Burma Census Should Be Postponed

17 Mar 2014

Statement by Members and Observers of the European Burma Network

Members of the European Burma Network call upon the government of Burma, the United Nations Population Fund, and international donors, to postpone the upcoming census on Burma. We believe that carrying out the census at the current time will exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions in the country.

Carrying out a census can provide important data about a country that can be used for economic and development planning, and ensuring that international aid is properly targeted. In Burma, many ethnic and religious groups have also seen an accurate census as an opportunity to assert their identity and demonstrate the rich diversity of the country.

However, the census is not just a technical exercise. It is taking place in a country that has suffered from ethnic related conflict for almost seventy years. The country is also afflicted by growing religious tensions, particularly targeting Muslims, which are being stoked by nationalist extremists. The government is also in transition from being under direct military rule to a military-backed authoritarian regime. The civilian population is deeply suspicious of the government and a significant proportion of the population is unwilling to divulge information which they fear the government may use against them.

This context has not been sufficiently taken into account when decisions regarding whether to go ahead with the census were being made.

Ethnic tensions being exacerbated by the census could have a negative impact on the peace process. Categorisation of different ethnic groups is causing tensions between ethnic groups, within ethnic groups and between ethnic groups and the government. Problems with access and lack of proper preparation mean that collecting data in ethnic states is likely to be inaccurate, and under the current Constitution this in turn could lead to smaller ethnic groups being politically disenfranchised.

The failure to include Rohingya on the census form, instead requiring them to register under ‘other’, endorses the discriminatory approach by the government of Burma towards the Rohingya. The international community and United Nations should not have accepted and supported a census that reinforces this discrimination.

If reports regarding Muslims in Burma being deliberately undercounted in past censuses are accurate, and the new census reveals that the number of Muslims in Burma is higher than previously thought, this could be exploited by nationalist extremists who are inciting hatred and violence against Muslims. This could lead to renewed violent attacks against Muslims in Burma.

Lack of trust in the government also means that many people in Burma will be unwilling to be completely forthcoming in answers to questions in the census. This could lead to serious flaws in the accuracy of data collected.

Now is not the right time for a census of this kind in Burma. Risks associated with the census are greater than potential benefits. The census should be postponed.

Signed by

Actions Birmanie (Belgium)
The Association Suisse-Birmanie
Burma Action Ireland
Burma Campaign UK
Burma Partnership
Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK
Christian Solidarity Worldwide
European Karen Network
Info Birmanie
Society for Threatened Peoples

Burma Action Ireland

email: info@burmaactionireland.org web: www.burmaactionireland.org