Measuring Myanmar

Celia Russell, the UK Data Service’s International Data Specialist discusses the first population census in Myanmar for thirty years.

In May 2015, the preliminary outputs of the 2014 Myanmar Population and Housing Census were released – the first population census for thirty years and controversial from the start. The United Nations Population Fund led efforts to promote the purpose of the census and the importance of participation. An upbeat campaign included pamphlets, posters and billboards in 17 languages, television and radio shows, a celebrity bus tour and even a census jingle. Around 100,000 teachers, seen as a trusted group and proficient in local languages, were recruited as enumerators. The publicity campaign was widely viewed as a success. An international observer mission later reported that most people had “enthusiastically responded to questions during enumeration”, some had even prepared notes in order to be able to respond more accurately to the questions and “overall the population was positive about the census and wanted to be counted.”

Too crucial to postpone?

A national census is a large scale operation that will always generate some risks, particularly in a country with long-running  internal conflicts, hugely sensitive ethnic and religious tensions and many people living precarious lives. Burma Campaign UK and others have written elsewhere that the Myanmar census put particular ethnic groups in physical danger and may have cost lives directly.

The risks are real in a country where clashes are ongoing and more than 240,000 people live as internally displaced people (IDPs). But there are also big risks inherent in not holding a count; a reliable population census is an essential tool of good governance. A weak information base makes for poor, ineffective and unaccountable government unable to identify people’s needs or deliver basic services, which in itself shortens lives.

Perhaps most crucially, knowing where the citizens live is vital for a country’s disaster preparedness and resilience. Even today, no one knows how many people in Myanmar were killed by Cyclone Nargis in 2008 (the estimates vary from 84,500 to over 130,000). The Category 4 storm made landfall on the densely populated but un-enumerated and badly mapped Ayeyarwady delta. Villages and settlements disappeared without trace or record of existence, leaving rescue and relief efforts – once they were allowed to access the region – without the basic information needed to carry out their mission. In contrast, the relief efforts following this year’s extensive monsoon flooding are being informed by population density maps produced from the census data.


Myanmar: Floods Emergency – Situation Report No. 4 (as of 14 August 2015)

Political timing

Myanmar went to the polls on Sunday, with a new president due to be appointed in spring 2016. International practice is that a census and an election should be separated by at least 12 months so postponing the 2014 census would have meant no census at all until 2017 at best. And, while the census returns were not used for the election register, running the census in 2014 has meant the data can tell us whether or not the voter lists are reasonably accurate and the constituency boundaries equitable.

Myanmar observer mission report

Observer Mission Report

Out and in again

The census aimed to count everyone that was within the geographic borders of Myanmar on Census Night, Saturday March 29 2014. However, the day before the enumeration began, presidential spokesman Ye Htut announced that anyone self-identifying as Rohingya would not be included in the count (upturning all international guidance). The census was conducted face-to-face, and enumerators were told to be stop the interview if the respondent identified themselves as Rohingya. This resulted in a serious failure of enumeration in the northern area of Rakhine State – around 31% of the population were missed out.

However, the uncounted were not an ‘unknown unknown’. An extensive pre-census mapping exercise had identified all the residential structures in every census area and preliminary headcounts already taken place. The information collected from this mapping exercise tallied closely with the enumerated population in areas where a complete count had taken place. This gave an estimate for the number of uncounted people in Rakhine State (1,090,000) which was added to census total to give the final population figure.

In Kachin State, enumeration could not be completed in around 100 villages to which the government had no access (the area is under the control of the Kachin Independence Organisation). Again, the counts from neighbouring wards were compared to the counts from the mapping exercise and the factor of increase used to estimate the missing population (46,000). In Kayin State, the Karen National Union conducted their own census of townships under their control, counting 69,793 people. Once more, these figures were added to the census count to give the single population estimate.

The data

The census count combined with the data from the preliminary surveys puts the population of Myanmar at 51,486,253 which is around 8-9 million lower than the pre-census estimates (based on the notoriously unreliable 1983 census and a birth rate projection which proved too high for recent years). One unintended consequence of the lower than expected population is that the World Bank moved Myanmar from a “low-income” country to a “lower-middle income” economy (without anything actually changing on the ground), as national income per person is the primary basis of this classification.

You can access the preliminary census tables on population, age, gender, health, disability, education and living conditions at township level (330 areas) from the Myanmar Ministry of Immigration and population website. Data at lower levels of geography (ward and village tract) are also expected as outputs. Responses to questions about employment were handwritten and will take longer to process. Data on ethnicity and religion are incredibly sensitive in Myanmar and are unlikely to be be released until well after the election.

Useful links

Main census results:
About the questionnaire:
About being part of the observer mission:
Observer mission report: Findings of the Census Observation Mission: An Overview

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