Next month the Burmese government will begin the country’s first nationwide census since the early 1980s. As preparation for the start date on 30 March gets underway, several groups have highlighted their concerns about how the census could work to further inflame violent nationalism and exclude minority groups. The International Crisis Group released a strong briefing last week that covers various important issues associated with the census, focusing in particular upon the requirement to list religion and ethnicity – a real danger at present given the recent violence directed towards the country’s Muslim population, and the Rohingya minority in particular.

As the ICG briefing notes, the problems are manifold, and affect all of the country’s ethnic groups (the number of which is contested). It says that minorities will only be allowed to field representatives for local government if their population, as recorded by the census, is above a certain number. “Groups fear that if their communities are subdivided or misclassified, they may be denied that political representation. There is no possibility to report mixed ethnicity, forcing people into a single identity, to the potential disadvantage of some smaller groups.”

Smoke and flames billow from a burning building set ablaze during sectarian violence in Meikhtila last year. Pic: AP.

It also makes a key point on the issue of how the census, even if carried out accurately and fairly (namely, allowing minority groups to record their identity according to what they believe it to be), could fuel anti-Muslim sentiment. “Currently, it is widely believed that Myanmar’s [Burma] population is 4 per cent Muslim, a figure reported in the 1983 census. However, there are strong indications that the real figure collected then was over 10 per cent, but that a political decision was taken to publish a more acceptable figure of 4 per cent. The results of the current census could therefore be mistakenly interpreted as providing evidence for a three-fold increase in the Muslim population in the country over the last 30 years, a potentially dangerous call to arms for extremist movements [emphasis added].”

There is also the issue of whether Rohingya will be allowed to label themselves as Rohingya. Various rights groups have said the census should be suspended until this category is included, or until the government agrees to remove the demand that ethnicity be listed, lest it inflame an already tense situation. But some worrying comments on this matter have been made by Khin Yi, who is heading up the census (and who, incidentally, played a key role in orchestrating the military crackdown on protestors in 2007, when he was police chief in Yangon). He has already said that “Rohingya” will not be an option on the ethnicity list. Here he is quoted recently in local media:

“They say that their race is Rohingya. When a person says that his race is “B”, because he doesn’t want to mention his race as “A”, that means that race “A” no longer exists, but the race “B” is a new race. Since race “B” is a new race, there will be questions, such as “how did the race enter (the country)?” or “are they encroaching here?” When things become radical, I worry that it could harm peace and stability …. We will record what the person says. If he says “A” then we will fill the form as “A”. The result will be, like I said before, that even if that term “A” is Rohingya, we will not recognize Rohingya as one of the 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar [emphasis added].”

(MORE: Crisis group warns against Burma census)

It’s not just minority Muslims who stand to lose out in the census. On a recent trip to southern Chin state I met a young Baptist man who had been struck off the family registration list in his remote village by Buddhist elders who demanded he convert to Buddhism. He has already been blocked from using services in his village – including buying food and water – and has been told by the elders that he’ll be prevented from taking part in the census, of which he said family registration is a requirement. His experience, and that of hundreds of thousands of others, shows that religious persecution isn’t just about religion – one’s beliefs are being used to determine who and who isn’t Burmese.

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA), which is providing assistance for the census, is now in a tricky position – its involvement ostensibly lends support to a project that could soon institutionalize and make official a policy of discrimination towards minorities that the UN itself has criticized. The UN spokesperson said in response to a journalist’s recent question on the issue that it was “supporting the Government to ensure that the census is fully inclusive and conducted according to international standards”. But still, as Khin Yi made clear, even if respondents are allowed to record the identity of their choosing, it will ultimately matter little – the Baptist man in Chin state may not even be allowed to fill out the form, and the Rohingya will still be regarded as non-citizens, and therefore stateless.

As the ICG further notes, “some extremist Rakhine political actors undoubtedly fear that the census would establish a baseline Rohingya population that would make it more difficult to sustain the narrative of recent migration in the future.” In light of all this it’s clear that a suspension of the census is necessary, given that carrying it out now in any form will worsen a fragile situation – if it is done fairly, it could antagonize ultra-nationalist Buddhists who see other religions, whether they be Muslim or Christian, as non-Burmese, and likely spur greater violence; if done unfairly, in its current form, it will disenfranchise minority groups and deny them political and civil rights for the foreseeable future.