Burma plans to conduct its first census in 31 years, a key step in political reforms that could have a big impact on the country's marginalized minorities.
Burma's minister of immigration and population Khin Yi signed a letter confirming his government's commitment to conduct the nationwide census by 2014. The letter says the first survey in 31 years will adhere to global standards, include "all national races," and give census workers access to all areas of the country.
During the signing ceremony in Naypyitaw, U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon said he hopes ongoing ceasefire talks will make the census possible, and will involve minorities and civil society.
Dave Mathieson, senior Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch, said an accurate count of the population is a critical part of the government's political reforms.
"Potentially, if you have a census that extends the right to vote to everyone in the country, you are going to have a far more equal and credible election in 2015," said Mathieson. "If you have actually empowered people enough that they can actually cast votes."
Burma's last official census in 1983 failed to count people living in areas where insurgencies were raging. Before that, the last credible census was conducted in 1931, during British rule.
Official denial of the stateless
Rights groups worry that if not conducted properly, the census could marginalize minorities such as the Rohingya or those living in one of Burma's many conflict areas.
The United Nations estimates nearly one-million ethnic Rohingya Muslims live in Rakhine State.
Myint Kyaing, Director General of Burma's Department of Population, an office which denies the existence of stateless people, is responsible for conducting the survey.
"We have no stateless people in Myanmar and there is no Rohingya in Myanmar as well, because no Bengali people are residing in Myanmar," he said.
A key test
Analysts say resolving such classification disputes will be a key test of the census' accuracy and the government's commitment to reform.
For years, economists and academics studying Burma have been forced to use the government's notoriously unreliable data.
Professor Sean Turnell of Australia's Maquarie University, editor of Burma Economics Watch, said the census will allow the government to more accurately estimate key economic indicators such as GDP.
"Under the previous government there was very little, even in pretense, about having the numbers right," said Turnell. "You know there were certain objectives that the government wanted to achieve and, when pressed, those numbers usually added up to achieving those ends. And so I think the classic example was GDP growth rates, which for decades were in double digits."
Those GDP rates, he added, would have made Burma the best performing economy in the world.
In the two years leading up to the data-collection period, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) will be assisting in surveyor training and drafting survey documents. UNFPA's country representative Mohamed Abdel-Ahad called it an especially steep challenge due to the amount of time elapsed since the last census, but one that is a critical step.
"As you know the public does not know enough about the census," he said. "The census has not been taken for 30 years, so those who were born after 1983 in Myanmar do not know and have not gone through the experience of conducting census, and we need to inform them that it is their right to be counted."
Abdel-Ahad said workers expect to carry out the census in April, 2014. The United Nations is expected to at least partially cover the estimated $53-million cost.