DVB’s Angus Watson spoke to Janet Jackson, Myanmar Representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and her assistant Hla Hla Aye, about the international agency’s role in the upcoming census, its significance and the potential pitfalls.
Q: What role does the UNFPA play in Burma’s 2014 census?
A (Hla Hla Aye): UNFPA supports the Ministry of Immigration and Population, the Government of Myanmar [Burma], in providing technical, financial and administrative support to the 2014 Population and Housing Census. UNFPA also helps the Ministry to mobilize resources so that the census is credible and done according to international standards and guidelines. Besides this, UNFPA is working with the Government to ensure that the census is correctly understood by leaders and the public so that when they take part during enumeration, people have information on the census and know the benefits of the census at individual, community and national levels.
The census is a technical and developmental exercise. It will clarify how many people live in Myanmar, where they are, and what some of their living conditions are. This will inform the authorities where services and infrastructure such as schools, roads and hospitals are most needed. The census is a critical step in the country’s development process. It has the potential to enable evidence-driven, transparent and responsive planning and policy-making for the first time in the country’s history. This information will help the government manage public finances transparently. It will help citizens and civil society, including in ethnic areas, hold authorities accountable for public expenditure and services. Publicly available aggregated data will enable national, state/division and local authorities, civil society, and private enterprises to improve planning and operations. Census information will underpin private investment and job creation. By knowing where people live, and what education and skills they have, private investment and training can be targeted at the right places at the right time. These are important considerations in the context of the changes happening now in Myanmar.
It means that reliable and accurate data and information from the census will provide a solid foundation for the future of Myanmar’s policies, programmes and development planning processes.
Q: Could you give us a logistical breakdown of the project, for example how many people are involved/employed? Where are they working?
A (Janet Jackson): The Government of Myanmar, through the Department of Population (DoP), will conduct the Population and Housing Census in March/April 2014. In terms of involvement, every person in Myanmar will be involved in the census. This is a chance for each household to speak of their living conditions and their needs. About 120,000 primary and secondary school teachers are recruited from their locality across the country to be the enumerators during the census. There are about 490 master trainers and 7,140 district trainers. At the DoP there is a team of over 300 people responsible for mapping, logistics, data processing and analysis. A census building was constructed last year to host all the staff and instruments needed for such a colossal nationwide exercise. UNFPA has posted an international Census Chief Technical Adviser at the DoP as well as a number of international consultants to support the department in the technical process of the census. This is because Myanmar has not had a census for more than 30 years.
The census is also supported by an administrative structure set-up for the involvement of Ministries, UN, civil society, religious leaders, ethnic groups, youth groups, disability groups, women organizations, etc. These structures included the establishment of the Census Commissions presided by the Vice-President with key Ministers and UNFPA representative as members, the Census Committees at State/Region, district and township level across the country with members from health, education, labor, etc, as well as the International Technical Advisory Board (ITAB) comprising 15 census experts from various countries to oversee and advise on census preparations. In addition, a National Advisory Committee (NAC) composed of government ministries, UN agencies, donors, civil society, ethnic and religious representatives, women’s groups, disability groups, and academia has been set-up to input and advise at each phase of the census process.
Q: Ethnic political groups, such as the Karen National Union, have urged members of ethnic sub-groups to identify themselves more generally as members of a major ethnicity. Why might this be a policy for ethnic leaders? Would you encourage this?
A (HHA): The question on ethnicity will capture diversity of the nation, inclusive of ethnic minorities. This provides the opportunity to start a new, inclusive and consultative dialogue on ethnicity in a country of remarkable diversity.
One of the fundamental principles of a census is that everyone has the right to be counted. This includes the right to self-identify on ethnicity. Everyone who is present in Myanmar on the night of 29 March 2014 will be counted, regardless of citizenship, ethnicity, religion, gender or age. Also, everyone has the right to have the census explained fully to them beforehand. Understanding and respecting these rights will enable the questions in the census to be answered correctly and without bias, fear or coercion.
The role of leaders, including community, ethnic and political leaders, is to provide their members with accurate and timely information regarding all processes of the census. More importantly, they have a responsibility to encourage people to participate in the census. Once people from all groups are properly sensitised and participate, then they can self-identify in the way they wish to on ethnicity. It is the right of each person to decide what ethnicity they belong to and this should be respected by all involved in the process. This applies also for those who wish to record their identity as of mixed ethnicity. All new entries under the provision for ‘other’ will be coded separately during the stage of data processing.
Q: The government has claimed recently that ethnic political and armed groups are ready and willing to work with the government on the census project. Do you think this claim has any validity? In what ways would these groups assist?
A (HHA): Over the last four months, the Government team led by H.E. U Khin Yi, Minister for Immigration and Population, has travelled the country far and wide, getting to some of the most far-flung townships and communities. He has visited, held discussions, and held town hall and had bilateral meetings with many types of leaders, including ethnic political and armed leaders, in different parts of the country including self-administered areas, for example in Loukang, Shan East, Tachileik, Kyaintone, Mine Lar [Mong La] and Pan Seng, Chin, Kayin [Karen] and Mon states. Visits have also been undertaken to Kachin and Bago.
A special meeting on the census was held with representatives of almost all non-state armed groups in Chiang Mai at the end of 2013. UNFPA took part in most of the visits, with the UNFPA Representative [Janet Jackson] often explaining the importance of the census for the country in its development, for the reform agenda, as well as for the transition process. These meetings have had a positive effect in terms of dispelling initial mistrust and misunderstandings of the census. More importantly, the meetings clarified how it will be undertaken and how data would be used to benefit the country. This helped to secure the engagement and readiness of leaders to dialogue and work to ensure full nationwide coverage as well as sufficient numbers of enumerators, including enlisting local people to be trained for the task. These initiatives have helped build confidence in the process. The fact that Myanmar has followed international standards every step of the way has underlined the intention to get the process right. Leaders, including non-state groups and ethnic leaders, have shown that they are willing to work for a successful census. Other leaders can do the same to help make the census an event of nationwide participation and a success.
Q: Do you think there will be any reluctance for people from minority groups, particularly minority religions, to provide correct data on the census form? Would people fear authorities recognising them as Christian or Muslim for example?
A (HHA): Enumerators are being trained to complete the questionnaires accurately according to the responses given by the people and to strictly protect the confidentiality of the responses. Where the person responds to the question on religion as being Christian or Muslim, then this is what will be recorded. If there are worries during the enumeration process, then the respondents can ask the enumerator to show them how the answer has been completed.
In our interactions with many different groups, the main concerns have been on ethnicity, particularly the freedom to state their ethnic identity as they wish, trusting that there will be confidentiality of information, and understanding that this is a totally separate exercise to that of national registration, citizenship, election voter registration and taxation. Therefore, census data will not be used for any such purposes. Everyone’s personal details will be kept confidential. No one will be able to access information about individual people, households or institutions. In upholding international standards in census-taking, this is a commitment and an assurance that has been repeatedly given on the part of the government. Indeed it is also part of a written and signed commitment made with the United Nations in April 2012 when the government decided to undertake a census.
Q: What is at stake if the census needs to be postponed, or if some groups refuse to participate or call for a boycott?
A (JJ): Myanmar’s first census in 30 years will provide population data that is needed to promote inclusive development that can benefit people from all groups. Postponing it now would lead to a delay of several years in making this data available to planners, undermining development efforts and the reform process. Large-scale non-participation would be detrimental to efforts for social and economic development of all areas of Myanmar.
Q: What is the UNFPA’s response to those groups?
A (JJ): The Ministry of Immigration and Population and UNFPA have taken concerns expressed by ALL groups very seriously. Consultations have been taking place throughout the past year with ethnic armed groups, representatives of self-administered areas, civil society and religious groups. Trips were taken by the Minister and the Representative of UNFPA to special regions to have discussions with the leaders of those areas to dispel any concerns and make sure of their active participation. The discussions yielded positive results and the Government has received promises of full participation by almost all groups.
On 2 March, a group of 126 ethnic political party leaders and representatives in the peace process from self-administered areas, voiced their support and readiness to take part, on the basis of the government’s readiness to open up a dialogue on ethnicities and ethnic groupings after the census that would involve consultation with the ethnic groups themselves. In the meetings with ethnic leaders, the Government has acknowledged that the categories being used in the census are imperfect, and has committed to engaging in a dialogue with them after census enumeration to develop an ethnic categorisation that better reflects the country’s diversity.
Q: Is there anything else you might like to add?
A (JJ): The Census enumeration (data collection) is only one phase of the census process. Consultations between the Government, UNFPA and all groups will continue and intensify after data collection to obtain advice from all groups and develop dissemination and analysis plans that respond to the needs and concerns of all groups.