February 19, 2014

Burma Briefing No. 31

This briefing analyses the many problems surrounding the upcoming census in Burma and calls for the census to be postponed.

Burma is due to hold its first census in 30 years from 30th March to 10th April. The census has only been made possible with international expertise and finance, including £10 million from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID).

Perhaps the most serious possible outcome of the census is the potential for anti-Muslim violence resulting from an apparent increase in the number of Muslims in the country, following possible underestimates in the past. There are many other concerns as well. These include exacerbating ethnic tensions, increasing mistrust of the government, continuing discrimination against the Rohingya, disenfranchising some ethnic groups, human rights concerns, and the accuracy of the data collected.

There could also be negative impacts on the peace process. Ethnic and religious tensions caused by the release of the data just months before the election in 2015 could even lead to the election process being disrupted.

Given all of these significant problems, on balance, it appears that the potential risks associated with going ahead with the census are greater than the potential benefits of going ahead. Now is not the right time.

As a result, Burma Campaign UK is calling for the census to be postponed. The census should only go ahead when the political climate is more conducive and a ‘do no harm’ strategy is in place. There needs to be adequate consultation with ethnic and religious representatives regarding any registration of ethnicity, including allowing people to self-identify.

The British government should use its influence as one of the biggest funders of the census to secure agreement with other donors, the United Nations, and the government of Burma, to postpone the census.

Burma’s census is not simply a technical exercise, but that appears to be how it is being treated by the United Nations. The complex and violent situation in Burma, both past and present, is not receiving the attention it needs to.

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