An international coalition of Karen community-based-organizations (CBOs) has sent a letter to the United Nations Population Fund expressing “deep concern” with Burma’s approaching national census – urging it be postponed.
The letter argues that the census is being carried out prematurely citing issues with the categorization of ethnic nationalities, and that the census forms would only be in Burmese language.
“The Burmese government has arbitrarily made decisions on this issue. The lack of proper consultation with ethnic community leaders resulted in incorrect information in the way ethnic groups and sub-groups have been coded and categorised. Some of the Karen sub-groups are found to be listed in other ethnic nationalities groups. Moreover, the Burmanised version of our Karen name ‘Kayin’ is used without approval of our people. This goes against [the] UN’s own recommendations that ethnic groups be allowed to self-identify,” the letter said.
The Karen coalition, represents 28 Karen CBOs from 11 countries, said that all Karen subgroups should be free to register under any name they want while also being categorized as part of the Karen race “to ensure proper acknowledgement of the people as a national race.”
The coalition claim that Karen people were fearful that the census could “facilitate” human rights abuses. “Karen communities are concerned that there is a risk of the census facilitating increased human rights abuses by the Burmese Army in Karen areas. Based on our past experience in Burma, local military officers used our information to carry out abuses against villagers.”
The Karen coalition cited abuses including forced labour, sexual violence and looting.
The coalition are worried “that if the Burmese government has more information about our population, it would be even easier for them to target us in order to increase control over our people, property and natural resources.”
In an interview with Karen News last week, Matthew Smith, executive director of the international human rights group, Fortify Rights, expressed similar concerns raised by the Karen CBOs.
“The timing and process for the census are inadvisable on many levels. Civil society throughout the country has voiced its concerns and it appears their voices aren’t being heard. At this point the census should be temporarily postponed to ensure it won’t contribute to ethnic disunity. The donor governments and UNFPA have the ability to improve the process,” Mr. Smith said.
Burma’s census is currently scheduled to take place from March 30 to April 10, with the first results expected in the end of July and the final results available next year.
“For us, who have been forced to flee from our homeland because of attacks by the Burmese Army, the census is not just a technical exercise where the government can tick the many boxes to improve its international image. It is about our lives, our people, our country, our survival as a race and our future,” the coalition said.