Among the 41 questions that the 100,000 or so census-takers, mostly young school-teachers, have to ask every household in Myanmar is one on race. But respondents can only choose from an anachronistic, inaccurate and divisive list of 135 ethnic groups. The list reinforces the impression of a government that represents only the ethnic-Burman majority. Myanmar’s government has been at war for decades with most of the country’s ethnic minorities, which make up about 40% of the country’s population.
Indeed, the census has deepened a sense of suspicion just as the government wants to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement with Myanmar’s armed ethnic groups and their political representatives. The census, and the way it has been conducted, looks like the work of a government that cannot throw off the shackles of its old, authoritarian ways.
In particular, the census has sparked further tension in Rakhine state, in the west, scene of sectarian violence between the Buddhist—ethnic Rakhine—majority and the Muslim Rohingya minority. Hundreds were killed in 2012 as Sittwe and other towns were ethnically cleansed of Rohingyas; about 140,000 of those displaced now live in refugee camps near the coast.The census will take place during the first two weeks of April and, if the timing is typical of most censuses, it will be at least a year before we will have even the preliminary results. Thus, it is way too early to tell if the census is really a political hot potato, but the experience of Nigeria (which no longer asks about religion on its census) does suggest that sparks will likely fly when (if...) the data are released.