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Myanmar begins national census amid controversy

Myanmar has started its first full national census in 30 years on March 30 and will be collecting population data across the country until April 10, according to the Ministry of Immigration and Population.

The census is based on a questionnaire with forty-one questions that aim to provide the government with up to date and accurate social, economic and demographic data of the country’s people and households.

“We will carry this out for the country’s benefit without harming the peace and stability of Myanmar in any way,” said Minister of Immigration and Population Khin Yi.

There has been widespread suspition and controversy surrounding the census taking process as this is the first in Myanmar since 1983.

Many minority ethnic groups have raised concerns that the census questions do not include accurate names or misrepresent many ethnic groups, and experts have warned that the process could inflame communal tensions in western Rakhine State between Buddhists and Muslims.

Buddhist Rakhine groups have threatened to boycott the process over suspicions that the census will allow Muslims to include themselves as Rohingya, therefore legitimising their ethnic status.

Code numbers to be used to identify the 135 official ethnic races recognised by the government allow for the use of “other” which gives people the right to define their own identity in the allotted blank space.

The government, however, has repeatedly underlined the fact that the Rohingya are not an official ‘ethnic race’ and will therefore not be registered as such on the census.

“The main thing is that if a person said he is Rohingya when he is asked questions at his house, we will not accept it. We will either mark him as a Bengali or other specified code names. We will not register it when they said they are Rohingyas,” said government spokesperson Ye Htut.

The aim of taking the census is to provide the government with up to date social, economic and demographic data for the purpose of ongoing reforms, development planning and good governance. The census is being supported and funded by the United Nations Population Fund.

The Ministry of Immigration and Population has stressed that personal data collected by the census remains confidential and cannot be used for other purposes including tax or household registry.

“Depending upon different socio-economic figures from the census, the government, civil organisations and private organisations can conduct planning for various sectors and lay down policies as well as initiate them,” said Khin Yi, the chairman of Central Census Commission.

The census commission will analyse the gathered population figures and data after census is completed. They already tested a preliminary census in 20 townships in various states and regions, showing detailed figures on rural to urban migration, educational backgrounds and unemployment in different peer groups, according to the commission’s report.

The census process has, however, highlighted the level of mistrust between citizens and the government regarding the collection of personal data.

The first full census taken in independent Myanmar was in 1973 during military dictatorship under General Ne Win, with 28.92 million people registered as the official population.

Another census was taken in 1983 with the official figure reaching 35.3 million, almost seven million more than ten years earlier.

Form 1991, population figures (not a full census) were collected every five years counting the official population of Myanmar at 61.57 million people in 2013, according to the Central Census Commission.

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