The United Nations’ population agency said it has no role in and is not supporting the nationwide census that the Myanmar junta is planning to carry out in October of next year.
Despite ongoing crises due to its inability to subdue the armed resistance throughout the country, the regime indicated last month that it intends to push forward with plans to carry out a nationwide census in the first two weeks of October 2024.
The junta’s immigration and population minister, Myint Kyaing, met with Ramanathan Balakrishnan, the resident representative to Myanmar for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), in July and late August. The junta’s official announcements regarding these two meetings mentioned the issue of population statistics but did not give further details.
In a statement via email to Myanmar Now on Tuesday, the UNFPA’s Asia and Pacific Regional Office confirmed that the agency “does not have a role in the 2023/2024 census” and that it had communicated to regime authorities its “inability to support” the census given current operational challenges.
Myanmar’s most recent nationwide census, which cost around US $74 million and was funded by Western donors, was conducted in 2014 with the supervision of the UN population agency. It was carried out over a 12-day period and covered 11 million households.
In a possible reference to the UNFPA’s answer to regime authorities, Soe Win, vice-chair of the military council and patron of the junta’s Central Census Commission, said at a meeting on August 22 that in contrast with previous censuses, the 2024 census process will be “self-reliant.”
“The census and household registration must be completed on a self-reliant basis by spending the state budget through the collaborative efforts of the ministries,” he said, according to the regime-controlled news outlet Global New Light of Myanmar.
He told the commission that a pilot census will also be conducted in 100 neighbourhoods in 20 townships across the country starting next month. It is still unknown which of the country’s 330 townships were among the 20 selected for the pilot procedure.
Soe Win also added that the census process would face security challenges and “preparations must be made.”
During a visit to a biometric data registration operation in Mandalay Region’s Aungmyay Tharzan Township on Thursday, the junta’s deputy immigration minister Myo Thant said that the personal data of 52 million people (13 million households) in Myanmar have been recorded in a digital database.
He also said the public will be issued electronic identifications, commonly known as “smart cards” after the registration of their biometric data, according to regime-run media.
Earlier this month, junta chief Min Aung Hlaing called for “necessary preparations” to be completed ahead of the national census in 2024, and said an election could only take place after a census has been completed.
The United States government has said that any elections under the junta would be a “sham,” and analysts have predicted that the military’s opponents will carry out attacks on the polls in junta-run elections.
Security preparations for pilot census
Following reports about the pilot census, local resistance sources in the war-torn Sagaing Region told Myanmar Now that the regime has increased security around Monywa, the regional capital.
On Monday, the region’s junta-appointed chief minister Myat Kyaw met with local regime authorities to discuss plans for a census in two of the city’s urban wards and eight nearby villages.
Two days later, the military set up stations at the Ah Lel and Nat Lu Hteik Pan ward administration offices and in the villages of Ma Au and Ywar Htaung, according to Khant Wai Phyo, an executive member of the Monywa People’s Strike Committee.
“They weren’t stationed at the ward administration offices or in Ywar Htaung before. It appears they’re reinforcing security for the pilot census,” he said, adding that the gates to both wards are now closed after 6pm.
“They have also threatened to shoot if they see more than one person riding a motorcycle. That used to apply only to men, but now women have also been told to ride alone,” he said.
Checkpoints have also been set up on the road to Monywa Prison and on roads leading to junta offices, he added.
Such measures are an indication of how desperate the regime is to demonstrate some degree of control in Sagaing Region, according to Khant Wai Phyo.
“District administrators can’t even attend meetings in Monywa, which shows that the military’s administrative mechanism is almost non-existent [in the region]. Conducting a census under current conditions would be way over their heads,” he said.
Sagaing Region has been one of the most strife-torn parts of the country since the military seized power more than two and a half years ago.
Junta forces sent to the region to crush the armed resistance movement continue to come under attack on a daily basis, triggering air and ground assaults by the military that have forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee their homes.