Making Sense of Myanmar's Census

Making Sense of Myanmar's Census
<p>A mother and child on the outskirts of Sittwe, Rakhine State, Myanmar. <i>Photo credit: UN Photo</i> </p>
  • 31 March 2014

The below Q&A has been updated to reflect recent developments in Myanmar’s census exercise.

UNITED NATIONS, New York – At midnight on March 30, Myanmar started to conduct its first census in more than 30 years.

The country has changed dramatically since the last census was held in 1983, with some areas seeing significant progress and others going underserved, yet it has been challenging for the Government or civil society to gauge or respond to the changing needs of the population.

This challenge will soon be tackled. Hundreds of thousands of schoolteachers have been trained as enumerators. Until 10 April, they are going to both urban and rural areas to count every person who was in the country on the night of 29 March, regardless of citizenship, ethnicity, sex or age.

It is an enormous undertaking, but the exercise – by the Government with support from UNFPA – will help policymakers become better informed, promote the country’s development, and help ensure people’s rights and needs are met.

Q: Why does Myanmar need a census?

A: The census is a critical planning tool, informing authorities about where services and infrastructure – such as schools, roads and hospitals – are most needed. Without reliable census data, development planning takes place in a vacuum.

Myanmar currently ranks among the least-developed countries in Asia. Censuses can contribute to poverty reduction by helping to monitor progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals and other development targets. They can empower local communities by giving them access to local data. This information also helps the Government manage public finances transparently. It helps citizens and civil society, including in ethnic areas, hold authorities accountable for public expenditure and services.

The data will also underpin private investment and job creation. By knowing where people live, and what education and skills they have, investments and training can be targeted at the right places at the right time.

Q: What is UNFPA’s role in Myanmar’s 2014 census?

A: UNFPA supports the Government’s Ministry of Immigration and Population by providing technical support to the census. UNFPA also helps the ministry mobilize resources and ensure that the census is credible and conducted according to international principles and standards.

In addition, UNFPA is working with the Government to ensure that the census is correctly understood by leaders and the public so that, when they take part, they know what it is and what benefits it brings to individuals, communities and the country.

UNFPA has posted an international Census Chief Technical Adviser at the Ministry’s Department of Population, and a number of international consultants will also support the department.

Q: This project is massive. How will it all come together?

A: Censuses are among the most complex and massive exercises a nation undertakes. Ideally held every 10 years, they require the collection, compilation, evaluation, analysis and dissemination of a huge amount of data. Myanmar’s 2014 census is no different; it will involve every single person in the country, giving each household a chance to speak about their housing conditions and needs.

About 120,000 primary and secondary school teachers have been recruited from different localities across the country to act as enumerators. There are about 490 master trainers and 7,140 district trainers.

The Department of Population also has a team of more than 300 people responsible for mapping the country, handling logistics and data processing, and analysing and disseminating the results. The census building was constructed last year to host all the staff and instruments needed for this colossal nationwide exercise.

Q: The Government has stated that no one will be able to declare their ethnicity as Rohingya. What is UNFPA’s position?

A: In its agreement with the United Nations on the census, the Government made a commitment to conduct the exercise in accordance with international census standards and human rights principles. It explicitly and repeatedly agreed with the condition that each person would be able to declare what ethnicity they belong to, including those who wish to record their identity as of mixed ethnicity. Those not identifying with one of the listed ethnic categories would be able to declare their ethnicity and have their response recorded by the enumerator.

Just before the start of the census, however, senior officials announced that people who wish to define their ethnicity as Rohingya will not be able to do so. UNFPA is deeply concerned about this departure from international census standards, human rights principles and agreed procedures. We are deeply concerned that this could heighten tensions in Rakhine State, which has a history of communal violence, and undermine the credibility of census data collected. UNFPA looks to the Government to give the highest priority to protecting lives and preventing violence from occurring, and to fully respect and protect the human rights of everyone, including people who choose to define their ethnicity as Rohingya.

Q: What has been done to involve ethnic groups in the census?

A: Over the last four months, a Government team, led by the Minister for Immigration and Population, U Khin Yi, held discussions with leaders – including ethnic, political, and armed leaders – in different parts of the country, including self-administered areas like Loukang, Shan East, Tachileik, Kyaintone, Mong La and Pan Seng, Chin, Karen and Mon states. Visits have also been undertaken in Kachin and Bago, and a special meeting on the census was held with representatives of almost all non-State armed groups in Chiang Mai at the end of 2013.

UNFPA took part in most of the visits, with the UNFPA Representative in Myanmar, Janet Jackson, explaining the importance of the census for the country’s development, reform and transition processes. These meetings helped dispel mistrust and misunderstanding of the census, and helped to secure the engagement of local leaders.

Q: What is being done to reassure respondents that they can answer truthfully without fear of negative consequences?

A: Enumerators have been trained to complete the questionnaires accurately according to the responses given by participants, and they must strictly protect the confidentiality of the responses. Responses about religion will be recorded as they are given. Respondents can even ask the enumerator to show them how their answers were recorded.

In our interactions with many different groups, the main concerns have been on ethnicity, particularly people’s freedom to state their ethnic identity as they wish. They have been assured that the information they give will remain confidential, and that this exercise is totally separate from national registration, citizenship, election voter registration and taxation. Census data are not meant for any such purposes. No one will be able to access information about individual people, households or institutions.

Q: Concerns have been raised about the census question on ethnicity. What is UNFPA’s view?

A: Myanmar’s 2014 census consists of 41 questions. Among these is a question about what ethnicity the participants belong to. Participants can choose from the 135 ethnicities listed – which are from the official list of ethnicities used in previous censuses – or they can write in their own designation.

The question on ethnicity is intended to capture the broad diversity of the nation. A number of ethnic groups have raised concerns that the categories being used do not accurately reflect the real ethnic mix – incorrectly combining distinct groups into one category, for instance, or dividing a single group into multiple categories.

In meetings to brief ethnic leaders on the purpose and conduct of the census, government leaders have stressed that the categorization used in the census is not the last word on ethnicity in Myanmar, and said that after the census there will be an opportunity to start a new, inclusive and consultative dialogue on how ethnic groups are defined. After receiving this assurance, most ethnic organizations have agreed to cooperate with the census, and many of their personnel are participating as enumerators. This includes most of the armed groups currently in negotiations with the Government on a peace agreement to formally end years of conflict.

On 2 March, 126 ethnic political party leaders and representatives in the peace process from self-administered areas voiced their support and readiness to take part in the census. The principal exception is the Kachin Independence Organization; negotiations on their participation are ongoing.

Q: Some critics have said the census should be postponed. Why not?

A: The Myanmar census is long overdue. Postponing it now could delay by several years the availability of this data to planners, undermining development efforts and the reform process. Large-scale non-participation would be detrimental to social and economic development in all areas of the country. Myanmar’s development needs cannot wait.


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