Since Min Aung Hlaing staged the coup on 1 February 2021, he had repeatedly said that it was constitutional by citing articles 417 and 418 of the military-drafted 2008 Constitution. As a part of the whole coup-being-constitutional deal, Min Aung Hlaing, as the head of the interim administration, pledged to hold a multiparty election at the end of the emergency period. Due to the unprecedented reaction of the public, his administration has kept on extending the emergency period and postponing the said election. As the armed revolution began and accelerated, the junta chief used instability across the country as an excuse to defer the election although the majority of the public had no faith in the election held by the regime-assembled Union Election Commission. Local and international analysts and observers also showed little confidence in the regime’s ability to hold the election due to the vast expanse of clashes across the country. So whenever the coup leader mentions the election, many of us consider he is simply bluffing. These days, Min Aung Hlaing has come up with a new excuse for the delay of the election, i.e., the population census. During the State Administration Council (SAC) meeting on 1 September, he said that the election would be held in 2025 after the population census in 2024.
Why census? Why now?
Having been ruled by successive military regimes that liked to stay obscure, Myanmar is known to lack essential information and data about its own country. This made the 2014 Population Census all the more important since it was the first census in 30 years. Several Western donors provided financial and technical support to the Thein Sein Administration, and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) supervised the process. Since it is supposed to be conducted every ten years, the next round of census is due in 2024. Prior to this, junta-appointment Minister of Immigration Myint Kyaing announced that the population census will be conducted on October 1-15, 2024. At first glance, one would think Min Aung Hlaing is using the census as yet another excuse to extend his reign, but on a closer look, it is more complex and dangerous than an insignificant excuse.
An opportunity for the witch hunt
Conducting a census basically means getting headcounts of people in the country. Currently, in Myanmar, about 1,900,000 people have been displaced according to the UNHCR’s update as of July 2023. Among them, several hundred are either in hiding or have been issued arrest warrants due to their involvement in anti-regime movements such as civil servants participating in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), young protesters, parents of such protesters, or civilians who provide financial support to the National Unity Government (NUG) and other pro-democracy forces. Conducting a census basically means knocking on the doors of each home, counting the number of residents, and checking their household registrations. This means that the information of the aforementioned brave and vulnerable individuals will be compromised. Knowing all too well about the military regime, the remaining family members can also be at risk if one of their family members is a political dissident. Thus, conducting a census basically means Min Aung Hlaing’s disguised attempt to crack down on his opponents.
In his recent speeches, coup leader Min Aung Hlaing insisted on conducting the census in 2024, and then holding the election in 2025. While census and voter list are two different processes, he seems to want to combine these two. In population census, only demographic data is collected from each household while personal data and documents are required for collecting voter lists. Currently, on the regime side, no clarification has been made on these two, keeping things vague and obscure.
In late 2022, the regime’s Ministry of Immigration started carrying out preliminary activities in several parts of the country. In one of Frontier Myanmar’s reports, sources said that citizens could not say no to its activities like sharing biometric data. In some resistance stronghold areas, officers who conducted these activities are threatened by the resistance forces but the public in major cities has no choice but to comply with this potential surveillance activity.
No UN support unlike the last time
With the junta’s on-and-off talks about the census, UNFPA’s resident representative to Myanmar Mr. Ramanathan Balakrishnan was seen holding meetings with the junta administration in July and August of this year. This alarmed whether the UN agency planned to provide assistance to the upcoming census as it did in the previous one. Human rights activists and digital rights activists alike voiced that the regime will likely abuse the information and data of the people. CDM workers and other political dissidents expressed their concerns for the safety of their family members. In mid-September, UNFPA’s regional representative confirmed to Myanmar Now, a local media, that the UN agency is not involved in the 2023/2024 census in Myanmar. This news put the people’s concerns at ease only for a brief period.
The UN’s lack of support for the regime’s census process raised questions on how the military will collect factual and accurate data about its population since the international community provided the required tools, software, and technology for the 2014 census. Dr. Mary Callahan who studied the Myanmar military said that the chance is unlikely because the junta lacked the necessary resources.
No West but so what?
A few days later on September 18, the regime’s Immigration Minister Myint Kyaing traveled to Beijing, China to seek necessary assistance for the census. He met Ganglu, the Deputy Minister of China’s National Immigration Administration. He also visited Beijing Hisign Technology company to learn about biometric technology. The company is known for producing essential technology for China’s surveillance state such as “facial recognition, fingerprint identification, palm-print matching, handwriting and vehicle license plate recognition” among many others. This news intensified the concerns that the public already had about the regime’s census. It had been also reported that Myint Kyaing discussed cooperation on developing an e-ID scheme with India in July. While the democracy-loving Western countries from faraway lands shunned the junta, neighbors from closer proximity continued to engage with the regime with the possibility of incoming foreign support.
In the past two years, Min Aung Hlaing has repeatedly shown that he would hold onto power with very few friends. This is not new for the Myanmar people since we have seen previous regimes gaining support from other military governments or authoritarian states. While democratic countries disengage with the regime, it only pushes the regime closer to other authoritarian leaders as it finds leeways and loopholes for its survival. This situation certainly puts democratic countries into a predicament: damned if they engage with the regime, and damned if they don’t.
Limited options for all
A year ago when the regime mentioned the election, the public showed their disinterest and distrust. Even if the election took place, people could choose to not show up to polling stations. But with data collection for the census, the public has no choice but to comply especially if the regime chooses to threaten with weapons. Whether it is a census or a voter list, the regime collecting information on the citizens is going to put so much risk on political activists, CDM workers, armed fighters, or anyone who supports the pro-democracy movement. Not to mention, the involvement of China should raise serious alarm in the international community. However, the classic reactions from the international community could be “There is only so much we can do” or “It is an internal affair that we cannot interfere with”, which is true to some extent. Then, considering how limited options are for the Myanmar people, one cannot help but raise an important question: is armed revolution the only ultimate way to eradicate the military regime in Myanmar?