Burma: demographics of disciplined democracy

An accurate estimate of the population is crucial for conducting elections. The absence of one in Burma illuminates the nature of authoritarian rule in the country, says David Scott Mathieson.
David Scott Mathieson
27 May 2011

What if you held an election and you weren’t sure how many people showed up? A simple question regarding the veracity of the last elections held in Burma, on 7 November 2011: how many people actually live in the country? It may seem straightforward, and after all it’s a fundamental question when determining voting lists, and yet there is a great variety of estimates.
Burma has not had an effective nationwide census for decades: previous ones took place during British colonial rule in 1931, under the post-war social-democratic government in 1953, and by the self-described socialist government in 1983. The population in the last census, despite that count not being able to access considerable parts of the country due to civil war, was 35,442,972. What is Burma’s population now, in 2011?

The Rangoon-based United Nations agency, the Myanmar Information Management Unit (MIMU), released a map in 2009 with a breakdown of the population of all of Burma’s fourteen administrative units (states and divisions/regions); based on figures from Burma’s ministry of home affairs, it finds the total population to be 44,209,146. The Lonely Planet tourist guide (2009) claims 47.4 million. The United States’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimates the population at 48,137,741. Many newspapers reporting on the Burmese elections variously say 50, 51, 52, 54 or 57 million - numbers all likely based on internet searches through disparate figures on a variety of websites. United Nations millennium development goals (MDG) data compiled in 2008 projects the 2010 figure for Burma at 50,495,000.

The statistical yearbook for 2008 of Burma’s ministry of national planning and economic development gives the population figure as 57,504,000. The latest official figure in 2010, from the Burmese government’s ministry of immigration and population, estimates that 59.12 million people live in Burma: 29.39 million men, and 29.73 million women. These numbers stem from a census of some kind conducted in 2007, in cooperation with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The survey estimates that the population growth rate is 2.02% annually.
So, estimates from the lowest to the highest figures in just a two-three-year timescale - in calculations from the Burmese government, the United Nations, and international organisation - produces a differential of 15 million people. Isn’t that gap a little too wide to conduct anything approaching a credible election?

The politics of verticality

The Burmese electoral process itself, few observers would now disagree, was a gigantic fix to ensure military dominance. Its ingredients were rigged electoral laws interpreted by a pro-military electoral commission; the arrest and incarceration of more than 2,200 political opponents; a behemoth military party called the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) that, with 18 million nominal members and a nationwide structure of offices and financial assets is difficult to beat; and a constitution that guarantees wide-ranging operational latitude and invests ultimate power in the Burmese military.

On voting day, 7 November 2011, the USDP won more than 77% of the seats in the two national-level parliaments, and a clear majority in the fourteen regional and state-based assemblies. The electoral commission announced that 22 million of the 29 million eligible voters cast ballots, a turnout of around 75%-80%. The USDP won more than 875 of the 1,157 seats open to contest in the three levels of assemblies. In addition, a military quota ensured by the constitution reserves one-quarter of seats to serving military officers, underlining the Burmese military’s overwhelming domination of all political decision-making.

There were reports of widespread irregularities, including the use of advance-voting ballots to swing seats in favor of the USDP during the closing stages of ballot-counting. But look beyond the rigged process to the basics of the elections. A central law of psephology (the statistical analysis of elections) is to establish an accurate estimate of the population, clearly demarcated electorates and the eligible voters contained therein, and a system of tallying votes. It is not known clearly how closely observed these prerequisites were ahead of the vote, though significant questions can be asked.

The very task of estimating Burma’s population is predominantly part of the system of authoritarian control. To monitor society, the authorities have long employed a draconian system of household registration. Every house must have a list of inhabitants that are regularly reported to local authorities, at the suburb (or in Burma, the ward), or village level. Visitors are either denied permission to stay overnight or must be registered with the authorities. It is prohibited for foreigners to stay overnight in a private Burmese home, and all hotel-registration lists are reported daily to local police and immigration authorities.

This system is vertically integrated. Regular population numbers of small communities are relayed up to the next stage of monitoring control: from village to village tract, next to township, then to state or division/region level, and ultimately to national authorities. This is not unique to authoritarian systems, but in practice it grants latitude to local authorities to act in any way to ensure that good news flows up the system. In a country such as Burma where avoiding the attention of authorities is a basic survival strategy, compliance by officials and citizens to accord with expectations is often the norm, despite questions of veracity or efficiency of the information. Positive news is an essential ingredient of loyalty in repressive states.

The inconvenient variables

What few analyses of the Burmese population include is the number of demographic factors that challenge any accurate assessment: displacement through conflict and development projects, work migration to neighbouring countries, transmigration to look for work inside Burma, statelessness (of the Rohingya Muslim minority, hinterland hill-tribes, and other marginalised populations), and haphazard or incomplete citizenship registration.

Burma remains an extremely poor country, sharing rugged and underdeveloped borderlands with Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand; with simmering conflict, especially in the eastern borderlands; and with a bewildering ethno-linguistic patchwork of peoples, defined by the SPDC as amounting to 135 “national race groups”. This is a shortlist of seven inconvenient intervening variables that any assessment of Burma’s demographics must face

Internal displacement

For more than a decade, there has been a major problem of conflict and development-induced displacement in eastern Burma. The annual survey of the Thailand-Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) estimates that 460,000 civilians were internally displaced in 2010: in a mixture of nominally government controlled areas, ceasefire militia enclaves, and free-fire zones contested by state and anti-state forces.

These populations are a mix of recognised citizens of the Burmese state, and those whose births were not officially registered but have spent most of their lives under insurgent administration. In several townships in border areas, no voting was held on 7 November; the areas included the Wa special region in the north, and parts of the country where conflict is still raging in the Karen and Shan states. Those unable to vote include tens of thousands of hill-tribe minorities such as the Lahu, Akha, Palaung and others, especially in the northern states, who live on the fringes of state control and have never been officially counted.


There are more than 140,000 documented refugees in nine (unofficially) recognised camps in Thailand. These numbers have stayed largely constant since 1984 when the first major waves of refugees started to cross. More than 60,000 refugees have been resettled to third countries from these camps since 2005.

The ethnic Shan have only one very small recognised camp; most of the people fleeing across that border enter the migrant-worker population, and easily number several tens of thousands. India has approximately 50,000 ethnic Chin refugees in Mizoram, and several thousand in Delhi. Refugees also travel to Malaysia, where some people estimate 30-50,000 people from Burma are there, either working or applying for refugee status. Some refugees retain their citizenship.

The Rohingya Muslim minority

Burma’s most persecuted ethno-religious minority is the estimated 1 million Rohingya. They have been the target of large-scale and brutal military expulsions into Bangladesh (in 1978 and 1991), and denied citizenship and basic rights for three decades. Many Rohingya were (paradoxically) granted voting rights in 2008 and 2010 through the issuance of temporary identity-cards, and Rohingya political parties were permitted to contest the election (in which they were trounced, though military-aligned Rohingya businessmen were permitted to contest and win seats through the USDP). An estimated 250,000 Rohingya live as refugees or undocumented migrants in Bangladesh, tens of thousands more as migrant labor in the middle east and Pakistan.

Chinese migration to northern Burma

Chinese migration to Burma has demonstrably increased since the early 1990s, especially to Burma’s second largest city, Mandalay. Many Chinese migrants purchase citizenship, using business contacts with officials to secure it; others are temporary labourers, such as the tens of thousands of road-builders and dam-construction workers in Kachin state. There are no hard official figures on the size of this migration, but the presence of recent Chinese immigrants in northern Burma is clear to any visitors, and a source of periodic tension between ethnic Burmese and the new arrivals.

Migrant workers

Burmese labourers leave their country in massive numbers, some for short-term work, others for many years. The standard figure for Burmese workers in Thailand is 2 million, but in the absence of a fully functioning registration system, official figures are much lower. Migrant workers from Burma also travel to Malaysia and Singapore, in lesser numbers, but where working conditions are often marginally better. Some of these workers were permitted to vote in the elections, if they were legally recognised as migrant workers, and cast advance ballots at Burmese embassies. Some migrant workers refused to vote, fearing that officials would be able to exhort money from them or their families back in Burma if they engage with embassy officials.

Struck off household lists

Many people, especially Rohingya, who leave Burma because of persecution or for work are often struck off household-registration lists because they have left the country illegally. Many migrant workers leave their Burmese ID card inside Burma, with their parents or family members, as it is illegal to take the card outside of Burma. Dissidents and others who have illegally left the country for clandestine training or work are regularly charged with breaches of the migration act and sentenced to long prison terms.

Internal labor migration

It became clear after cyclone Nargis in 2008 that large numbers of landless labourers who had been working in the Irrawaddy delta (and may not have ever been counted either as temporary residents or as residents) were amongst the 140,000 listed officially as dead or missing count. The experience of the constitutional referendum of 2008 is instructive in other ways. When Human Rights Watch interviewed survivors of the cyclone from 2008-10, we encountered many who said they were not included in village-household lists because of their isolated location; many said they were never given the opportunity to cast votes as local authorities completed it for them.

The swift counting of the tally in 2008, not an arduous task in a simple yes-or-no vote but still a challenge considering Burma’s lack of development and infrastructure, was reached within a couple of weeks, and publicly announced down to the individual vote: a 92% approval of the constitution from a 98% voter turnout. It seems obvious that the repressive apparatus of state control in Burma is bottom-up: local authorities know they must deliver positive, even if erroneous, news to the next layer of control all the way up to central authorities in Naypyidaw. There are many other variables of transmigration not taken in to account in official figures: how many people in Burma move within the country for work but fail to register with the authorities?

At an extremely and necessarily rough estimate, are 3-5 million people not included as Burmese citizens with voting rights?

Authoritarian truthiness

Charles Seife’s new book Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception details how governments and corporations throw around deceitful figures. He writes: “In skillful hands, phony data, bogus statistics, and bad mathematics can make the most fanciful idea, the most outrageous falsehood seem true. They can be used to bludgeon enemies, to destroy critics, and to squelch debate.” The obsession with numerical detail by Burma’s authoritarian system is a prime example of what Seife calls “disestimation”: granting credibility to a figure that is derived with too much uncertainty.

An accurate estimate of the population is crucial for conducting elections; and it must be hoped that a genuinely free and fair election in Burma will take place one day. It is also crucial for increasing development projects and the disbursal of humanitarian assistance. What Burma’s new parliament, a reshuffled version of the former ruling military council, needs to do in 2011 is to prioritise credible population statistics that serve the needs of local development in health, education, land management, and economic reforms (such as urgently needed micro-financing projects).

These fundamentals are being lost in the haze of a system of control, and the various responses by communities to maintain survival. If the United Nations system circulates widely different figures, how will they coordinate with national authorities and local communities to reach those in acute need?

Any agenda for international engagement with Burma has to include reconciling the variables of communities that are not included on official registers; and more consideration of people who are used by the state when it suits them, and ignored when it doesn’t.

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