Everybody Counts, Except in Burma's Census

From a brief moment of being a region that looked like it might fully transform and embrace human rights, the nations of ASEAN are having a bad time with them now. Brunei has announced the intent to stone people for being LGBT. Singapore doesn't even allow transit to HIV-positive people and has deported people for bringing HIV-related medication into the country. Malaysia continues its irrational pursuit of trying to prosecute Anwar Ibrahim into silence. Laos continues to stonewall investigations into the disappearance of Sombath Somphone. Vietnam continues to deny freedoms of association, expression, or the press, and it seems that Thailand is now following it down that path. The remaining countries have come far from where they once were (Cambodia) or are generally making strides but have continuing problems (Indonesia and the Philippines). Still, one ASEAN country excels at standing out for human rights abuses right now. It won't be shocking to hear that the shameful trailing nation in the region for human rights protections continues to be Burma.

Burma's current litany of human rights woes is long, but very early on the list must be the problem of politically directed interference with the facts of just what Burma actually consists of. Countries are not merely shapes on a map, but are composed of populations that fill those shapes. Depending on your frame of reference, one might debate when the Rohingya became persona non grata in Burma or exactly when the government shifted from accommodation to total control of Kachin identity and territory. Regardless, it is clear right now that there is a sustained effort to erase the Rohingya from Burma's history and to only allow the counting of those areas and populations of Kachin State that are under government control.

In almost everything that matters, getting counted is the first step to being something (or someone) who really counts. In the case of the Kachin and the Rohingya, who live at the actual margins of Burma, being pushed beyond the margins and into actual erasure, this "uncounting" involves the removal of even the trappings of human rights concerns. The heavily-Christian Kachin are pushed into ever more tenuous camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) ever closer to the border with China if not actually into China itself. The Rohingya, who have suffered increasing violence visited under the banner of Buddhist extremism, are facing another step in their erasure and are nudged bit by bit from statelessness towards the denial of their presence.

For a census to be worthwhile, it must be the measure of a place. Counts in the United States and elsewhere are not without political concerns, but even when it comes to counting undocumented immigrants or the homeless population, no credible voice calls for simply erasing such counts or not conducting them. How else might it be possible to represent what the actual needs and state of the land is without the raw data of how many people live within it? Census numbers are key to assessing the needs of different areas and populations and of knowing how to apportion for everything from transportation dollars and public health monies to simply knowing what regions of the nation might receive what proportions of political representation. The firestorms of violence that have roiled Rohingya areas sporadically (and, disturbingly, have been spreading to other Muslim communities in Burma) at high intensity and have remained somewhat constant in Kachin State might have found some sort of measure if an actual census had been conducted, some way to understand and frame what was really happening on the ground for policymakers and for the public-at-large. Instead of taking a necessary and overdue step towards laying the groundwork for understanding, the first census in decades has been undermined by the worst forms of prejudice in Burma.

In the formal exclusion of all Rohingya by identity and all conflict zones in Kachin State, the validity of the entire census is called into sharp question. For the first time in decades, and under the auspices of a government that has tried to portray itself as "reform-minded," Burma had a chance to organize a census process that might have made a difference. It isn't a missed opportunity for the world to know what Burma is, but a missed opportunity for Burma itself to know what it is. Before the world continues to fall over its feet at business opportunities in the "new" Burmese market or for there to be more funding for another project in Burma, it might ask itself if its possible to serve all of Burma, to empower justice for all the peoples of Burma as they are or just those that are given government clearance.

Ask for a count for the Rohingya and the Kachin, for a complete census. Take a moment to call the Burmese Embassy to share your feelings. You can fax the Embassy of Myanmar at 202-332-4351 to tell them "Count the Rohingya and Kachin because everybody counts." Or you can telephone them at 202-332-3344, 202-332-4350 or 202-332-4352 if you want to deliver your message via voice. You can ask your representatives to support the principles that Everybody Counts by checking contact information at www.contactingthecongress.org and sending a letter, making a phone call, or writing an email. No peoples deserve erasure. Human rights count. Everybody counts. It's a principle from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.