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Counting the Costs: Myanmar’s Problematic Census
Counting the Costs: Myanmar’s Problematic Census
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Myanmar/Bangladesh: A Humanitarian Calamity and a Two-country Crisis
Myanmar/Bangladesh: A Humanitarian Calamity and a Two-country Crisis
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

Commentary / Asia

Myanmar/Bangladesh: A Humanitarian Calamity and a Two-country Crisis

More than one million Muslim Rohingya forced to flee from Myanmar now live in camps in south-eastern Bangladesh. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to increase funding for refugee assistance and use diplomatic leverage to find a compromise on the issue of refugee repatriation.

This commentary on Myanmar and Bangladesh's humanitarian calamity and two-country crisis is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2018.

Violent operations by the military, border police and vigilante groups in Myanmar have forced some 750,000 Rohingya to flee northern Rakhine for Bangladesh over the last twelve months. These numbers represent more than 85 per cent of the Rohingya population in the three affected townships. Significant bilateral and multilateral criticism – in the UN Security Council, General Assembly and Human Rights Council – has failed to temper the approach of the Myanmar government and military. The UN, as well as the U.S. and other governments, have declared the 2017 campaign against the Rohingya “ethnic cleansing” and likely crimes against humanity; some have raised the possibility that it may constitute genocide.

Several hundred Rohingya continue to flee each week. For the more than 100,000 who remain, as well as the non-Rohingya population, life is extremely difficult. Security fears, curfews and checkpoints severely restrict civilian movement, particularly for the Rohingya, making it very difficult to reach farms, fishing grounds and markets. The International Committee of the Red Cross is exerting enormous efforts to deliver aid to those in need, but the government has denied access to most other agencies, such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, human rights bodies and media outlets. Myanmar also refused to allow a UN-appointed international fact-finding mission to visit the region and subsequently announced it would no longer grant visas or cooperate with the special rapporteur on human rights. Two Reuters journalists were arrested in Yangon on 12 December after gathering evidence of military abuse, including information about a mass grave; they are being held incommunicado and face charges under the Official Secrets Act.

Continuing violence in northern Rakhine also undermines prospects for a solution to the crisis. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militant group (whose 25 August 2017 attacks triggered the crisis) claimed responsibility for a 5 January ambush on a military vehicle that injured five soldiers – the first known attack by the group since the end of its unilateral ceasefire in October. While ARSA’s ability to sustain an insurgency remains uncertain, even occasional minor attacks have a major political impact, amplifying security concerns and sharpening anti-Rohingya sentiment.

Prospects for repatriation

Many refugees are still deeply traumatised and remain fearful for their physical safety should they return.

Many observers have expressed concern that the November 2017 signing of a repatriation “arrangement” between Myanmar and Bangladesh, with a two-month timeframe for repatriations to start, could lead to the premature and unsafe return of Rohingya to northern Rakhine. For now, however, that appears unlikely, given that the process has stalled. Though Myanmar has declared its readiness to commence processing returnees through two new reception centres as of 23 January, it has yet to initiate much of the detailed logistical and policy planning required for a successful operation on this scale; for its part, Bangladesh announced on 22 January that it was postponing the start of repatriations.

Many of the 750,000 Rohingya who fled northern Rakhine over the past year would return under the right circumstances: Myanmar is their home, where most have lived for generations, and they see no future for themselves and their children in the Bangladesh camps. But there is unlikely to be any voluntary repatriation in the near term. Many refugees are still deeply traumatised and remain fearful for their physical safety should they return. The paramilitary Border Guard Police, which operates only in northern Rakhine, and Rakhine vigilante groups remain unchecked; Rohingya blame both for brutalities. Curfew orders and other onerous restrictions on freedom of movement remain in place, making it impossible to sustain livelihoods. The prevailing political environment also gives the Rohingya little hope for a positive future in Myanmar. The authorities deny most reports of abuses and have made little effort to address fundamental issues of desegregation, rights and citizenship.

Bangladesh’s government is wary of openly espousing the Rohingya’s cause for fear of stirring tensions with Myanmar and losing the support of its main backer, India, and main trading partner, China, both supportive of Myanmar. It wants the refugees to return as quickly as possible. But at the same time, Dhaka is reluctant to force refugees to return given domestic political dynamics ahead of the 2018 general elections and the glare of the global media and political spotlight. The upshot is that hundreds of thousands of traumatised, hopeless Rohingya will remain confined to the Bangladesh camps for the foreseeable future, requiring a huge humanitarian operation. Most Rohingya have not been involved in violence and there is little evidence of jihadist influence in their communities. Nevertheless, their trying circumstances could create risky new dynamics for Bangladesh and the region.

Situation in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is facing the consequences of the fastest refugee movement across an international border since the Rwanda genocide in 1994. More than one million Muslim Rohingya – a figure that includes refugees from previous exoduses – now live in camps near Cox’s Bazar in the south-eastern corner of the country, close to the border with Myanmar. The area is among the country’s poorest. Since the influx of the Rohingya refugees, local wages have fallen while prices have climbed. Discontent among local residents – now in the minority – is rising. Camp conditions, though improving, are still desperate: it is a major challenge to procure water and fuel without depriving other residents, and the threat of disease looms. Addressing the emergency will cost around $1 billion annually – 0.5 per cent of Bangladesh’s GDP – and donors are paying most of the aid bill.

While relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar are tense, there appears to be little risk of direct conflict between the two countries’ armies. Likewise, in the view of Bangladeshi security forces, the possibility of the displaced Rohingya being recruited or used by Bangladeshi or transnational jihadist groups is low. Perhaps more dangerous, ahead of national elections to be held near the end of 2018, is that the presence of a large refugee population could ignite the simmering communal conflict among Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus as well as ethnic minorities, especially in the highly militarised Chittagong Hill Tracts. It also is worth noting that these refugees – whose presence Bangladeshi politicians privately suggest could well be permanent – are located in a part of the country where the influence of Hefazat-e-Islam (Protectors of Islam), a hardline coalition of government-allied Islamist organisations, is strongest. The Hefazat was first to respond to the refugee crisis. It has since threatened to launch a jihad against Myanmar unless it stops persecuting the Rohingya. Hefazat has in recent years gained significant influence over the nominally secular Awami League, the ruling party, and now holds effective veto power over the government’s social and religious policies.

Perhaps more dangerous, ahead of national elections to be held near the end of 2018, is that the presence of a large refugee population could ignite the simmering communal conflict among Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus as well as ethnic minorities.

The gravest security risks, though, are associated with the possibility of bungled repatriation. While no repatriation appears likely any time soon, the return of the Rohingya under the wrong conditions – notably in the absence of rights for Rohingya returning to Myanmar – would jeopardise the lives of refugees and prolong the crisis. The further suffering of the Rohingya in Myanmar itself could lead foreign jihadist fighters, notably from South Asia, to adopt the Rohingya’s cause; Bangladesh itself might even lend support to a cross-border insurgency. One way to guard against this outcome is to ensure UNHCR involvement in any repatriation process, a demand many Rohingya living in camps have themselves made. But while Dhaka is not opposed to UN involvement, it continues to seek a bilateral arrangement with Myanmar knowing the Myanmar government is more likely to accept repatriation without what it would consider intrusive international oversight. Moreover, Bangladesh has traditionally refused to grant stateless Rohingya refugees rights; in fact, the government refuses to call them refugees and threatens to move some to a flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal. Outside powers, including the EU and its member states, should not underestimate Dhaka’s willingness to return the refugees if an opportunity presented itself in the future – even under conditions that are far from ideal.

Bangladesh’s current short-term policies risk producing slum-like conditions in the camps, which would amount to their protracted, donor-funded confinement. The Rohingya are barred from work and their children from state-run schools, forcing many to work illegally and leaving poorly regulated religious schools as their only option. The government’s approach is rooted in the belief that state support in Bangladesh for the Rohingya risks attracting more refugees. With the population now mainly in Bangladesh, this logic no longer holds; the government should take steps to allow the Rohingya to better integrate including by working and attending regular schools.

Straddling two countries and competing preoccupations

The challenge for Bangladesh and its international partners is to craft a long-term humanitarian response to provide for the refugees, while maintaining diplomatic engagement and other forms of pressure on the Myanmar authorities to create favourable conditions for their eventual voluntary, safe and dignified return. At the same time, they should start laying the groundwork for steps toward more politically sensitive policies, notably integration in Bangladesh or resettlement elsewhere, in the most likely scenario that voluntary repatriation proves impossible. For now, Dhaka and many Western diplomats resist such discussion, not wanting to ease pressure on Myanmar; Delhi, too, rejects it, fearing that the Rohingya may end up in India. But given the slim prospects of the Rohingya’s return, preparing for their potential integration in Bangladesh – a process which already is informally underway – and the possibility of resettlement elsewhere would make sense.

Regional actors have critical roles to play. China and India in particular are among Myanmar’s and Bangladesh’s closest international partners; neither power wishes to see a festering two-country border conflict in the Bay of Bengal. The EU and its member states should engage Beijing and New Delhi to forge a common approach to encourage Myanmar to commit to a pathway to citizenship for most Rohingya, in keeping with the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State headed by Kofi Annan.

The EU and its members also should impress on Dhaka that botched repatriations would present the greatest security risk, even while acknowledging the enormous burden Bangladesh is shouldering. They should work closely with the government, UN agencies and humanitarian organisations to determine how best to coordinate the enormous task of providing services and relief to the Rohingya in the camps. These decisions should be made in consultation with the Rohingya themselves – including women, whose voices are even more rarely heard, in part due to cultural barriers. The EU pledged an additional €30 million at an October UN conference, but funding remains insufficient given the magnitude of what inevitably will be a prolonged crisis. Simultaneously, the EU and its member states should use their diplomatic leverage to pressure Bangladesh and Myanmar not to implement their repatriation agreement without adequate international oversight. Finally, they should continue to push for accountability, including supporting efforts to gather the detailed evidence necessary to identify those responsible for violence against the Rohingya and their forced expulsion.