Distorted, Dangerous Data? Lumyo in the 2014 Myanmar Population and Housing Census

By Callahan, Mary P. | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, July 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Distorted, Dangerous Data? Lumyo in the 2014 Myanmar Population and Housing Census


Callahan, Mary P., SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


Although Myanmar undertook its first census in thirty-one years in 2014, the governments of President Thein Sein and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi have withheld the ethnicity statistics polled in the enumeration. The Ministry of Immigration and Population and the United Nations Population Fund framed the census question on ethnicity--or "lumyo"--to fail to produce reliable data, given that it neither met international standards nor took into account the complex and politically charged landscape of ethnicity in Myanmar. As a result, the ethnic results of the 2014 Population and Housing Census came to be viewed as destabilizing to the political reform and peace processes.

Keywords: census, ethnicity, lumyo, Myanmar 2014 Population and Housing Census, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Myanmar.

The 2014 census is going to be the first true snapshot of the
population of Myanmar.

--Frederick Okwayo, Chief Technical Advisor on 2014 Census (2)

In 2014, Myanmar conducted its first census in thirty-one years, with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) serving as the lead technical agency in support of what was then called the Union of Myanmar Ministry of Immigration and Population (MOIP). (3) Among the forty-one questions that the census asked was one on lumyo, or race, ethnicity or nationality. Although the data tallied on all other questions were released in a relatively timely fashion, both the President Thein Sein and the National League for Democracy (NLD) governments have withheld the statistics on lumyo. Why have these data been withheld from the public? In February 2016, the director of the census, a demographer who received his doctorate from Thailand's Mahidon University, gave one insight when he told the Myanmar Times that the release of lumyo data could "shatter the state's peace and stability" during the political transition (Nyi Nyi 2012, quoted in Pyae Thet Phyo 2016).

Why are lumyo data perceived to be so dangerous? When the numbers are released, many lumyo groups are going to be disappointed with their absolute and relative statistical representations, while viewing the statistics for other groups as suspiciously large, and perhaps artificially inflated by design. Because political representation and the fate of Myanmar's peace process is at stake, and because the data on lumyo also bear on issues of social status and deeply felt notions about ethno-racial hierarchies, all numbers will be suspect and probably criticized for distortion. This note argues that the UNFPA and the MOIP ignored the ongoing civil wars and constitutional provisions that politicized the collection of this information. They ultimately put at risk a fragile peace process and a tenuous start on what will be a very long democratic reform trajectory for Myanmar. They also selectively disregarded the very "global standard" on ethnic data collection to which both agencies committed themselves. Instead, the leadership of these agencies, supported by the foreign donors that funded the costly census, insisted on measuring identity in contextually inappropriate ways--in a country where people routinely risk their lives asserting or defending lumyo identity. In such a context, as the census director suggested in early 2016, hiding the results may have been seen as a "risk mitigation" strategy. He is likely to have recognized too late that the UNFPA/MOIP census methodology had led to a dangerously distorted "snapshot" of Myanmar's lumyo. (4)

Background to the 2014 Population and Housing Census

The impetus for taking a census at that particular moment in Myanmar's history is unclear. A census is not required under the terms of the 2008 Constitution. United Nations (UN) sources claim that Thein Sein requested UN assistance from Secretary General Ban Ki Moon on the sidelines of the 2011 East Asia Summit in Bali, (5) although advisors to the president remember UN staff promoting the idea before the Thein Sein administration had ever considered it. …

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