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Thousands of enumerators fanned out across Burma in April to conduct the country’s first census since 1983. The census workers identified 51.4 million people living in the country, more than six million short of the figure estimated by the country’s Election Commission in 2010.
Speaking to the press in Rangoon on Tuesday night, the UNFPA put the miscalculation down to an exaggerated birth-rate. The government has long assumed that more than three babies were being born per 1,000 people each year. The birth rate has now been revised down to just two per every 1,000, according to the UNFPA’s Fredrick Okwayo.
According to Khin Yi, Minister of Immigration and Population, the government’s once official statistic of 60.98 million was based on approximate reproduction rates taken from a basis point provided by the last census.
Justine Drennan suggested in Foreign Policy that the numbers had drastically fluctuated under decades of repressive military rule, with people having either fled the country or migrated to neighbouring countries to escape the deepening poverty in Burma.
Despite knowing this, Drennan claimed that it was easier for the Burmese government to consistently proclaim the population at an exaggerated 60 million, rather than accept the shameful rationale of repression having shrunk the populace.
The Burmese government, aid groups and the UN have long relied on population data for the roll-out of development projects, making accurate information desperately necessary, says the UNFPA.
However, controversy dogged the count even before enumerators marked their first ballot. The government back-flipped on the right of the Rohingya Muslims to self-identify, after riots broke out in the Arakan capital of Sittwe. The idea of listing “Rohingya” as an ethnicity in the census led to violent protests by Arakan Buddhists.
Ongoing fighting between the government forces and ethnic armed groups in Kachin and northern Shan states also blocked the count.
These ongoing internal conflicts further contributed to more than one million people going under the radar, mostly Rohingyas and Kachins.
This article was edited on 4 September 2014 to correct the following: A previous version of this article attributed a quote to Justine Drennan, which was, in fact, a paraphrase of the original cited text.