By Alex Colley Hart, Southeast Asia Education Coordinator. Alex is a junior at Indiana University with a major in International Relations and a minor in Business.
On Thursday, April 10, Burma finished its first national census in over 30 years. However, the 12-day long, UN sponsored census has not gone without controversy. Some groups, like the Kachin Independence Organization, have refused to participate due to ongoing armed conflict with the Myanmar government. The Palaung State Liberation Front, a group representing the Palaung people, requested to be identified as separate from Shan, the majority ethnic group in their home Shan State, but were denied but government officials. More alarmingly, the Myanmar government has instructed data gatherers to preclude information for anyone identifying as Rohingya, further illustrating the country’s growing anti-Muslim mentality.
This is not the first time Rohingya people have been overlooked or denied rights by the Myanmar government. The Rohingya are a stateless ethnic group primarily residing in Arakan State in western Burma and far eastern parts of Bangladesh. The Myanmar government believes the Rohingya are not an official ethnic group; rather, they are Bengali migrants that have illegally crossed into Burma. They are predominantly Muslim and have been subject to growing discrimination by both official state actions and Buddhist radicals. The treatment of Rohingya has become so bad that last year Human Rights Watch labeled the acts as “ethnic cleansing.”
A census is an important tool for a country both in terms of the raw data it collects and the subsequent picture it creates of a country’s population. For a highly diverse country like Burma, which has not conducted a census in decades, an accurate portrayal of its ever-changing population is an important part of the country’s process of bringing about peace domestically and successfully repositioning itself among the international community. By prohibiting specific people from contributing to the census, the Myanmar government has undermined both of these goals and is unfortunately showing the world that its government has yet to overcome its racist and dictatorial past.
In response to growing international criticism, the Myanmar Ministry of Immigration and Population has expressed its intentions to continue to collect data from parts of the country that were not reached during the 12-day census. Official, electronic results of the census are due to be released in early 2015.