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Counting the Costs: Myanmar’s Problematic Census
Counting the Costs: Myanmar’s Problematic Census
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Rohingya Deserve Non-violent Leadership
Rohingya Deserve Non-violent Leadership
Briefing 144 / Asia

Counting the Costs: Myanmar’s Problematic Census

Myanmar’s controversial census has inflamed ethnic tensions at a critical moment in the peace process. Releasing the data will require great political sensitivity to avoid further violence, all the more so with elections scheduled for 2015.

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I. Overview

Myanmar’s first census in over 30 years, an ambitious project conducted in April 2014 with technical advice from the UN and significant funding from bilateral donors, has proved to be highly controversial and deeply divisive. A process that was largely blind to the political and conflict risks has inflamed ethnic and religious tensions in this diverse country. The release of the inevitably controversial results in the coming months will have to be handled with great sensitivity if further dangers are to be minimised.

The census will provide information vital for Myanmar’s government, development partners and investors in planning their activities. But it has also created political tensions and sparked conflict at a crucial moment in the country’s transition and peace process. Some controversies are inevitable in any census. However, the way that the process has been designed and prepared, insufficiently sensitive to the country’s evolving realities and the major risks that they present, has greatly exacerbated its negative impact.

Such problems were not inevitable, nor were they unforeseen. They largely stem from the way data on ethnicity, religion and citizenship status are being collected and classified, and the lack of consultation with key constituencies in the design of the process. The serious risks involved were anticipated and clearly laid out in the political risk assessment that the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) – the lead technical agency involved – commissioned at the beginning of the process, and they were subsequently repeated and amplified by many other stakeholders and observers, including Crisis Group. However, UNFPA rejected such concerns, consistently presented a panglossian perspective on the census and failed to acknowledge specific political or conflict risks.

Key census donors failed to recommend fundamental revisions to the process, even when a census pilot had to be cancelled in Rakhine State due to fears of violence and when key ethnic armed groups called for the enumeration to be postponed. Only at the last minute, when a Rakhine census boycott morphed into violent attacks on international aid agencies that sparked a humanitarian crisis, did most push for such changes.

The impact of these problems has been far-reaching, exacerbating inter-ethnic and inter-religious tensions. The census has been interrupted in parts of Rakhine State, following a last-minute government decision to prevent the Rohingya population from self-identifying its ethnicity – a move intended to placate Rakhine radicals, who were committed to a boycott and could have unleashed deadly violence. Amid a massive and intimidatory security operation in Rohingya communities, those households who insisted on identifying as such – the great majority in many areas – were left out of the census entirely. In Kachin State, no census has been allowed to take place in areas controlled by the Kachin Independence Organisation armed group, due in part to concerns about how ethnicity data are being collected. The Myanmar military has been used to secure contested areas in Kachin and northern Shan States in order to allow access to census enumerators. In the process, serious clashes have broken out between the two sides, and hundreds of civilians have had to flee. This has put further strain on the peace process at a critical time.

Without doubt, the government has been found wanting in its approach to addressing the communal tensions that have proved so threatening to Myanmar’s Muslim community and particularly its Rohingya population. These problems pre-date talk of a census. The authorities, through their public statements, the behaviour of law enforcement personnel and in the laws enacted have to do a lot more to demonstrate that the state’s concern is for the welfare of all. Equally, a census that was more sensitive to political realities, or one conducted at a less volatile time, could have limited or avoided some of the problems now being stoked. Further risks exist in the timing and manner in which census data are released. These will not be easy to mitigate at this point, and UNFPA and the donors will have much less influence now that the most technically demanding and costly aspects of the process have been completed.

Rather than accept their share of responsibility for designing and pushing ahead with a flawed process in the face of clear warnings from multiple quarters, UNFPA and key census donors have sought to shift the blame wholly onto the government. They have criticised its last-minute decision to deny Rohingya the right to self-identify, while failing to acknowledge that by pushing it not to amend or postpone the process earlier on, they left the government in a difficult position with few good options to avoid violence. The narrative that is thereby being presented – that the process was going well until the government’s last-minute volte-face – is inaccurate and in the circumstances unhelpful.

Yangon/Brussels, 15 May 2014

Op-Ed / Asia

Rohingya Deserve Non-violent Leadership

Originally published in Asia Times

In August 2017, the flight of 700,000 Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar produced the world’s newest refugee crisis – and one of its worst. Now stuck in miserable camps in Bangladesh, the Rohingya have little prospect of returning to their homes any time soon.

Their suffering is primarily a grave humanitarian concern and the Bangladeshi government and its foreign partners should focus their response on protecting the well-being of those displaced and assisting host communities. But the Rohingya’s plight also raises a so far unspoken question: Will they wait patiently to return in a safe and dignified manner – for now an unrealistic goal – or will the main militant organization in their midst lead them to pursue their goals with violence?

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) formed in 2012 in the wake of strife among Buddhists and Rohingya in Myanmar’s underdeveloped and conflict-ridden northern Rakhine state. The group leveraged the anger and desperation of Rohingya facing daily oppression as an ethnic and religious minority. Through communal leaders, ARSA propagated a message of hope while in fact bolstering its position via a combination of claims to religious legitimacy and fear.

The militants are now attempting to re-establish themselves as a political voice in the Bangladesh camps. But it’s not too late for the refugees to establish non-militant leadership and self-governance.

ARSA does have sympathizers in the camps, but its authority is less clear than before the mass exodus. In the view of many Rohingya, it was ARSA’s attacks on Myanmar police that provoked the country’s brutal, indiscriminate military campaign forcing them into exile. Foreign governments and human-rights organizations have branded this campaign as ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide.

Not all refugees hold ARSA responsible for the calamity that befell them. Some adopt the view that, whether or not ARSA’s attacks had taken place, the Myanmar authorities would have found a way to drive the Rohingya from their land.

The Rohingya’s plight is likely to worsen before it improves ... While Bangladesh has thus far been hospitable to the refugees, the political climate could easily turn against them, particularly in the event of ARSA violence on Bangladeshi soil.

But ARSA was also responsible for killings of civilians, both Rohingya and their Hindu neighbors, as it sought to eliminate perceived informants. After careful analysis, Amnesty International concludedthat ARSA massacred dozens of Hindu villagers in August 2017. The group exposed Rohingya civilians to Myanmar’s massively disproportionate response. Its militants did not wear uniforms or do anything else to distinguish themselves from the civilian population, and they launched attacks from the cover of villages.

Since the refugee exodus, ARSA has continued its insurgency, claiming responsibility for an attack on a Myanmar convoy in January. It has also been linked to several killings in the camps.

In October last year, 47 Rohingya religious scholars issued a fatwa condemning any act of jihad, even for self-defense, against Myanmar. But Crisis Group’s May report suggests that this ruling does not necessarily mean the Rohingya have abandoned ARSA or the idea of violent resistance. First, it was issued at the height of the exodus, when the scholars sought to reassure Bangladesh that the refugees were not a security threat. Second, it did not categorically reject violence, but rather denounced particular tactics the signatories viewed as premature or misguided.

Factors other than opposition to violence could hinder ARSA from representing the Rohingya. Village populations that once backed the militants are now scattered across the camps, new leaders (majhis) are emerging and the “common enemy” that ARSA rallied against – the Myanmar security forces – is far away across the border. Most refugees are preoccupied with the daily struggle to establish basic standards of living in the camps.

Nor does it appear that transnational jihadist groups – that is, groups such as al-Qaeda in the South Asian subcontinent, Islamic State (ISIS) or their Bangladeshi affiliates – have been able to exploit the Rohingya crisis to mobilize or recruit in the camps. While concerns this might happen are legitimate given the security landscape in Bangladesh, there is no evidence that it is occurring, nor that a counterterrorism lens is useful for understanding the evolving situation in the camps.

The Bangladeshi authorities appear to share this assessment. Moreover, ARSA itself has always sought to distance itself from transnational groups.

But the Rohingya’s plight is likely to worsen before it improves. The monsoon season has arrived, threatening the camps with flooding. While Bangladesh has thus far been hospitable to the refugees, the political climate could easily turn against them, particularly in the event of ARSA violence on Bangladeshi soil.

The Rohingya need a non-violent leadership who can work to ensure their safe and voluntary return to their homeland.