Empty seats following Yangon's Union Day Celebrations last week. (Photo by the author.)

Earlier this month, Myanmar celebrated Union Day, a day that marks the signing of the 1947 Panglong Agreement which aimed to unify the country's ethnic groups. With ceasefire agreements continuing to hold, this year marks perhaps the most unified the country has been since that day in 1947. The upcoming census has the potential to unravel much of that unity.

Since it was announced, many analysts and Myanmar watchers (as noted on these pages in January) have highlighted that the country's first census since 1983 is cause for concern.

Designed by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the census is set to run from 30 March to 10 April (though due to difficulty of access, data collection has already started in Kachin state). The next round of dialogues on the nationwide ceasefire is also set for March.

In its current form, the census will comprise 41 questions, including some on religion and ethnicity. Needless to say, these are delicate topics in one of the world's most ethnically diverse nations, which has for decades witnessed dozens of conflicts between the Tatmadaw (the military) and armed ethnic groups. 

Ethnicity has long been a volatile issue in Myanmar. This was perhaps most evident in the policy of ethnic assimilation by U Nu, Myanmar's first prime minister ('one race, one language, one religion'). It was also demonstrated in the eviction of hundreds of thousands of Indians from the country when the military junta, under General Ne Win, seized power in 1962. This has been buttressed by long campaigns fought by the Tatmadaw against groups such as the Kachin Independence Army, Shan State Armies and United Wa State Army, to name but a few.

The census, like all population surveys, will at least to some degree pigeon-hole ethnicity and religion.

As such, many believe it will not be representative of all groups, a crucial point as the census will effect political representation in the 2015 elections. Minority ethnic groups make up 40% of the country's population and will be crucial in power-sharing agreements in the 2015 elections. 

International Crisis Group highlighted the problems of the census in February. It sensibly called on the UNFPA to remove some questions from the census, notably those of ethnicity and religion, instead asking only the fundamental questions of age, sex and marital status.

The ethnicity issue has been so touchy that even Aung San Sui Kyi has stayed away. On the issue of the Rohingya (or Bengalis as they are known to most Myanmar people) she has been silent. Yet she has still suffered a backlash from some of her once-fiercest backers. Rakhine Buddhists feel she has not taken a strong enough stand against the Rohingya Muslims. And earlier this month the Mon Buddhist Monk Association said she would not be welcome during her planned visit  to Mon State, with the Rohingya issue cited as one of the reasons. Some I have spoken to even think that, as a result of her 'softness' on the issue, she has slipped in her majority support for president in next year's election. 

Supposed inaccuracies in the reporting of the percentage of Muslims in the population during the last census (the reported figure was 4%) could mean a significant 'rise' in the Muslim population in the new, more accurate, census. Many believe this could be a three-fold increase to over 10% of the population.

Such a result would inflame anti-Muslim sentiment. In conversations here in Myanmar, even the most moderate of Burmans seem to worry about the supposed rise in the Muslim population. The sentiment was demonstrated again last week when the National League for Democracy was forced to cancel a public talk following monks' objections that two of the four speakers were Muslims.  

People here draw on personal accounts, many borne of cognitive biases, to justify these opinions. As the issue becomes a hot topic, there is a greater likelihood of observational selection bias, where people will observe more of something once it has been highlighted. So, in the average mind, the likelihood that the Muslim population is getting bigger (rather than the 'rise' being due to previous inaccurate reporting of statistics) seems reasonable. Coupled with a now free media (largely Burman-run), this creates a groupthink that can quickly avalanche. 

These biases are not unique to Myanmar but highlight how the issue may unravel. Anti-Muslim voices have already begun to gain prominence in the country, as has been highlighted in previous posts

Despite these concerns, the government here and the UNFPA both have faith in the process and have stated that it will press ahead unchanged. Certainly, the information that the census will provide will be important for the country's socio-economic and political development. But it may also undo much of the good that has been done.