Dec 20, 2013

Check: Burma's Senseless Census @ForeignPolicy

Burma's Senseless Census

Over three months of field research in Yangon this summer, I asked dozens of Burmese about their lu-myo (race or ethnicity) and found that individuals often describe complex, mixed-ethnic genealogies. For example, a Burmese colleague explained that ethnic identity is highly dependent on context: "For people like me who live in cities and don't speak an ethnic minority language, don't have ethnic minority names, and who are Buddhists, I don't think it would be a problem to identify ourselves as ‘Bamar lu-myo' ['Burman'] at first. But as we talk more about ourselves we include more information about different ethnic roots we have.... I am Bamar, but I'm also Mon, Pa-O, and Chinese." As this suggests, in Burma, ethnicity is lived less as a pseudo-scientific racial category and more as a set of practices shaped by one's environment.


Interviews with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the agency providing technical assistance to the census process, reveal that the census has been designed to ignore the existence of multiple identities. Respondents must choose only one of the official 135 ethnicities, or check the "Other" box and write in their ethnicity. If a person with multiple identities refuses to choose one, the census defaults to their father's ethnic identity.


Why, then, would the state choose to implement the census this way? Is this a government conspiracy, a project to foment extremism while displacing official recognition of diversity? It appears not: UNFPA's technical advisors say that it is simply logistically difficult -- for both the census enumerators and its respondents -- to record multiple ethnicities.


Indeed, whether the census is reformed or not, what ultimately matters is how this census information is turned into political narratives about legitimate political belonging. Contesting ethnic violence in Burma will require messages that stress that the military regime was abusive to Burmese people of all ethnic backgrounds -- but that people from these varied groups are still able to forge relationships based on mutual respect and benefit, and are all committed to participating in a future Burma.

The author argued pointed out an important issue of the whole census. But it should be also considered several facts:

  • Is the purposal of a multi-ethnical-friendly census affordable to Myanmar government and the funding agencies financially?
  • How can a multi-ethnical-friendly census achieve a (international/academic) statistical standardization?

Here is a handbook by UNFPA about the Myanmar 2014 census.


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