Burma’s Census: Nation Building Needs To Start Somewhere

Censuses are a starting point to order society. Benedict Anderson writes in his iconic essay Census, Map, Museum, that British colonial census-makers were known to ‘agglomerate, disaggregate, recombine and intermix identity categories’, and that ‘the politically powerful identity categories always lead the list’. The real innovation was ‘not in the construction of ethnic-racial classifications, but rather in their systematic quantification’. The state was carefully counting ‘the objects of its feverish imagining’.[1]

It’s worth reflecting on Anderson’s essay in the context of Myanmar’s 2014 census.

Jointly coordinated by the Ministry of Immigration and Population (MOIP), and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), census enumerators and observers fanned the country to collect desperately needed demographic data, which will be crucial for national planning and development. The census works to systematically define Myanmar’s ethnic groups, however it has failed to allow everyone in the country to choose an ethnicity of their choice.

In an attempt to inform communities in select parts of the country, a ‘census-bus’ took to the streets in upper and lower Myanmar, to encourage participation. Posters were marked on car panels, billboards stood tall along roadsides, and this catchy tune could be heard on national television. Yet despite these campaigning efforts, many census-takers had little understanding of what the long-term benefits a census means.

While Myanmar’s census aims to unify the country’s diversity, many census-takers have approached the process with trepidation. For example, communities in Hpa An were confused that teachers, rather than MOIP officials, asked them the census’s forty-one questions. According to one woman in Karen State, ‘[villagers] felt obliged to feed them [teachers]’, so they would save money to cover their extra food costs. She explained that villagers were providing hand-outs to the government.

Like all population surveys, the census will pigeon-hole ethnicity and religion. Minority groups fear the census will delineate them from society. Speaking from Hpa An in Karen State, one Karen man stated two problems with the census. The first relates to the design of the questions. The alphabetically order of ethnic groups was a strategy rank Bamar above all other ethnicities. His second concern was that census-takers answered anonymously. What he referred to as the ‘Myanmarisation of the country’, he believes that the census is part of a broader strategy by which the government seeks to maintain power.

Similar concerns were raised at a mosque in Karen State, where a Muslim man spoke about the method of answering questions. ‘Because I used a wooden pencil to answer the questions, they [the government] can erase everything and write anything. We [Muslims] are hopeless. I am hopeless. I am not a citizen of the country because I am Muslim’. While these are but two examples of people’s concerns with the census, they suggest that the census seeks to pigeon-hole the country’s 135 ethnic groups, and religious minorities.

Others were bewildered with the type of questions asked, especially when toilet type was asked. ‘Many people living in villages don’t even have a toilet, so they’re confused as to how these questions are useful for anything’.

But the census hasn’t been bad news for everyone. Speaking from the Karen National Union liaison office in Hpa An, one man explained that ‘although planning is part of the government’s power strategy, it’s important that we [the Karen] are represented and counted. Unity is necessary. We can’t push the government out, so we must join together’. This man’s attitude runs different from the last census in 1983. At a time when he was living in the jungle, he notes: ‘in 1983, many people were unwilling to give information to the government, out of fear that the government would tax us based on what we owned.’ But today, he is telling Karen people not to be afraid. Otherwise, ‘we will lose our chance in many ways’.

Myanmar needs to urgently audit and map population data. Even with its challenges, the process has been an important step in terms of nation building. Focusing on the flaws of the census distracts from the merits of the census. Like the British census-makers, the Myanmar government will have to make messy accommodations to bring about political, cultural and social order. Censuses are never a precise instrument, even under the best conditions but it the census will at least give the government a sense of the current demographics of the country.

*Olivia Cable is a research assistant at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific and a graduate of the College’s Masters of International Relations. She is currently in Burma undertaking fieldwork. Her opinion does not reflect that of Karen News’.
[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, ch. 10, (London, Verso), 1983.

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