What really counts

What really counts

Armed with the first reliable census data in decades, Myanmar's planners can get to work serving the country's 51 million people.

Now that Myanmar has got over the initial shock of learning that it has 9 million fewer people than it thought it had, experts are debating the impact that the first reliable population data in decades will have on the economy.

Provisional census results released at the end of August showed that Myanmar has a population of 51.41 million, well short of the estimate of 60 million that authorities have been using for years.

Conducted by the Ministry of Immigration and Population with the help of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the census also shows that the average number of people per household is lower than expected at 4.4, while women outnumber men by nearly 2 million.

"The census is a valuable national resource," said Janet Jackson, the UNFPA representative in Myanmar, at a news conference held to announce the results on Aug 30. "For the first time in decades, the country will have data it needs to put roads, schools, health facilities and other essential infrastructure where people need them most."

The findings of the US$50-million census show that the population of Yangon is 5.2 million, more than four times that of the second biggest city, Mandalay. The capital Nay Pyi Daw has 1.15 million inhabitants.

"These preliminary data reveal that Myanmar's cities are becoming denser. They are also expanding quickly, with many living along the edges of cities that have grown without any planning whatsoever," said Ms Jackson, adding that development planning would now be more equitable as investors could more accurately gauge the demand for certain projects.

Aung Thura, CEO of the capital market and research firm Thura Swiss, said the census also served another purpose as prospective investors could begin to tailor market entry plans in line with more refined data.

"One of the fine points to be taken from the census is that Myanmar's consumer market has now shrunk from 60 million to 51 million, which is not much when compared to other Asian countries, but the figure shows outside businesses that Myanmar is quite an attractive place to invest," he said.

"As an economy, we can still see that Myanmar has the same production capacity and the same purchasing power, but now that the number of people has changed. You would also have to readapt estimates when calculating consumer income."

Not everybody agrees, however. Other experts said it was unlikely that the new population figure would have much of an impact on economic activity as so many of the statistics that comprise what is known about Myanmar are still largely unreliable.

"The numbers were always dodgy. Indeed, they remain so. The population number is just the denominator of the per capita GDP equation. The numerator — the estimates of aggregate GDP — has no more credibility," said Sean Turnell, an expert on the economy of Myanmar at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.

To make matters worse, human rights organisations have criticised the census for not being in line with international standards, as oppressed Rohingya Muslims were not included in the list of 135 official ethnic groups in Myanmar.

"The exclusion of the Rohingya from the census was a betrayal of the very principles and purpose of conducting the census, and the international donors and UN agencies who were involved are complicit in this exclusion," David Mathieson, senior researcher on Myanmar for Human Rights Watch, said by e-mail.

"The Rohingya have the right to self-identify and should be accorded the rights of citizens. The census [in] refusing to do so doesn't solve the problem of stateless Rohingya, it exacerbates it and the government shouldn't be caving to extremists and their racist agendas.

"All the people living in Arakan [Rakhine State] should have been counted, and those people who self-identify as Rohingya and can prove eligibility should be granted citizenship."

The census shows that a total of 50.21 million people were counted during the 12-day mission, which started on March 30. An additional 1.20 million people embedded within conflict areas in Rakhine, Kayin and Kachin states were said to be inaccessible to the census mission, though they were counted based on a pre-census mapping of households by immigration officers.

In order to achieve the figures, 115,000 enumerators were dispatched to survey nearly 11 million homes, according to the UNFPA.

Where the provisional census data give a sense of Myanmar's long-unknown population, the figures also omitted key indicators, including the total composition of the ethnic groups that live in the country. Hat information will not be made available until May next year, around the time of the next general elections.

"There are still concerns that ethnicity data being released around the elections could spark communal violence," said Mr Mathieson.

U Khin Ye, the minister of Immigration and Population, said at the Aug 30 news conference that the Rohingya were not counted as Rohingya based on a "technicality", while an official copy of the provisional results defended the action as a security measure to avoid the possibility of violence due to inter-communal tensions.

"They are holding household cards stating that they are Bengali [a term considered derogatory for Rohingya] even though they self-identified themselves to be Rohingya, which is not allowed, so we did not accept that and instead classified them as 'unidentified'," the minister said.

Rights groups have estimated the number of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar at 800,000.
The official provisional census results also show that some parts of Kachin State controlled by the rebel Kachin Independence Organisation were not enumerated, while enumerators in Rakhine were unable to access some Rohingya villages and camps.

Areas within Kachin and Rakhine states comprise some of the final holding grounds of ethnic rebel groups that have taken up arms against the government, which has long been dominated by the ethnic Burman majority, since the country gained independence in 1948.

"In Kachin State, [the KIO] did not allow enumerators to count people in villages situated in the areas they occupy. This was despite negotiations between the government and their leaders," the provisional census report stated, adding that 97 villages were not counted there. 

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