A mosque burns in during sectarian violence in Lashio, northern Shan State, Burma last month. Pic: AP.

Census questions risk inflaming racial tensions, reports Asia Sentinel

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group is warning that Burma’s nationwide census, planned for late March and April risks inflaming tensions at a critical moment in the country’s peace process and democratic transition.

The crisis group called urgently for the census process to be amended to focus only on key demographic questions, postponing those which are needlessly antagonistic and divisive on ethnicity, religion, citizenship status – to a more appropriate moment.

Burma has not performed a census for the past 30 years as the country remained locked in a totalitarian embrace. However, the ICG warned, “the coming census, consisting of 41 questions, is overly complicated and fraught with danger. Burma is one of the most diverse countries in the region, and ethnicity is a complex, contested and politically sensitive issue, in a context where ethnic communities have long believed that the government manipulates ethnic categories for political purposes.”

With the country stepping out from under the yoke of a tightened military regime, the loosened reins have led to an increasingly virulent ethnic Burman nationalist movement that made bloody assaults on minority communities, particularly Muslims. At the same time, the government is attempting to deal with decades old ethnic conflicts in its border areas. The concern is that asking specific questions about racial background could inflame those tensions.

“There are many flaws in the ethnic classification system being used for the census, which is based on an old and much-criticized list of 135 groups produced in the 1980s,” the ICG notes. “In some cases, this creates too many subdivisions.” The Chin, for instance, which are mostly Christian, are divided into 53 categories, many of them village or clan names, which appears to have no justification on ethno-linguistic grounds.

In others, groups are lumped together who have separate ethnic identities (for example, several groups in Shan State such as the Palaung, Lahu and Intha are included as subdivisions of the Shan ethnicity when they are not related in any way ethnically or linguistically, the ICG notes. A number of these groups – including ethnic political parties and ethnically based armed organizations – have issued statements highly critical of the census, some demanding a postponement and reclassification based on consultation with ethnic communities.

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