Missing: nine million people

Myanmar’s census not only reawakened the country’s religious tensions, it also revealed a truly shocking population statistic. The fallout continues…

Fiona MacGregor
November 14, 2014

Myanmar’s census not only reawakened the country’s religious tensions, it also revealed a truly shocking population statistic. The fallout continues…

By Fiona MacGregor

When Myanmar’s controversial census – its first in 30 years – revealed its population is 51 million and not the previously cited 60 million, it engendered widespread amazement: How could a nation fail to notice that nine million people did not, in fact, exist?

The long road home: blue-collar workers wait for transportation in the suburbs of Yangon. Photo: Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP
The long road home: blue-collar workers wait for transportation in the suburbs of Yangon. Photo: Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP

Now, as it emerges that the government is planning to withhold potentially incendiary data regarding religion until after the national election at the end of next year, the debate over the timing and methodology of the census has been reignited.

The scale of the discrepancy in population highlights just how unreliable data in the newly emerging country is. It has also forced economists and development bodies to alter figures on key indicators from GDP to maternal mortality.

While the lower population is unlikely to deter new companies from moving into Myanmar, which remains a largely untapped market, it “will affect the scale of investment”, according to Vikram Kumar, Myanmar representative for the International Finance Corporation.

He said that the telecoms sector, expected to draw an estimated $1 billion in foreign investment this year, would notice an immediate impact. With foreign firms Ooredoo and Telenor aiming to reach almost the entire population, the ten-million cut will force them to redraw profit margins.

“In Myanmar’s case, Asean becomes more relevant because a smaller domestic market will make integrating with [neighbouring markets] more necessary,” Kumar added.

Organisers claim the new, detailed statistics will play a vital role in the country’s development. But the figures have also added fuel to an already heated debate about the census’ role in exacerbating ethno-religious tensions in the volatile nation.

As fears rise that the release of details on religion and ethnicity will spark further sectarian violence, the government is now seeking to delay publication of that information, which was collected despite prior warnings it was likely to lead to conflict.

Tom Kramer of the Netherlands-based Transnational Institute, which published a report condemning the timing and methodology of the census before it took place in March and April, said the process was continuing to create “fundamental challenges”.

“Instead of creating the opportunity to improve inter-ethnic understanding and citizenship rights at a critical moment in the country’s history, the census – and now the handling of census data – promises to compound old grievances with a new generation of complexities,” he added.

Anti-Muslim sentiment and sectarian violence has risen sharply in Myanmar over the past two years, leaving hundreds dead and close to 150,000 people displaced.

In the run-up to the count, international critics – including rights groups and some thinktanks – called for key questions relating to ethnic background and religion to be removed. Others called for the entire event to be postponed, warning that the questionnaire was likely to provoke conflict.

Such advice appeared appropriate when violence broke out in Rakhine State in the immediate lead-up to the poll. Ethnic Rakhinese Buddhists feared the data could strengthen citizenship claims by the persecuted stateless Muslim Rohingya minority who live in the state.

International NGOs, that were providing vital humanitarian support to 140,000 people living in internally displaced person (IDP) camps and other vulnerable communities in the region, were accused of pro-Muslim bias and forced out of the area.

However, the government, which was heavily supported by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in its planning and implementation of the census, decided to push ahead in Rakhine and elsewhere.

Now it has emerged that the government is seeking to withhold the data until 2016. Ministers blamed the delay on a need to clarify how certain self-identified religious affiliations should be categorised. However, sources close to the poll say the delay is due to fears that, if the population figures reveal there is a higher percentage of Muslims living in the country than previously believed, it could spark major sectarian violence.

When asked if a delay until 2016 was likely, Dr Nyi Nyi, director general of Myanmar’s Department of Population, told Southeast Asia Globe: “We haven’t decided yet when the data on religion will be released, but we have to look at the stability of the country and, if necessary, we will postpone it. It is something we are seriously considering.”

The admission comes after senior officials confirmed in August that data on ethnicity would be withheld until after the forthcoming general election, which is scheduled to take place at the end of 2015.

“The authorities have to weigh the potential for increased communal tensions – in particular anti-Muslim violence – over the release of religious data against the public’s right to know the results,” said David Mathieson, senior Myanmar researcher with Human Rights Watch. “The government and UNFPA should act to end speculation either way, but the uncertainty has contributed to criticism of the process, in that it failed to take into account the potential for unrest.”

The ethnicity question has been one of the most contentious issues of the census, which cost an estimated $74 million, with much of the funding coming from international donors, notably the British, Norwegian, Australian and Swiss governments. While analysts have said the decision to withhold the information is mainly political, officials say the hold-up is due to data processing issues. 

The questionnaire allowed respondents to choose from one of Myanmar’s 135 officially recognised groups – classifications described by Human Rights Watch as “deeply flawed”– or an “other” option that allowed them to name their ethnicity in their own words.

In the lead-up to the census, the group of more than one million people who identify themselves as Rohingya were promised by the government that they would be allowed to respond as they wanted. The use of the name is highly controversial in Myanmar, where the government does not recognise the majority of Rohingya as legal citizens and insists they should be referred to as Bengali to imply they are illegal immigrants.

Despite previous assurances, which UNFPA chiefs said their organisation had also believed, ministers performed an abrupt volte face at the last moment and census enumerators were told to refuse to collect the details of anyone who identified as Rohingya. According to UNFPA, an estimated 1.09 million people were excluded as a result.

While a report by external independent observers published in August declared the census to have, in general, been a success and stated that it had met international standards, it described proceedings in Rakhine as a “complete failure”. Moreover, Rakhine was not the only region where the ethnicity question made it difficult or impossible for census details to be gathered.

In a move that further highlights the pressures on the Rohingya, at the end of September the government confirmed it was finalising a plan that would offer them citizenship, but only if they change their ethnicity to suggest they are Bangladeshi. Under the plan, those who refuse to be registered as Bangladeshi would be forced into what rights groups have described as “detention camps”.

During the official census, more than 100,000 people in communities in Kachin and Kayin states were also excluded because they were in ethnic areas too insecure for enumerators to enter into.

A UNFPA statement said the published population total included 1.2 million people whose details had not been collected during the official census. Instead, that figure was an estimate based on a combination of information from other sources, or extrapolated from the official figures from neighbouring communities.

Even with those additions the final figure of 51 million was still a long way off the previous estimation. So how did such a large discrepancy come about?

With an estimated two to four million Myanmar workers based in Thailand, according to the International Organisation for Migration, and about half a million believed to be living in Malaysia, the impact of migration is something that, according to UNFPA, will be looked at in a separate study.  

Crucially, however, the figure of 60 million was extrapolated from a 1983 census – long recognised to have been flawed – that put the population at 35.4 million. Assumptions were then made regarding fertility and mortality rates based on uncertain methodology, and so the widely cited 60 million estimate was never much better than a guess to start with.

Even with this year’s census providing new, more accurate population details, uncertainty over data held about Myanmar is likely to remain for a considerable time. That the census itself will continue to provoke controversy over the coming months is, perhaps, the one certainty that can be relied upon.

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