Myanmar’s first census in more than three decades risks further inflaming communal tensions, a report from the International Crisis Group warned

Myanmar Census Plan Draws Fire

Results Could Spur Buddhist Extremists to Violence, Report Says

SHIBANI MAHTANI

Feb. 13, 2014 5:40 a.m. ET

Myanmar’s first census in more than three decades risks further inflaming communal tensions at a delicate time in the country’s democratic transition, an international group working against conflicts warned.

The 41 questions in the planned census, covering subjects from religious beliefs to ethnicity, are “overly complicated and fraught with danger,” the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a report late Wednesday.

“Myanmar is struggling to end decades-old, multiple and overlapping ethnic conflicts in its peripheries,” the report argues. “A census which further risks increasing these tensions is ill-advised.”

The census, a $75 million project of the Myanmar government and the United Nations Population Fund, aims to count every person in the country, starting on the night of March 29 and continuing until April 10. Hundreds of thousands of schoolteachers will be trained as enumerators and sent out to even the most rural and conflict-stricken areas.

The U.N. and the government say the census, the first since 1983, is needed so that nongovernmental organizations and authorities can plan aid programs.

“The [United Nations Population Fund] has been assured that international standards will be upheld in the training of enumerators and supervisors [and in the] full census coverage throughout the country,” Janet Jackson, the organization’s country representative in Myanmar, said at a news conference Monday.

But the International Crisis Group report says the census has many flaws—in particular, its classification of ethnic groups, based on “a much-criticized list of 135 groups produced in the 1980s” under the previous military government. In some cases, the report says, the list creates excessive subdivisions; in others it combines groups without any ethno-linguistic basis.

For example, the relatively small Chin ethnic group—about a million people—is broken up into 53 subdivisions, while several ethnic groups in Shan state are classified as “Shan” despite significant differences among them.

The government says it is using a list of official ethnicities and that minorities have the option to fill in their own ethnic definitions.

“It is very confusing,” said human-rights activist Cheery Zahau, an ethnic Chin. “Even my individual family clan, Zahau, is listed. There was no consultation with the individual ethnic groups, who would want a smaller list to choose from.” Ethnic groups are allotted seats in the legislature proportionate to their size. Fragmenting groups could reduce their representation.

There has been little time, Ms. Zahau adds, to educate rural resident of far-flung states of the benefits of the census and allay their fears the government will use the information to hurt them.

“If we had known this a year in advance, we could have educated people,” said Ms. Zahau. “At the moment, I think it is going to be a mess.”

The ICG report says the census could support growing Buddhist extremism, typified by the “969 movement,” whose anti-Muslim speech has contributed to the isolation of the country’s minority Muslim population. In recent years, hundreds of Muslims in Myanmar have died in clashes with Buddhists.

The government says Muslims make up about 4% of the population, but the report contends they may have exceeded 10% at the time of the last census and that their percentage has probably grown since. Because the planned census aims to record everyone in the country, even if not as citizens—including hundreds of thousands of stateless Muslim Rohingyas in western Rakhine state—the count could serve to alarm the Buddhist majority into violence, the report says.

“The results of the current census could therefore be mistakenly interpreted as providing evidence for a threefold increase in the Muslim population in the country over the last 30 years, a potentially dangerous call to arms for extremist movements,” it explains.

 

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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