Is there anything positive that can be attributed to the 2014 National Census in Myanmar?  Despite the outcry against ethnic misrepresentation on the census, an argument can be made that there are useful aspects for the development of Myanmar that can be found in the census.  This brief analysis will argue that religious inclusiveness may be one of these positive, if underreported, elements.

Much needed and deserved media attention has surrounded the current National Census that was conducted in Myanmar this past month.  A colorful VOA Burmese video explaining how to do the census and the reasons for it is circulating on YouTube.

Those who have ever suffered through a public service announcement on local Burmese television will recognize the increased production value and quality of this campaign around the census.  In the English-language press, The Irrawaddy has interesting articles by Yen Snaing and Lawi Weng.  Additionally, some pieces in the Los Angeles Times and The Christian Science Monitor are also worth reviewing to understand the stance taken by international media as well as overall context.

Particularly in the case of the “Rohingya” group, ethnicity and the census have gained the widest attention.  Indeed, issues of ethnicity have caught the public’s attention for the moment with most of these reports being critical on this issue.

Similar to the English-language press, the Burmese-language press has also had articles in the lead-up to the campaign and video reports on various facets of how ethnicity is represented on the actual census forms.

Matthew Gibbon’s recent write-up in New Mandala’s academic blog is a case in point.  One could be misled into thinking that the census is only about ethnicity, when, in fact, the race question is but one of forty-one questions on the census.

There are, however, some other positive elements to the current census which have not yet been reported on by any English- or Burmese-language media.  These deserve attention.

One of these issues is religion—or more specifically, the lack of religion.  What one might see as a small space opening up for atheism in Myanmar is one of these positive elements.

The word “atheist” is used here rather broadly to mean anyone who is an atheist, agnostic, antitheist, non-believer, apostate, secular humanist, or apatheist.

Despite all the tension between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar (89 and 4 percent, respectively, from pre-census estimates), one might wonder if some small space has emerged for atheism.

This is because if one looks at Question 7 on the 2014 National Census that is dedicated to religion there is actually a box that reads “without a religion”, or in Burmese, pa-tha ma shi pu mya.

The other options from one to seven are: 1) Buddhism, 2) Christianity, 3) Islam, 4) Hindu, 5) Animism, 6) other religion, and 7) without a religion.

This categorization is endlessly fascinating because the census includes not only a space for “other” but also for those who are completely “without a religion.”  National censuses in other parts of the Indo-Pacific region which are non-socialist normally provide an “other” tick box to serve as a placeholder for those who might wish to indicate themselves as being without a religion.  Why then also include a space for atheism for this census?

From a comparative perspective, another recent national census makes for an interesting case.  In the 2010 National Census of Thailand, the space for religion on Question 5 of Page 2 was left entirely blank for the census taker to fill in any way that he or she wanted.

In this sense, one could argue that the Thai census was even more progressive than the current census in Myanmar.  The Thai census was not constricted to just seven choices, but instead open to an infinity of peculiar responses.

But because the religion section was left blank on the Thai census form, it is impossible to really know about the current percentage of the non-believing population in Thailand.  Of course, the overwhelming percentage of the population in Thailand is some variant of Thai Buddhism (93.6 percent).

The one downside to the Thai census as compared to the Burmese census in this regard, however, is that any religion that would normally be considered “other than” Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hindu, or Confucianism gets lumped together with any potential self-proclaimed non-believer.  As reported in the official Thai census, if there is any difference between these oddball “others” and non-believers, it is probably not worth reporting or even commenting upon.  Indeed, this “others” category is no more than 0.07 percent of the Thai population

For those who wish to advocate for the importance of one religion or another, this may all seem like a superfluous discussion, for the bulk of those reporting one of the “major religions” speak for themselves. However, for those who are interested in the current rate of non-belief in any particular national state, the 2014 National Census in Myanmar will provide a more exact percentage on how many people are “without religion” in this state than in Thailand.

If one had to bet, the best guess would be that those who actually will tick the “without religion” option will probably fall somewhere between 1 to 2 percent of the population in Myanmar.  Despite having gone through a Burmese variant of socialism from between 1974 to 1988, this is much less than the estimated 81 percent of atheists in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.  The official tally when it comes out for Myanmar will be instructive on this point.

What is more important is that despite all the challenges in regards to ethnicity of the 2014 census in Myanmar, there are more than a few interesting insights that will surface as the data begins to be compiled.

This question of atheism as a positive element may not be immediately recognizable, mainly because when most think of religious inclusiveness for a country like Myanmar they tend to focus on the cleavages between Buddhism and Islam or Buddhism and Christianity to the detriment of those who choose to believe in none of the above.

Indeed, questions of ethnicity will continue to hound the 2014 National Census in Myanmar.  However, there are other gems of demographics like population numbers, family income, family occupation, type of material wealth, women’s reproductive health, child birth/death rates, and so on which are very much worth counting. No reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater here.

*This article originally appeared in Indo-Pacific Review on May 7th, 2014, written by T. F. Rhoden; photo credit goes to David Lazar. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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