First census in 30 years poses challenges in a deeply divided society.
As Myanmar undertakes its first census in 30 years, the shortfall of reliable information about the country is staggering, says a leading expert.
And while the national survey has coincided with a flare up of sectarian violence, it is worth the risks.
Speaking from the capital Naypyitaw, Dr Nicholas Farrelly from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific said the census highlights a “huge conundrum”.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” he said.
“Across the gamut of Myanmar society the information available to decision-makers is incomplete and inconsistent. For example, are all 135 national races recognised by the country viable categories?
“The census can help illuminate some of the blanks on the map. Crunching the numbers and offering a full analysis will take patience and specialist skills.
“For Myanmar’s people and government, to say nothing of interested outsiders, it will be a steep and bumpy learning curve.”
Farrelly added that the lack of quality social and economic information has caused major challenges for officials and policymakers as they embark on renewed agenda of nation building after five decades of military dictatorship.
“Everyone has an opinion which is substituted for hard evidence,” he said. “On top of this ‘old ideas’ aren’t ever properly tested.
“There is also far too much ‘zombie information’; this needs to be killed off once and for all.
“Finally, there is no way of measuring success or failure. I'm not sure anyone has much idea whether current policies are working, and whether future policies have a better chance of success.
“This 2014 census will offer opportunities to begin the process of asking better questions and sometimes getting more accurate answers.”
While the census is “a very important first step” people should temper their expectations about what it will achieve, warned Farrelly. He also thinks that the risks, including the political, are worth the payoff – even though the census has prompted renewed religious and ethnic tension in the country.
“Information from this census will be piecemeal and often wrong, but it will be a worthwhile start,” he said. “If you wait for the perfect conditions, then you will be waiting for a very long time.
“Cancelling such a census doesn’t make sense to me. It would set a dangerous precedent for all of the other nation-building efforts that will be required in the years ahead.”
The census began on Sunday and runs until 10 April.
Dr Nicholas Farrelly is based in the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. He is in Myanmar for six months field research as part of an Australian Research Council grant.