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BURMA CENSUS AND CEASEFIRE UPDATE
May 10, 2014
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An event of truly historical significance is now underway in Burma, but it is receiving scant attention. This is the census of the nation's population, potentially the first accurate count since the early 1950s.
The census in turn is one of four critical benchmarks of what many people believe to be a military-regime sponsored process of "democratic reform:" the census; amendment or redrafting of the country's Constitution; a nationwide general election; and the completion of a nationwide ceasefire.
At the moment, there is confusion over the order in which these benchmarks should be achieved. The regime, its international partners, and internal Burman-dominated groups such as the NLD and 88 Generation, are pushing for the ceasefire first, followed by - if the generals approve - constitutional amendments, and then the census results and the election (which has already been announced for the end of 2015). However, if the reform is to be viewed as in any way sincere, the correct order is as first described. The census results need to be publicized, so the people of the country can see that they are complete and accurate. Then the Constitution needs to be amended - really, redrafted - to create a democratic charter. At this point, and only at this point, will it be possible to hold a truly democratic election. And finally, with all of this in place, the ethnic resistance groups, and their peoples, can feel confident agreeing to a formal nationwide ceasefire.
The census is being organized by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the actual count was completed from March 29th to April 10th. It did not, though, count the Rohingya people of Western Burma, estimated to number over one million, nor many, many villagers in the war zones in Kachin and Northern Shan States. The regime refused to count the Rohingya, and in a number of documented cases "security personnel" accompanying the census takers actually used the opportunity to abuse them. Similarly, the regime used the census as a means to infiltrate troops and weapons into Northeast Burma to use in its attacks against Kachin, Shan and other local ethnic groups. Nonetheless, the regime's Department of Population announced in mid-April that the census was "98% complete and showed that the Myanmar population did not exceed 60 million." The regime then said that the census would be extended to June 10th in Rakhine, Kachin and Northern Shan States. This will no doubt provide new opportunities to abuse the local peoples. Also, the census has failed to account for the literally millions of people from Burma who are migrant workers or refugees in Thailand, Malaysia, China, Bangladesh, India, and other countries, as well as internally displaced persons inside the country itself.
According to UNFPA, the census forms for the initial count were to have been given to the regime by May 4th. The next steps of sorting, counting, checking and scanning are now presumably underway. An important question is what period of time is appropriate to accomplish this, given the country's fraught situation. While accuracy is essential, given computers and massive funding by the international community, it really shouldn't take that long. From the regime's comment, it is clear that approximate numbers are already available. However, "preliminary" results are not expected until July, and the "main" results are to be postponed until next March.
It is critical that the people of Burma understand what this timeline does to the reform benchmark rollout. It put's the cart before the horse, by trying to force the ethnic groups to sign a ceasefire first, rather than as should be the case, last. Only when an accurate census is publicized; the Constitution is rewritten to enshrine a Federal Union national structure, as well as a Federal Army under elected government official control; and a free and fair election is held, can the ethnic nationalities truly believe that the reform is not just one long and international community backed lie.
To this observer, the regime is actually conspiring with the international community, starting with President Obama, Germany, Norway, and the United Nations, to ram through not only an unjust ceasefire, but to force all the people of the country to accept never-ending dictatorship and abuse. The apparent goal of this tragedy is to further the geopolitical interests of the West relative to China, and to assist corporate profiteers, even if it means allowing a gang of war criminals to stay in power.
Let's not forget what is really happening on the ground in Burma. According to the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, "there are elements of genocide in Rakhine with respect to Rohingya." The regime's war in Kachin and Northern Shan states is not only ongoing, it is accelerating. Land thefts throughout the country are rampant, and victimized villagers who protest are abused and arrested. Press freedom is still denied, again at the threat of arrest. And massive environmental destruction is never-ending. There is no question at all that the reform is patently false, designed to dupe the people and enable the regime to openly join the new global system of plutocracy and corporate dictatorship.
All of the people of Burma should reject this. All civil society organizations, certainly all ethnic nationality organizations - women, youth, environmental, etc. - should issue statements demanding the census results now, and that the international community stop interfering in their nation's internal affairs. For the first, there is no reason why good numbers can't be available by the end of this month. Finally, the ethnic armed groups, which for six decades have had to fight the military dictatorship's civil war, must refuse to sign a nationwide ceasefire until Burma Army generals, starting with Senior General Than Shwe, allow real democratic reform, foremost an end to the attacks on them and a new Constitution. In other words, never agree to surrender! Instead, stay true to your cause and force the dictators to sue for peace!
(Closing note: From another perspective, it is worth remembering that the ethnic resistance groups' position for some years started with a call on the military dictatorship to declare a nationwide ceasefire; followed by a tripartite dialogue to achieve national reconciliation; and then the establishment of democracy and federalism. For the last, and with an assured peace in place, the resistance groups would form political parties and compete in a general election. However, this scenario depended on the regime's willingness to implement the first step, to stop attacking the ethnic peoples, which clearly the Tatmadaw generals have no desire to do. Therefore, the approach is no longer valid. Because the generals continue to not only perpetrate, but apparently relish perpetrating, military aggression and crimes against humanity against non-Burman peoples, the resistance armies should defer the ceasefire to the final stage, and only agree to one when all the other steps, meaning a true democratic transition, have been achieved.)