YANGON, Myanmar — From the hustle and bustle of Yangon to the ancient temples of Bagan and the tranquil beauty of Inle Lake, Myanmar is a country with a rich and varied landscape.
Populating that varied landscape is a diverse people from more than 100 different ethnic groups.
With a strict military government in power for decades, the population went uncounted with no official census since 1983.
When the ruling military government began a series of reforms in 2011 one of the things they did was decide to conduct the first census in more than 30 years but they couldn’t do it on their own. Enter the United Nations.
Janet Jackson, a representative for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in Myanmar, says the UN got involved almost right from the start.
An official agreement was made in 2012 and the planning began in earnest to hit the ground running with the physical count. That count took place in 2014 and required massive manpower that needed to be in place before the boots hit the ground.
“It was a huge, huge task and it involved payments and training to 116,000 census personnel throughout the country,” says Jackson.
In many countries getting a census off the ground is not an easy task but in a country where 70% of the population lives in rural areas and where there has been no census in decades, the challenges are even greater.
“There were a number of challenges in terms of the census as a whole… This was going to be the first census in 30 years, so you are really talking about starting from scratch,” says Jackson.
The UNFPA team working with the government started from the ground up making sure that the more than 100,000 personnel they hired were Myanmar citizens with knowledge of the many languages and cultures represented across Myanmar.
“Primary school teachers, were chosen to undertake the enumeration and supervisors were the secondary school teachers. Those were selected on the basis of one of the local languages, which was very important,” says Jackson.
“We wanted this to be an exercise that united people,” she adds.
It was not only a logistical challenge, starting from scratch, but achieving that goal of uniting the population proved even more challenging. In a country where many were subject to summary arrest and detention trust was a big issue. Many, particularly in rural areas weren’t sure what the motives for the census were.
“It was very much a public campaign about shifting that perception from something to fear to something that was for you, that you owned,” says UNFPA’s Petra Righetti.
Petra was in charge of helping develop a strategy to reach those in smaller communities. She was also in charge of finding unique ways of engaging the local populations.
Righetti says, “It was a huge effort that engaged an event management company. We had two bus tours for southern and Northern Myanmar with celebrities and hip hoppers.”
The work on the ground engaging the public was, for the most part, a success. Ninety-eight percent of the population was counted when the enumerators hit the ground in 2014. But the UN admits that there were people, about two percent of the population, that were not counted.
“The missed populations were areas where there was already ongoing fighting… but the large bulk was the Muslim population who wanted to identify themselves as Rohingya in the Rakhine state. So it was regrettable that they were missed out,” says Jackson.
“The major problem we saw with it was that it proceeded on the basis of the 1982 citizenship act and citizenship would be defined on the basis of whether you were one of the 135* ethnic races of Burma. That’s a problematic issue,” says Human Rights Watch Deputy Director for Asia, Phil Robertson.
The 1982 citizenship act denies citizenship to groups like the Rohingya and has left them without status and, in many cases, living in deplorable conditions in camps for internally displaced persons inside Myanmar’s borders. Still, others have risked death to try and escape to neighboring countries like Thailand and Malaysia on migrant ships.
This omission of the Rohingya from the census collection process was not the only criticism of the census. There is also criticism about the religious and ethnic data that was collected.
“There were questions being asked in the census connected to religious and ethnic affiliation and the interesting thing about that is the information for those questions still has not come out yet because it was deemed to be too sensitive,” says Robertson.
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While the majority of the data was released in May the religious data has yet to be published. It’s hoped that it will be published in the remaining weeks of 2015.
But, overall, the census is seen as a positive step forward into the future of Myanmar.
“This data will feed into policy making and that, in turn, will direct where planning and services will need to be improved,” notes Jackson.
She also says this data is important to give the government and countries providing aid to Myanmar a snapshot of what needs to be done in areas like education.
“We can see that most young people start falling out of school at a very early age, in their early teens, and very few of the children who could be are completing education,” says Jackson. “How do we lift all that up so that the government can continue on this trajectory of reform.”
With the first openly contested elections in more than 25 years, and a new civilian government set to take power officially in early 2016, the hope is that the hard data can now be analyzed and used to the benefit of all Burmese citizens so that the path to reform can continue to be forged.
Melanie de Klerk travelled to Myanmar as a recipient of the 2015/2016 Asia Pacific Foundation Media Fellowship.
Please note: This story has been updated to correct the number of ethnic groups in Myanmar to 135. An earlier version of this post stated there were 133 ethnic groups in the country.
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