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Why Myanmar’s Leaders Misled the World About Its Population

Why Myanmar’s Leaders Misled the World About Its Population

Myanmar’s preliminary results of its first census in more than 30 years were pretty startling. Instead of being home to 60 million people, as the government had long estimated, the survey released on Friday found that the long-isolated country’s population is closer to 51 million. "Myanmar’s census falls 9 million short of estimate," the BBC reported. The AP’s headline: "Myanmar discovers it has only 51 million people."

Headlines aside, though, most experts aren’t actually that surprised. Demographers long claimed that the 60-million figure was wildly inflated. Moreover, they say, the Myanmar government should have known it was way off.

Between independence in 1948 and this year’s census, the country formerly known as Burma had only tried counting its entire population twice: in 1973 and 1983. In general, accurate demographic information has been hard to come by in a country that was largely closed off under military dictatorship until 2011.

There’s a good reason for that. Amid repression and government incompetence, millions of Burmese fled — and population growth slowed. A painful fact that the government has been hesitant to disclose. Now, with Myanmar slowly opening to the world, the full scope of the country’s demographic slowdown is coming into view.

In the absence of up-to-date census data, the 60-million number was the "most-accepted estimate," according to the AP. The government arrived at that figure after assuming that the population growth rate observed between the 1973 and 1983 censuses held steady. But Paul Cheung, co-chair of the census’ International Technical Advisory Board and the former director of the U.N. Statistics Division, told Foreign Policy that was clearly a false assumption.

Most international experts agreed with Cheung since at least last year, when U.N. demographer Thomas Spoorenberg argued for a much lower estimate. Even the limited data available showed an aging population, suggesting a fertility drop that the official estimate didn’t account for, Spoorenberg said. Moreover, research showed workers increasingly leaving Myanmar for Thailand, with more than 1 million Burmese registered in Thailand in 2009. When added to the many unregistered migrants and 415,000 Burmese refugees scattered around the world, the number of Burmese living outside Myanmar could easily approach 3 million, Spoorenberg calculated. And yet the government’s estimate of 60 million living in Myanmar assumed zero emigration.

So really, Cheung said, "the proper question to ask is why the Myanmar government has consistently said that the population is about 60 million."

According to Spoorenberg, "Such resistance is likely rooted in the fact that, until the adoption of a new population policy in the early 1990s, Myanmar had maintained a strong pronatalist policy, mainly based on the view that the country was under-populated and that a larger population was needed to take full advantage of the country’s abundant natural resources."

Analysts often mention Myanmar’s persistent poverty, despite its wealth of natural resources such as metal ores and natural gas, as an indication of military rule’s devastating effects.

This gets at a broader political reason why the government might have wanted to prop up its numbers. "Since General Ne Win’s coup in 1962, Burmese people have been leaving the country in order to flee civil war, hunger, poverty, unemployment, and political repression," Spoorenberg wrote. "The bloody repressions that followed the 1988 revolt and the non-violent mass street protests in 2007 prompted many thousands of Burmese to leave the country." The effects of cyclone Nargis in 2008 were severely worsened by the still-isolationist government’s refusal to accept timely international aid. Nargis left 140,000 people dead and millions may have left the country as a result.

Myanmar must now come to terms with the implications of being a significantly less populous nation. Those implications include a smaller consumer base and labor force, which could affect the international investment that Myanmar has been trying so hard to attract since it began embracing democratic reforms three years ago.

The survey also highlighted the country’s chronic ethnic conflicts. In western Rakhine state, the site of widespread persecution of Rohingya Muslims, concerns about the listing of Rohingya as an ethnicity on the census prompted violent protests by Rakhine Buddhists. Ultimately, the government barred respondents from stating their ethnicity as Rohingya.

At the same time, ongoing conflict between ethnic Kachins and the Myanmar government prevented census workers from reaching parts of Kachin State controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization. Duncan Young, another technical advisor to the Myanmar census, said the provisional results compensated for any incomplete data by adding 1.2 million people to the total. But the International Crisis Group has warned that by drawing attention to ethnicity, the census has worsened ethnic tensions and deepened divisions between groups.

In that way, the census is representative of so much of Burma’s recent history. While the new count is a step toward increased transparency, it also risks bringing the country’s deep-rooted tensions — long suppressed by an authoritarian regime — into the open.