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Counting the Costs: Myanmar’s Problematic Census
Counting the Costs: Myanmar’s Problematic Census
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications
The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
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

NLD party leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives for Myanmar's first parliament meeting after the November 8 general elections, at the Lower House of Parliament in Naypyitaw, 16 November 2015. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Briefing 147 / Asia

The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications

Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide electoral victory was a historic success for Myanmar. To meet the high expectations that resulted, the country’s new leaders will need to balance carefully ties with China with those with the West, credibly lead a fragile peace process and above all handle wisely their relations with a still-powerful army.

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I. Overview

The 8 November elections were a major waypoint in Myanmar’s transition from authoritarian rule. Holding a peaceful, orderly vote in a context of little experience of electoral democracy, deep political fissures and ongoing armed conflict in several areas was a major achievement for all political actors, the election commission and the country as a whole. The victorious National League for Democracy (NLD) needs to use the four-month transitional period before it takes power at the end of March 2016 wisely, identifying key appointees early so that they have as much time as possible to prepare for the substantial challenges ahead.

Its landslide victory, with almost 80 per cent of the elected seats, means Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s party will have an outright majority in both legislative chambers, even after the 25 per cent of unelected seats held by the armed forces is taken into account. This will give it control of law-making and the power to choose the president – a position that the constitution bars Suu Kyi from taking herself. The incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) suffered a crushing defeat, as did most parties representing minority ethnic groups.

The vote represents a huge popular mandate for Aung San Suu Kyi and comes with equally high expectations that she and the NLD will deliver the needed political and economic changes. It will not be easy to meet those expectations. First, Suu Kyi will have to build a constructive working relationship with Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing. The military retains considerable executive power, with control of the defence, home affairs and border affairs ministries. Success in everything from the peace process to police reform and further political liberalisation will depend on the cooperation of the armed forces. With longstanding mutual suspicions, that relationship could easily get off to a bad start, particularly if Suu Kyi chooses a proxy president without the credibility and stature required for the top job, as she has suggested she would.

Beyond this, the NLD will want to demonstrate that it can meet the expectations of the people by bringing tangible changes to their lives. It can tap into enormous domestic and international goodwill and support, but its limited experience of government, a shallow pool of skilled technocrats and the difficulty of reforming key institutions all constrain how much can be achieved quickly. This is particularly important given that the party has done very little policy development work to date.

It also may prove difficult for the new administration to focus on producing positive changes, given the range of problems the country faces, any of which have the potential to spawn crises. Serious armed clashes continue in Shan and Kachin states, threatening to undermine a fragile peace process. There are signs of macro-economic turbulence, with weak policy tools available to mitigate it. And the situation in Rakhine state, where most Muslim Rohingya were disenfranchised, is intractable and potentially volatile; any moves the NLD government makes on this issue will come under particular nationalist scrutiny.

There will also be international relations challenges. Suu Kyi and the NLD will need deft diplomatic skills to steer Myanmar’s continuing re-engagement with the West, while maintaining good relations with a more assertive China concerned that its interests are being harmed. They will have to be particularly adroit, given perceptions that they have an inherent pro-Western bias. Western countries must do their part to help make this rebalancing succeed. They have an important role to play in supporting positive change in Myanmar but need to be cognizant of domestic and regional sensitivities involved.

Yangon/Brussels, 9 December 2015