Originally published on Mohinga Matters
Since Min Aung Hlaing staged the 2021 military coup, he has cited articles 417 and 418 of the military-drafted 2008 Constitution. As a part of the whole coup-being-constitutional deal, Min Aung Hlaing – as the head of the military administration – pledged to hold an election at the end of the emergency period. Due to the nationwide resistance to military rule, his administration has continually extended the emergency period, which allows him to postpone the election.
As the armed uprising has accelerated, Min Aung Hlaing has used instability across the country as an excuse to defer the election although the majority of the public has no faith in the military-reformed Union Election Commission (UEC). Political analysts and observers express very little confidence in the military’s ability to hold an election.
Now Min Aung Hlaing has come up with a new excuse for the delay of the election, i.e., the population census. During his administration’s meeting in September, he said that the election would be held in 2025 after a population census is held next year.
Why census? Why now?
Having been ruled by successive military regimes that liked to stay obscure, Myanmar is known to lack essential information and data about its own country. This made the 2014 Population Census all the more important since it was the first census in 30 years. Several Western donors provided financial and technical support to the Thein Sein administration, and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) supervised the process.
Since it is supposed to be conducted every 10 years, the next round of census is due in 2024. Prior to this, the regime Minister of Immigration Myint Kyaing announced that the population census will be conducted from Oct. 1-15, 2024. At first glance, one would think Min Aung Hlaing is using the census as yet another excuse to extend his reign, but on a closer look, it is more complex and dangerous than an insignificant excuse.
An opportunity for the witch hunt
Conducting a census basically means getting headcounts of people in the country. Currently, in Myanmar, about 1.9 million people have been displaced from their homes (according to the UNHCR as of July 2023).
Among them, several hundred are either in hiding or have arrest warrants issued against them due to involvement in the anti-coup resistance such as the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) or anyone providing financial support to the National Unity Government (NUG) and other democratic forces.
Conducting a census basically means knocking on the doors of each home, counting the number of residents, and checking their household registration. This means that the information of the aforementioned brave and vulnerable individuals will be compromised.
Knowing all too well about the military regime, the remaining family members can also be at risk if one of their family members is a political activist. Thus, conducting a census basically means Min Aung Hlaing’s disguised attempt to crack down on his opponents.
Min Aung Hlaing has insisted on conducting the census in 2024, and then holding the election in 2025. While census and voter lists are two different processes, he seems to want to combine these two. In a population census, only demographic data is collected from each household while personal data and documents are required for collecting voter lists. Currently, on the regime side, no clarification has been made on these two, keeping things vague and obscure.
In late 2022, the regime’s Ministry of Immigration started carrying out preliminary activities in several parts of the country. In a Frontier Myanmar report, sources said that citizens could not say no to sharing biometric data. In some resistance stronghold areas, officers who conducted these activities are threatened by the resistance forces but the public in major cities has no choice but to comply with this potential surveillance activity.
No UN support unlike the last time
The UNFPA resident representative to Myanmar, Ramanathan Balakrishnan, was seen holding meetings with Min Aung Hlaing’s administration last July and August. Does the U.N. agency plan to provide assistance to the upcoming census as it did in the previous one? Human rights activists and digital rights activists alike voiced concerns that the military will likely abuse the information and data of the people.
CDM members and other political dissidents expressed their concerns for the safety of their family members. In mid-September, Balakrishnan confirmed to Myanmar Now, that the U.N. agency is not involved in the 2023-24 population census in Myanmar. This news put the people’s concerns at ease only for a brief period.
The lack of U.N. support for the census process raised questions on how the military will collect factual and accurate data about its population since the international community provided the required tools, software, and technology for the 2014 census. Mary Callahan, a Myanmar military historian, said that the chance is unlikely because it lacked the necessary resources.
No West but so what?
The regime Immigration Minister Myint Kyaing traveled to Beijing, China on Sept. 18 to seek assistance for the census. He met Ganglu, the Deputy Minister of China’s National Immigration Administration. He also visited Beijing Hisign Technology company to learn about biometric technology. The company is known for producing essential technology for China’s surveillance state such as “facial recognition, fingerprint identification, palm-print matching, handwriting and vehicle license plate recognition” among many others.
This news intensified the concerns that the public already had about the regime’s census. It had been also reported that Myint Kyaing discussed cooperation on developing an e-ID scheme with India in July. While the democracy-loving Western countries from faraway lands shunned Min Aung Hlaing’s administration, neighbors from closer proximity continued to engage with it.
In the past two years, Min Aung Hlaing has repeatedly shown that he would hold onto power with very few friends. This is not new for the Myanmar people since we have seen previous regimes gaining support from other military governments or authoritarian states.
While democratic countries disengage with the regime, it only pushes it closer to other authoritarian leaders as it finds leeways and loopholes for its survival. This situation certainly puts democratic countries into a predicament: damned if they engage with the regime, and damned if they don’t.
Limited options for all
A year ago when the regime mentioned the election, the public showed their disinterest and distrust. Even if the election took place, people could choose to not show up to polling stations. But with data collection for the census, the public has no choice but to comply especially if there are threats made. Whether it is a census or a voter list, the regime collecting information on the citizens is going to put so much risk on political activists, CDM workers, or anyone who supports a return to democracy.
Not to mention, the involvement of China should raise serious alarm in the international community. However, the classic reactions from the international community could be: “There is only so much we can do” or “It is an internal affair that we cannot interfere with”, which is true to some extent. Then, considering how limited options are for the Myanmar people, one cannot help but raise an important question: Is armed revolution the only way to eradicate the military in Myanmar?
This story has been edited for brevity. Mohinga Matters is a platform where aspiring writers share their thoughts, ideas and opinions freely.