A Census Too Soon?

Fortify Rights, an international human rights organization based in South East Asia, raised concerns regarding Burma’s upcoming national census, citizenship law and national ID card scheme, arguing that in their current form they entrenched ethnic rifts and threatened peace.

The Burma Government’s census, National ID card scheme and citizenship law are adding to ethnic discrimination, Matthew Smith, executive director and a founder of Fortify Rights, a human rights organization based in South East Asia, said in an interview with Karen News.

Burma’s pink-coloured national ID cards are important documents, which allow relative freedom of travel, access to government schools and voting in elections.

Yet Mr. Smith noted that while “ID cards are an important part of being a member of Myanmar’s [Burma’s] population,” in their current form, they intensified ethnic divisions.

“The government should stop printing ethnicity and religion on national identification cards. It contributes to discrimination in the country and there is no good reason to include that information on the cards,” Mr. Smith added.

According to Ministry of Immigration and Population (MIP) figures listed in The Irrawaddy, an estimated “487,000 household registration certificates and approximately 3.5 million National Registration Cards were issued through to May of last year, under the ‘Moe Pwint’ Project.”

Mr. Smith expressed serious concerns over Burma’s 1982 Myanmar Citizenship Law, which he said endangered the current peace process.

“The citizenship law should be amended so that all ethnic nationalities in the country have equal access to full citizenship status. As written, the law effectively excludes the Rohingya and contributes to their statelessness, which in turn creates instability in Rakhine State. In our view, Rohingya statelessness has been a principal root cause of violence in Rakhine State.”

Introduced in 1982, Burma’s citizenship law does not recognize 850,000 people in the country – mainly Rohingya Muslims – leaving them stateless, according to UNHCR estimations.

The Burma government was failing to engage in effective dialogue because the discriminatory laws were still in place, Mr. Smith said.

“Interfaith and inter-ethnic dialogue will only be effective when each party stands on equal ground, and right now we’re no where near seeing that… This issue threatens to derail the entire reform process.”

Other international rights groups have echoed the concerns of Mr. Smith. Human Rights Watch condemned the law as being “draconian” in their 2014 world report.

Burma’s government has rejected calls to reform the citizenship law and a spokesperson for President Thein Sein said that Burma’s citizenship law was a “sovereign right” to be determined by the government alone: “Any person ineligible under the law can’t be citizen, no matter who is pressuring [the government]”, he said in an interview with The Irrawaddy in November 2013.

Human rights groups also raised deep concerns regarding Burma’s upcoming census – the first of its kind since 1983 – contending that it is being rushed through and could be used to whitewash “genocide.”

Fortify Rights director, Mr Smith stressed that now is not the time to push through a national census.

“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.”

The Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) announced this month that KIO controlled territory would not participated in the census – perhaps 80,000 people in Kachin State alone would therefore not be included in the census.

The KIO and the organisation’s armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army, have been at war with Burma’s Government since 2011, when a 17-year ceasefire was shattered.

“A national census is very important for any country’s development, and a proper census in Myanmar would be very useful for development. There is a risk that the census will somehow be used to undermine ethnic unity, and that’s a major concern given the tenuous state of so-called ceasefire agreements.”

In a February interview with Karen News, Steven Kiersons a Burma researcher from the Sentinel Project, a group that monitors the risk of genocide in areas of conflict, went so far as to accuse Burma’s government of using the upcoming census to whitewash “genocide.”

“This census is not so much about classification, but about denial,” Mr Kiersons said. “Those intent on genocide in Burma intend also to deny it ever happened. By classifying the Rohingya as Bengali they intend to claim they did not exterminate the Rohingya, but foreign elements of Bangladesh.”

Mr. Kiersons said, “The Burmese government’s policy of nation-building has discriminated against Karen, Shan, Rohingya, and Chinese minorities, among others.”

Burma’s census is scheduled to take place from March 30 to April 10, with preliminary results expected to be available in the end of July and final results available in 2015.

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