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Counting the Costs: Myanmar’s Problematic Census
Counting the Costs: Myanmar’s Problematic Census
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Myanmar Border Attacks Fuel Tensions with Rohingya Muslim Minority
Myanmar Border Attacks Fuel Tensions with Rohingya Muslim Minority
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

Police officers and volunteers walk during the national census in a Rohingya village in Sittwe, on 31 March 2014. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Commentary / Asia

Myanmar Border Attacks Fuel Tensions with Rohingya Muslim Minority

Large coordinated attacks hit three Myanmar border police posts in the troubled Rakhine State on 9 October. In this Q&A, Crisis Group Myanmar Adviser Richard Horsey warns that it could tip simmering tensions between the beleaguered Rohingya Muslim minority and the government into wider, open conflict.

What’s new in the Rakhine State attacks?

At least 250 assailants, and perhaps as many as 500-800, launched simultaneous early morning attacks on 9 October on three border police posts in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships near Myanmar’s north-western border with Bangladesh, according to information released by the government. They were armed mostly with knives and slingshots, as well as about 30 firearms. Nine police officers were killed and the attackers fled with at least 50 guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. In subsequent days there have been further deadly clashes between this group and the security forces.

The attacks were carried out by Muslims, according to both government statements and local sources. An unverified video of the attackers, filmed in the wake of the attacks, has been circulating on social networks and seems legitimate. In it, one of the group calls on “all Rohingya around the world to prepare for jihad and join them”. This, the need for local knowledge to carry out the assaults, and the difficulty of moving large numbers of people around this area are all suggestive of local Muslim involvement – possibly organised with some outside support. However, many details of who exactly organised this and how remain unclear.

The attacks mark a major escalation of violence in Rakhine. The number of attackers and their sophisticated tactics – they used a diversionary attack to draw the defenders out of one of the posts before the main assault began – display an unprecedented level of planning in a conflict that has to date seen little sign of organised violent resistance from the oppressed Muslim population.

Who do you think was behind the attacks? Are Rohingya forces to blame?

There is clear evidence that many of the attackers were from the Rohingya community, who make up over 90 per cent of the population in this area of Rakhine State. But it is not clear how they were organised.

Rakhine’s 1.3 million Muslims, most of whom identify as Rohingya, are effectively stateless in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Years of intercommunal tensions exploded into violence in 2012, leaving some 200 people dead and driving 150,000 into squalid camps where most still languish. There has been a sense of creeping despair among the Rohingya that nothing is going to change, although Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, recently announced that an advisory commission led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan would look at possible solutions for the stand-off in Rakhine.

The Rohingya have not had any organised armed force for many years. Some local government officials are suggesting that an armed group called the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) is responsible, but this group is not known to have been active since the 1990s. Rakhine nationalists and state officials, and sometimes Bangladesh, have blamed this group in the past for such security incidents, usually without detailed evidence being provided.

There was a series of deadly attacks on Myanmar Border Guard Police patrols in northern Maungdaw in February and May 2014, including one on 17 May that left four officers dead. In the tense period that followed, there were firefights between Myanmar and Bangladesh border forces, including one in which a Bangladeshi soldier was killed. In mid-July 2014, a senior humanitarian official told Crisis Group that the authorities restricted humanitarian access to parts of northern Rakhine State on the grounds of unspecified “RSO activity” in that area.

In May 2016, some 35 armed attackers stormed a security post at a camp for Rohingya refugees in southern Bangladesh just across the border from Maungdaw, killing one camp commander and capturing eleven weapons. The attackers were allegedly led by a Pakistani national, along with others from Myanmar and Bangladesh, with the RSO being implicated, according to the Bangladeshi police.

Given the lack of clear evidence in all these cases, new claims as to the identity of any organisation behind the recent attacks should be treated with caution until further information becomes available.

Does the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation really exist?

The RSO is considered by most regional security analysts to have been long defunct as an armed organisation. The question is whether it has been reconstituted, or whether a new grouping with similar aims has now emerged. The RSO was established in 1982, along the lines of Myanmar’s many other ethnic insurgent organisations engaging in conventional attacks on military and strategic targets. The RSO never gained much traction and did not pose a serious military threat. In the 1980s and 1990s it had some small bases in remote parts of Bangladesh near the border with Myanmar; at least in recent decades it had none on Myanmar soil.

There may have been efforts, in the wake of the 2012 violence, to rehabilitate the RSO as an armed organisation, driven by a new generation of local-level leaders. According to a local Rohingya leader who claimed to be one of the leaders of this effort, whom Crisis Group met with in 2014, their aim was not separatist, anti-Buddhist or jihadi in nature; rather, it was for their community to live as citizens of Myanmar with their rights respected by the state. The objective was to reconstitute the RSO as an insurgent force focused on attacking the state security apparatus (police, border police and military). Crisis Group interviews at the time suggested there was a modicum of support for this among some members of the population, who saw it as the only path left open to them. But most of the population was and still is opposed to violent resistance.

At the same time, security forces and political actors in both Myanmar and Bangladesh may have their own reasons for invoking the RSO, including to raise the spectre of an organised radical Islamic group to justify crackdowns or restrictions on the Rohingya population.

It is not yet clear whether the RSO has been reactivated, or a new mujahidin group has emerged with similar aims, or the recent attacks are a local uprising without a permanent institutional structure. However, what is extremely worrying is that a new threshold of violence has been passed.

Is Myanmar about to see new levels of violence related to the Rohingya issue?

The fact that influential individuals have considered violence as a strategy for regaining Rohingya rights and citizenship does not mean that such a strategy can successfully take root. There remain serious obstacles to establishing and sustaining a militant Rohingya organisation capable of targeting the security forces, including the extremely restrictive environment in northern Rakhine State and a longstanding sense among much of the Rohingya population and many religious leaders that violence would be counterproductive.

The environment in Bangladesh is also not very conducive to cross-border operations of the kind the RSO used to mount in decades past, sometimes with the support of Bangladeshi militant groups. Bangladesh is cracking down on its own extremist organisations as part of a broader perceived terrorist threat against the country.

As for transnational terrorist networks, these have often expressed concern for and solidarity with the Rohingya, and made some general threats – including Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Islamic State, and al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent. However, there have so far been no indications that Myanmar has been an operational priority for these networks.

How will these attacks change the situation in Rakhine State?

Regardless of who was behind the recent attacks, they are likely to have a serious impact on the political, human rights and humanitarian situation in Rakhine State. These impacts will be both short-term and longer-term.

A major security operation was launched following the attacks, to lock down the area in an effort to capture the attackers and recover the looted weapons and ammunition. There are already reports of multiple casualties over the past 48 hours as a result of that operation.

For the foreseeable future, increased security operations in northern Rakhine will attempt to prevent any further incident of this kind. Given the security forces’ history of bad treatment of the local Muslim population, this risks creating further tension, abuses and negative impact on livelihoods.

Violent incidents – or the possibility of them – have been used to temporarily restrict humanitarian access to parts of Rakhine State in the past, and temporary movement restrictions on international agencies have been imposed by the authorities in response to the 9 October incident; it remains to be seen how long these will remain in effect.

Security fears are part of the reason for the continued imposition of a curfew in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships under section 144 of the Myanmar Code of Criminal Procedure. The 11pm to 4am curfew order was most recently renewed on 8 August 2016 for two months and includes restrictions on gatherings of five or more people in public areas or at mosques. As a result of the latest incident, the curfew has been extended, and now runs from 7pm to 6am. This impacts people’s livelihoods and means that in practice attending Friday prayers is prohibited – a much-resented religious and social restriction.

Government worries about security are among justifications for tightened checkpoints and severe restrictions on the movement of Muslims in northern Rakhine State. These are a major source of vulnerability, limiting access to health and education services, jobs and livelihoods. Any possibility that these restrictions might be eased has now receded.

Overall, efforts to find solutions to the situation in Rakhine state, including the work of the Annan Commission, will now be very much more difficult.

Will there be any broader impacts on Myanmar?

The 9 October incident will have major ramifications across Myanmar.

It will amplify the general sense of insecurity about Islam and about an Islamic extremist threat in Myanmar; the radical nationalist monk U Wirathu has already taken to social media calling for the security forces to take all necessary steps to “protect the sovereignty of the nation and its citizens”. These events risk strengthening radical Buddhist nationalist groups that had been on the back foot since the elections. They can exacerbate intercommunal tensions across the country, and make it harder for moderate voices to be heard – with a potential spillover effect to other parts of Myanmar with a large Muslim presence.

This all represents a significant new challenge for Aung San Suu Kyi’s attempts to steer Myanmar in a more tolerant direction.