The numbers from Burma’s first census in more than 30 years are coming out and the result is a drastic revision of that country’s population.  For many years, according to Foreign Policy, the country’s military dictatorship had estimated that the population was about 60 million people. Well it turns out that that was an overly generous estimation: by 9 million people.  Instead of 60 million, it turns out that there are only 51 million people living in Burma.  So why was the estimate so wrong? For one, it has been hard to get accurate data out of the country:

“Between independence in 1948 and this year’s census, the country formerly known as Burma had only tried counting its entire population twice: in 1973 and 1983. In general, accurate demographic information has been hard to come by in a country that was largely closed off under military dictatorship until 2011.”

But demographers say that the nation’s leaders should have known that the 60 million mark was inflated. The figure was arrived at by assuming that the growth rate seen between 1973 and 1983 remained constant and that there had been zero emigration. However, these assumptions could have been seen to be wrong for some time:  

“Even the limited data available showed an aging population, suggesting a fertility drop that the official estimate didn’t account for, [UN demographer Thomas] Spoorenberg said. Moreover, research showed workers increasingly leaving Myanmar for Thailand, with more than 1 million Burmese registered in Thailand in 2009. When added to the many unregistered migrants and 415,000 Burmese refugees scattered around the world, the number of Burmese living outside Myanmar could easily approach 3 million, Spoorenberg calculated.”

So why did the government not re-evaluate its figures and estimates?  Because by doing so it may have had to acknowledge that so many millions of Burmese have fled and population growth has slowed down and that the reason for this was largely due to “repression and government incompetence”. 

“‘Since General Ne Win’s coup in 1962, Burmese people have been leaving the country in order to flee civil war, hunger, poverty, unemployment, and political repression,’ Spoorenberg wrote. ‘The bloody repressions that followed the 1988 revolt and the non-violent mass street protests in 2007 prompted many thousands of Burmese to leave the country.’”

The more accurate demographic information has come out now as part of Burma’s opening up to the world and is thus a sign of changes to be welcomed. However, the number of 51 million is itself open to question as the census was fraught with difficulties.  First, the listing of Rohingya as an ethnicity had to be banned by the government after Buddhists in the western province of Rakhine violently protested (Rohingya Muslims are widely persecuted in Rakhine).  Secondly:

“…ongoing conflict between ethnic Kachins and the Myanmar government prevented census workers from reaching parts of Kachin State controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization. Duncan Young, another technical advisor to the Myanmar census, said the provisional results compensated for any incomplete data by adding 1.2 million people to the total.”

So the population of 51 million is likely to be more accurate than 60 million, but not completely accurate.  This means that the government must come to terms with a smaller consumer base and labour force than it had previously predicted which will perhaps have some impact on the international investment that Burma has been trying to attract since beginning democratic reforms three years ago. Of course, if the government is worried about the low population, its first step might be to relax its two-child policy

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...