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As many as 400,000 people in Burma’s northern Kachin State could be excluded from the nationwide census that began on Sunday. This constitutes about 30 percent of the state’s estimated population. Many people remain inaccessible, living in areas controlled by the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) or in displacement camps for those who fled conflict since mid-2011.
Khon Ja, liaison officer for the Kachin Peace Network (KPN) said calls for negotiations that would grant access to enumerators in rebel-held territories remain unanswered, which could greatly impact the minority’s final headcount.
Q: Which parts of Kachin State are participating in the census?
A: The census has been completed in Putao, Machanbaw, Sumprabum and Nawngmon where it was carried out from 3-12 of March, ahead of other parts of the country. Census is currently underway in Myitkyina, Bhamo, Waingmaw and Momauk townships. It is being conducted in all government-controlled areas, but polls will not be taken in KIO-controlled territories.
The KIO’s territory is divided into five divisions – East, West, South, North and Central Divisions – and the census won’t be carried out in these areas. The KIO servicemen and their families, as well as the populations in areas such as Sumprabum and Injayang, including refugees in displacement camps, will not be counted in the polls. At least 30 percent of the total population in Kachin State will be left out of the census. This means that the “official” number that comes out of the survey cannot be considered accurate.
Q: What is the estimated population in KIO territories?
A: We estimate between 300,000-400,000 people – including nearly 100,000internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Q: Immigration Minister Khin Yi, while in Kachin State as part of a presidential delegation on 16 March, reached out to the KIO through mediators and proposed conducting the census in their territory. The KIO, as we understand, dismissed the proposal because there were no prior negotiations. Is there any move towards inclusiveness, or is the issue closed?
A: We [Kachin Peace Network] raised this issue with the Central Census Committee in Naypyidaw on 26 February. The committee members replied that they had already discussed with ethnic armed groups. At the time, we were aware that the committee had yet to meet with the KIO, so we tried to facilitate a meeting between them but it didn’t happen.
Moreover, the KIO’s refusal was not the only reason that the census is not being conducted in their territories. There is also a security concern; The Burmese Army still hold positions at the frontline and offensives continue. There were clashes in some KIO areas in northern Shan State as recently as 25 March, so it will be absolutely impossible for the KIO to allow the census to be conducted under these circumstances.
Access is not only restricted to KIO territories, but to other ethnic areas, as well. The Ta’ang [Palaung] and the Shan are also under attack by the Burmese Army. There are land mines in many areas, and the villagers don’t really stay in one place permanently.
The Burmese Army’s cooperation is crucial – we have seen the Central Census Committee providing training to some officers, but they turned out to only be posted in towns. As far as we know, regional units such as the Northern Military Regional Command have not been informed, nor their troops at the frontline. For these soldiers, everything that comes into their sight is a viable target.
Q: What is at stake for Kachin people if the census numbers misrepresent their population?
A: The census is meant to assist national development by collecting basic data on which to base future projects and policies. Missing a large number of the population means the “basic data” will be inaccurate and plans based on wrong data will be totally imprecise.
As the state’s budget is based on population, having a lower regional count will tip the budget. The population in Kachin State will face disadvantages on every level, and in the political realm, could lose some of their ethnic rights.
Due to poor preparation, a small tribe called Nom Lom Ni, left out of the previous census, will not be counted in the current census either. The failure to count these people, who live in several major townships, means that they are being erased from the history of Burma.