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Counting the Costs: Myanmar’s Problematic Census
Counting the Costs: Myanmar’s Problematic Census
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
The Rakhine State Danger to Myanmar's Transition
The Rakhine State Danger to Myanmar's Transition
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

A group of Rohingya refugee people walk towards Bangladesh after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Teknaf, Bangladesh, 1 September 2017. Mohammad Ponir Hossain/REUTERS
Statement / Asia

The Rakhine State Danger to Myanmar's Transition

The violence since 25 August that has driven 270,000 Rohingya civilians over Myanmar’s border into Bangladesh is not just causing a humanitarian catastrophe. It is also driving up the risks that the country’s five-year-old transition from military rule will stumble, that radicalisation will deepen on all sides, and that regional stability will be weakened.

Since 2012, the International Crisis Group repeatedly has warned that, if left unresolved, Rakhine State’s volatile dynamics pose a major risk to Myanmar’s transition. If dealt with primarily through a heavy-handed, indiscriminate security response, rather than in the framework of a political strategy, the dangers were clearly set to become far worse. The events of recent weeks are not just causing enormous suffering to civilians, but bring Myanmar precipitously close to just such an unraveling of much that has been achieved since the end of military rule.

The 25 August attacks on Myanmar security forces by the militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), also known as Harakah al-Yaqin, which the government has designated a terrorist group, undoubtedly were intended as a provocation. Neither these attacks nor the reported killing of non-Rohingya civilians, at least some of which are undoubtedly the work of the group, are excusable, no matter what political agenda they claim to represent. Any government has the responsibility to defend itself and the people living in the country. At the same time, such government security responses need to be proportionate and not target civilians.

Nearly half of Myanmar’s estimated one million Rohingya may now have been forced from their homes.

It is extremely difficult to verify the numerous reports of atrocities amid the confusion and chaos, and very limited access for media and humanitarian agencies. Yet even if specific allegations cannot be proven, the scale of the crisis is clear. The 270,000 Rohingya who have fled in the last two weeks to the Bangladesh-Myanmar border and across are telling, both in terms of their numbers and the accounts they bring. The vast majority of these people, mostly women and children, are unlikely to be militants. Along with some 87,500 who fled a previous upsurge in violence in October 2016, nearly half of Myanmar’s estimated one million Rohingya may now have been forced from their homes.

It may indeed be difficult for the government to distinguish between ARSA members and other Rohingya. The events of last year and recent weeks, particularly the heavy handed military response in the wake of the October 2016 and August 2017 attacks, appear to have promoted a sense among Rohingya that a general uprising is underway. But operationally challenging as this is, it cannot be an excuse for military action against the general population. By doing so, the military will not quell the crisis, but rather play straight into the hands of ARSA by increasing the sense of grievance and hopelessness.

It is similarly vital to treat with utmost caution claims that the current crisis is being fuelled by militants with transnational jihadist aims. Rohingya communities have not typically been radicalised in this fashion and there are no indications that ARSA has been pursuing goals congruent with those of global jihadist outfits. While there may be domestic political imperatives or gains to be had for politicians in the region to make these claims, doing so is deeply dangerous.

If the Myanmar government chooses to continue a massive military response against the general population, even if parts of this population may be sympathetic to ARSA, or publicly to treat the violence as the work of jihadists, it risks creating conditions for the entrenchment or rise of those very same dynamics. An alienated, desperate and dispossessed population that is shunned by the country it claims as its home and by neighbours is ripe for exploitation by such groups and may believe it has little to lose if it were to turn to violence. The risks to those who live in Myanmar, the country’s transition and regional stability are considerable.

The path to stability lies in dealing head on with the fears, claims and desires of all groups in the state.

There is no military solution to the crisis in Rakhine state. The Myanmar government will find no success, only long term violence and crisis, if it uses the presence of militants and the growth of some sympathy for them, as an excuse to address in an extreme manner the long-standing challenges of Rakhine state. The path to stability lies in dealing head on with the fears, claims and desires of all groups in the state, Rakhine, Rohingya and other minorities. This political path is difficult and will require compromises many may find distasteful. But taking this road is the only way to reduce the risks of serious violence, more displacement and greater human misery.