MYANMAR - Myanmar is due to conduct its first census in more than 30 years late next month, an exercise that some warn runs the risk of increasing ethnic and communal tensions, in part because of the way it is structured.
The census, to be carried out from March 29 to April 10, is essential for a diverse country of around 53 million, with 135 officially listed ethnic groups, at the confluence of India, China and South-east Asia - but with no contemporary demographic data.
Yet it also risks heightening tension in its current form, touching as it does on sensitive issues of race and religion, warn analysts.
The census is taking place as sectarian violence continues to be on the boil, a peace process with ethnic groups has lost some momentum and a watershed general election is just a year and a half away.
But the census machinery is already in motion.
The government and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), backed by donors - including Britain, the European Union and Australia - are determined to continue with the US$75 million (S$94.6 million) nationwide exercise.
Last Thursday, director-general U Myint Kyaing of the Ministry of Immigration and Population was quoted as saying: "We will continue as planned and we also have the agreement of all the national races to proceed with the census."
There is wide agreement that the census will yield essential information and shed light on the ground realities of Myanmar.
Accurate data will make it possible to allocate and focus government and social services - such as education and health care, for example. But the 41 questions on the census forms may throw up some uncomfortable answers, critics say. And already, there is a sense of mistrust of the census among minority ethnic groups.
"Everyone's counting themselves," said a Yangon-based independent analyst who asked not to be named.
"The Mon, the Shan, the Karen and the Rakhine have all announced their own separate informal censuses to make sure they can check it against the official census."
Last month, the Peace Research Institute Oslo, in a paper on the census, said interviews in Kachin, Shan and Mon states and among ethnic communities in Yangon revealed "widespread distrust of the government's intentions. The most disputed issue is ethnicity".
This should come as no surprise, as some ethnic minorities have been at war with the Myanmar government for decades and have only recently begun talking with the reformist administration of President Thein Sein and signing up to fragile ceasefires.
But in a measure of the complexity of negotiating with over a dozen ethnic groups - all armed - the nationwide ceasefire hoped for by the end of last year has so far not transpired.
Even within themselves, ethnic groups are diverse, and subgroups have issues already over classifications in the census that may exclude them.
This is because being listed in the census is widely seen as recognition of their status.
The hottest button, however, is the anti-Muslim sentiment.
Beginning in mid-2012 in Rakhine state, where minority Rohingya Muslims are seen by the majority Buddhist Rakhines as illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh out to grab land and Islamise the state, there have been regular attacks against Muslims, with many killed.
Tens of thousands have been driven from their homes and communities into camps.
The recently emerged Burman-Buddhist right-wing 969 movement has been openly preaching intolerance towards Muslims.
Currently, it is thought that Myanmar is made up of 89 per cent Buddhists, of whom 60 per cent are Burman and 40 per cent are from other ethnicities. Muslims make up 4 per cent of the population and Christians and Hindus account for even smaller proportions of the population.
But there are "strong indications", says the Brussels-based non-governmental organisation, International Crisis Group (ICG), that the 4 per cent figure for Muslims from the 1983 census was a deliberate understatement for political reasons.
The actual figure was over 10 per cent.
Reporting the real figure this time will unwittingly fuel the Burman-Buddhist right wing's "fantastical narrative that Myanmar and the majority Buddhist faith are being overrun by Muslims", it says in a recent paper.
It called for the census questions to be reduced to a few basic ones, postponing others to a later exercise.
But Mr Dave Mathieson, senior researcher for the independent Human Rights Watch's Asia division, was critical of the UNFPA and donors for not heeding warnings earlier.
And while delaying the census was still possible and would avert the instability that could follow, it was probably too late to do so.
"There's a lot of attention on the issue now, but it is like slamming the gate after the horse has bolted," he said.
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