when the government plans to launch a publicity campaign on the census.

"If they keep on pushing this census, I am sure it will hurt the peace process, since we don't trust each other already," said Kheunsai Jaiyen, editor of the Shan Herald News Agency, a rebel publication.

"It means they are not listening to the people, and that the democracy they have been trumpeting for the past two years amounts to nothing," he said.

The census could also have bearing on the scheduled 2015 general election.

"The constitution and election laws provide for a set of ethnically delineated constituencies for those groups that meet a certain population threshold, with representatives being appointed as ministers in local governments," said the International Crisis Group (ICG) in an alert earlier in February.

The Brussels-based think tank has called on the government to either postpone the census or drop controversial questions on ethnicity and religion, limiting it to demographic questions.

In the last census conducted in 1983, the Muslim population was estimated at 4%, while the real percentage now is probably 10%, according to the ICG.

If the 2014 census verifies a twofold increase in the Muslim population it could ignite more sectarian clashes, which have already led to massacres of Muslim communities since 2012, the ICG warned.

Despite the rising chorus of opposition, the government has shown no sign of reconsidering the census.

"We will continue with the census as planned even though the International Crisis Group has brought out this alert," said Khin Yi, union minister of immigration and population.

The United Nations Population Fund and international donors have provided technical and financial support to assist the census.

"Donors have failed to obey the 'do no harm' rule in supporting this census," said Susana Hla Hla Soe, a leader of the Karen Women’s Action Group.

United Nations Population Fund representatives told the Karen Women’s Action Group that the government of Myanmar was "extremely well prepared for census,' despite the concerns of ethnic minorities, she said.

"This upcoming census will have a serious effect on all the ethnic minorities, except the Burmans," said Khon Ja, a spokeswoman for the Kachin Peace network. "We just demand to postpone the census until all the minorities' concerns have been addressed," she said.

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