The Burmese government's rocky path toward nation-building

The country is about to launch its first census in decades

Rohingya people
(Image credit: (REUTERS/Andrew Biraj))

In March, Burma will count its people for the first time in decades.

In 2012, one year into its disputed age of reform and 39 years after its last census, the Burmese government launched the country's third attempt at taking stock of its population. International observers described the early stages of the process — a "mandatory" prerequisite for further reforms, according to UN population experts — with optimism. At the time, David Scott Mathieson, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch (no great booster of Burma's political transition, either), told IRIN that "the census would have a very positive affect on the ethnic areas."

Two years later, the future of Burma's people-counting is less rosy.

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Many minority groups, some still fighting multi-decade insurgencies against the Burmese central government, dismiss its tidy categories for ethnic self-identification. As Elliott Prasse-Freeman observes in a recent Foreign Policy dispatch, identity — specifically, ethnic identity — is rarely as static as Burma's census forms suggest. And Burma itself is a particularly intricate network of ethnicities — 135 "official" ones to be exact — that create a complex populous that defies easy categorization. "A closer look," Prasse-Freeman writes, "at Burma's ethnic make-up...shows a vast diversity not simply within the country, but within people themselves."

For those who benefit from an identity-bounded census, the nuance is inconsequential. But for minority groups like the Rohingya, whom the Burmese government currently denies official recognition, whether they receive a check-box on a census form determines how they vote, how they acquire social benefits, and how they participate in communal affairs — that is, how they live.

Ethnic repression is a familiar feature of Burmese governance. The multi-decade counterinsurgency of the Tatmadaw, Burma's military, razed and then slowly devastated minority communities; among many civilians, "refugee" became a permanent status. The Tatmadaw's operations, however, were those of a weak state that scarcely asserted itself: Local militias, humanitarian groups, and disjointed military brigades, though often in conflict, diffused power between themselves. The central government's totalitarianism was a veneer, and violent conflicts between these unofficial factions were common-place.

Today, the worst violence is caused by the Burmese government's new assertiveness. The "stateless" Rohingya population is historically vulnerable; the past year's violence, in which Buddhist mobs killed hundreds of Muslim Rohingyas, has made it even more so. Anthropologists describe the politics of belonging as a nation's collective identity crisis, but Burma's recent violence against Rohingya civilians is more complex. It has become a matter of who belongs to the state, and who its once-repressive military forces will now protect.

These identities, codified in this year's census, are the stuff of nation-building. The ethnicities in question may be nebulous at best, but the coercive promise of the census — of taxes, political participation, and social welfare for those who belong — makes them real. Beyond Burma's census, this nation-building also refashions the local politics of conflict, as the central government presses for more common negotiations with rebel groups it once confronted as disparate groups.

Even so, the state's nation-building barriers are many and countrywide. Perhaps a recent headline by former-dissident-run Irrawaddy magazine best captured the reality on the ground: "Wary of official census, Burma’s ethnic minorities count their own."

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Daniel Solomon is a writer and consultant based in Washington, DC. He blogs at Securing Rights.