June 30, 2014

Calls For DFID Burma Census Inquiry Top 1,000

More than a thousand people have written to Justine Greening, Secretary of State for International Development, calling for an inquiry into why the Department for International Development (DFID) spent £10m on Burma’s disastrous census earlier this year. DFID has not yet responded to these calls.

  • It triggered violence which left a child dead and forced aid workers helping the Rohingya to flee attacks against them in Rakhine State. Rohingya children left without medical support are reported to have died because of the lack of aid.
  • It was linked with renewed conflict in Northern Shan State and Kachin State where thousands of people have been displaced by Burmese Army attacks. The renewed fighting was triggered by the Burmese Army trying to collect census data at gunpoint in an area not under its control.
  • It has increased ethnic tensions between ethnic groups and the Burmese government, and within ethnic groups, which could also have a negative impact on the peace process.
  • President Thein Sein went back on his word to allow the Rohingya to register as Rohingya, so the census continued and reinforced the government’s illegal discriminatory policies against the Rohingya.

Burma’s DFID funded census left children dead, people without life-saving aid, is linked with conflict which displaced thousands of people, and it discriminates against the Rohingya. All of this has happened even before full census results are published, which could trigger further violence.

The timing and content of Burma’s census was wrong. Many organisations within Burma were warning of problems, and calling for major changes or for the census to be postponed. International organisations were also warning of the dangers, including Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group, and Burma Campaign UK.

DFID’s approach to the situation in Burma is based on a belief that President Thein Sein is a genuine reformer and that Burma is in transition to a genuine democracy. This is based more on wishful thinking than on fact. It is a flawed presumption which leads them to make significant mistakes, such as the decision to fund and support the census. Many people in Burma believe Burma is in transition from direct military rule to a civilian fronted authoritarian regime, rather than a genuine democracy.

President Thein Sein promised the British government that the Rohingya would be allowed to register as Rohingya in the census. Then on the eve of the census, once he had our aid money, he went back on his word.  It isn’t the first time he has lied to the British government. He also broke his promise, made when he visited the UK last year, to release all political prisoners by the end of 2013.

British aid should not be linked to increasing ethnic tensions, conflict, discrimination, and the deaths of children.  Thanks to flawed decisions made by DFID, it is. DFID should conduct an internal inquiry into its decision-making regarding this census.

Four key questions need to be answered:

  • Why did DFID decide to provide such a huge amount of aid, almost ten times the amount given to refugees in camps in Thailand for food and shelter, for a census at this uncertain and fragile time of transition?
  • Why did DFID not anticipate, as so many others did, the problems the census could cause?
  • Why did DFID decide to keep supporting the census going ahead, even when these warnings of dangers were given?
  • What are the implications for DFID’s Burma strategy now that President Thein Sein broke his word and excluded Rohingya from the census, despite previous assurances? DFID’s whole approach to Burma is predicated on a belief that President Thein Sein is a genuine reformer who is trusted and must be supported. With his decision to exclude the Rohingya from the census, he has demonstrated clearly that this is not the case.

“Rather than learning the lessons of the mistaken decision to fund the census, the British government is already trying to rewrite history and describing the census as effective,” said Anna Roberts, Executive Director of Burma Campaign UK. “DFID’s funding of Burma’s census was a serious error of judgement and DFID should be willing accept it made a mistake and learn lessons, rather than ignoring more than a thousand people who have called on them to conduct an inquiry.”

Burma Campaign UK’s briefing on the census is available here.


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