Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

Myanmar is scheduled to hold a census next month but local and international monitoring groups are worried that it could inflame ethnic and religious tensions in the country.

The census, supported by several UN agencies, is deemed important because it has been more than 30 years since a nationwide census was conducted. Through the census, Myanmar’s demographic profile can be objectively determined, which would prove useful for policymakers and potential investors in planning for Myanmar’s development needs.

But the census question on ethnic or tribal identification threatens to ignite more conflicts in the country. The census form requires citizens to choose from the 135 ethnic groups identified by the government. This listing, according to some scholars, is a colonial legacy that should have been revamped a long time ago. Several ethnic groups have complained about being lumped with other minorities while others claimed they were dropped from the listing.

For example, the Palaung (Ta’aung) tribe questioned their inclusion as a member of the Shan race.

“We, Ta’aung, settled down in this land before the Shan…We are not the same with other races. We live in mountainous area and have a different culture and language,” according to an official statement issued by the Palaung community.

In Myanmar, most people identify as Burmans. An estimated 40 percent of the population is considered an ethnic minority, with the Shan composing the biggest minority group. The other major groups include the Karen, Karreni, Kachin, Chin, Mon and Arakan.

To avoid misunderstanding, the government is urged to reclassify the listing based on a “democratic consultation” with ethnic communities. And while the government is doing this, some groups wanted the census delayed for another month. The postponement is also necessary to pursue the peace process in some remote areas where a ceasefire has not yet been finalized between government troops and armed rebels.

The concern of ethnic groups is understandable because they might lose political representation if the census adopts the government listing of the country’s ethnic groups. Ethnic minister positions in local parliaments are automatically given to ethnic groups with more than 0.01 percent of the population in the area. The government is accused of deliberately bloating the number of ethnic subgroups to deny representation to some tribes.

But in the case of the Rohingyas, the government continues to treat them as illegal immigrants with no citizenship rights. Kyaw Min of the Democracy and Human Rights Party is appealing for the recognition of Rohinyas, who are mostly Muslims:

“Every human race has its own identity. We have our identity already…This is not just now –we have had it for a long time. But we have found that there is discrimination in the country, which ignores our demand that our identity be recognized.”

One concern about the inclusion of religion in the census is the destabilization it might generate. In particular, the census might confirm that Myanmar has a growing number of Muslims, which could provoke Buddhist extremist groups to incite more hatred and violence against the Muslim population.

Kyaw Thu, head of the civil society consortium Paung Ku, thinks questions on ethnicity and religion should be dropped because the objective of the census is focused on development and economic projects. This reasoning was echoed by Tun Myint Kyaw, local coordinator in Mon State for the European Union-funded Rule of Law Project, who also reminded the government about its earlier commitment to remove the ethnicity and religion category from the national identity card.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group is proposing to limit census questions on age, sex and marital status. The group also warned how communal violence could derail the country’s transition towards a peaceful democracy:

“Myanmar is one of the most diverse countries in the region, and ethnicity is a complex, contested and politically sensitive issue, in a context where ethnic communities have long believed that the government manipulates ethnic categories for political purposes…A poorly timed census that enters into controversial areas of ethnicity and religion in an ill-conceived way will further complicate the situation.”

So much hope has been placed on the 2015 elections, which many believe will determine the success of Myanmar’s political transition. But the legitimacy of the election is endangered if next month’s census substantially alters voting constituencies and ethnic representations in favor of some vested political interest.

There is still time for Myanmar to seriously rethink the content and procedure of the coming census.

East Timor Eyes Tighter Media Control

Written for The Diplomat

To allegedly protect the rights of media practitioners, the government of East Timor is proposing a media law that is now being deliberated in the parliament. But journalists and human rights groups have thumbed down the bill, which they believe would institutionalize excessive regulation of the media sector.

The draft legislation was approved by the Council of Ministers last August but its content was not made public for six months.

The Council of Ministers claimed that the intent of the bill is to guarantee freedom of the press but at the same time it also seeks to make the press more responsible: “Its purpose is primarily to regulate the activity of professionals adequately prepared and ethically responsible, so that they can inform the public objectively and impartially and encourage active and enlightened citizenship by the population, thus contributing to a democratic society.”

But several local media groups have pointed out that the proposed law contains several provisions that directly undermine free speech. For instance, they highlighted Article 7 of the measure which mandates the registration of journalists to be supervised by a Press Council.

For La’o Hamutuk, a local NGO, the creation of a press council is unnecessary: “As freedom of expression is already guaranteed by the Constitution, no Press Council is needed to regulate it. A Council of commercial media organizations and paid journalists can self-regulate their business, including with their Code of Ethics, but their processes cannot be imposed on everyone and should not involve the state, either through financial support or legal enforcement. Furthermore, no journalist should be required to join an organization in order to practice his or her Constitutional rights.”

The group also questioned the provision which would narrow the definition of journalists to those working for corporate media. It insisted that the media landscape has already changed, which means citizen journalists must be recognized too by the government. It rejected the view that journalists who deserve protection are only those “controlled by for-profit media.” It also urged the government to broaden the provision which assured the right to free expression of citizens by replacing the word “citizens” with “everyone.”

La’o Hamutuk is joined by the Journalists Association of Timor-Leste in criticizing the bill for being unconstitutional; in particular the bill allegedly violates Articles 40 and 41 of the Constitution which address the people’s rights and freedom to seek, collect, choose, analyze and disseminate information.

“What we see in these laws is gives an impression that they intend to regulate the press rather than protect the rights of East Timorese journalists,” the Journalists Association of Timor-Leste said.

This position was echoed by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) which already called for a review and even overhaul of the proposed legislation: “Any legislation that would limit the capacity of local and international journalists reporting on East Timor, also limits the public’s right to know and is of great concern to the IFJ. We urge the government to ensure those reservations and perspectives are taken seriously and incorporated into the draft media law.”

Responding to these criticisms, parliament leaders vowed to accept and incorporate the views expressed by various local media and human rights groups. Many hope that the final document will truly reflect the original aim of the measure which is about respecting and advancing the people’s right to free speech.

Otherwise, it would be supremely ironic and tragic for East Timor to lose its independent media, after spending the past 500 years fighting repression, censorship and colonial rule.

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