By Luke Sanford
Amid protests in Ukraine, Venezuela, and Thailand an explosive situation in Myanmar has been drawing little attention. A seemingly innocuous census designed to prepare the country for the 2015 election could drive a massive surge in ethnic violence against the Rohingya.. Some of you may recall reports trickling from the Rakhine state about violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority there. Perhaps others have noted criticism of a census that is about to take place in Myanmar—something that is opposed by many minority groups both because of the opacity of how ethnic categories were created and the effects that it might have on voting rights for minorities in the 2015 election.
The Rohingya have faced often-violent discrimination throughout their existence in the Rakhine province. This discrimination stems largely from a multifaceted siege mentality on the part of Buddhist extremists: there is a mythology-backed fear that Buddhism is on the decline in the face of Muslim expansion, and there is a demography-based fear of increasing numbers of Muslims in the primarily Buddhist Myanmar. The Rohingya faced a spike in political violence in early 2012 at the hands of a group called the ‘969 Movement.’ Since then, many Rohingya have been displaced and now live in temporary camps away from their former homes, most recently in an attack in January.
The census presents a flashpoint that could spark increased violence. It includes questions about both the ethnicity and religion of the population—two questions that the Rohingya Musliims should be afraid to answer. In the last census, which took place 31 years ago, Muslims were officially recorded as 4% of the population. The ICG reports that the actual number was likely over 10% but the true number went under-reported by the military government. In this census, that number is likely to be in the 10-14% range, an increase that will inflame fears of a ‘Muslim invasion’, the same fears that are already driving the violence against the Rohingya. A reported three-fold increase in the number of ‘invading’ Muslims will certainly increase the traction of calls for extreme action.
On February 14th the International Crisis Group called for the government to drop questions that relate to religion, ethnicity, and citizen status. The move was immediately rejected by both the official government body responsible for the census and by the UNFPA, the UN organization that is assisting in its implementation. For reference, the US census does not ask about religion, but does include race (and a question about Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin).
Why is the government so keen on asking such potentially inflammatory questions? One answer is that the government of the approximately 70% ethnically Bamar state of Myanmar is also anti-Rohingya, a theory that has been corroborated by a recently leaked report. This theory is further backed by news today that Doctors Without Borders has been ordered to stop working in the Rakhine state because of what government spokesperson Ye Htut called “falsely claiming it treated victims of violence” around the time of an alleged massacre that the government denies happened.
Another explanation deals with the vote-allocation system for the 2015 election, where minorities that meet a certain population threshold get additional representation in regional governments. It is likely that the way that minorities have been delineated is a strategic move by the government to enfranchise certain groups while removing power from the hands of others. Minor changes in the labels used in the survey appear to have appeased 10 of the approximately 30 groups that brought complaints, demonstrating that the government is willing to move on this issue. The most cynical explanation is simply that the outcome of the census—widespread fear of a Muslim ‘invasion’—is a political tool that the government could use to generate a rally-around-the-flag effect in the Rakhine province.
The ICG and other NGOs are continuing to push for changes in the wording of the census so that it does not include religion. With the UN Population Fund refusing to delay the start of the census, the only hope is to get the changes included before the March 30th rollout date. The government’s concessions to some minorities about the labeling issue prove that a change is feasible, despite claims to the contrary. International NGOs need to work to coordinate the remaining ethnic groups that are opposed to the census—probably the only way to force a change will be to threaten to boycott the census unless all of the groups concerns are met. Whether NGOs and ethnic groups have the capacity for such large-scale action on such a short timeframe remains to be seen.
Luke Sanford is a graduate student at the University of California San Diego school of International Relations and Pacific Studies. He is focusing on International Economics, International Politics, and China Studies. He is particularly interested in trans-boundary water issues and applied game theory.