In April last year, the Myanmar Government conducted its first population census in three decades. The results were released late last month (followed by a day-long hackathon to make the census data more readable).

The project, supported by the UN Population Fund, has taken over three years and cost over US$60 million. Sectoral reports are still to come, as is the highly sensitive release of information on religion and ethnicity. But what has been released is a trove of data that will prove crucial to the country's development. What it shows is a story of two countries: one urban and one very rural.

As a teaser, last year the Government released the population count. Myanmar's population was previously said to be 60 million, but the census cut that figure to 51.5 million. As some demographers noted, the previous figure assumed zero emigration and supported a Government desire to demonstrate a larger population. 

The latest release of census data shows the challenges ahead in Myanmar, the biggest being to bridge the rural-urban divide. 

Some 70% of the population lives in rural areas with a high concentration (38%) of the population in three central Burman-majority regions of Yangon, Mandalay and Ayeyawaddy.

High rates of literacy (often seen in former British colonies) were reported. Surprisingly, the literacy rate of 89.5% is almost on par with Thailand (93.5%), meeting the ASEAN average and soaring above neighboring India (63%). However, while rural (87%) and urban (95%) literacy rates are comparable, there are significant differences between some minority ethnic regions and the Burman majority. The most dramatic example is Shan state, with an average of 65% literacy (59% among women), but other rural ethnic regions such as Kayin (74%), Chin (79%), Kayah (82%) and Rakhine (85%) are all significantly below the average. 

Similar differences were seen in infant and under-5 mortality. A countrywide average under-5 mortality rate of 72 deaths per 1000 live births leapt dramatically between Yangon (50) and Magway (108) or Ayeyawaddy (105). 

The story was similar for household data on access to services. Some 77.5% of the urban population report electricity as the source of household lighting, as opposed to 15% in rural areas. More specifically, Yangon (69%) has far greater connection to electricity than Rakhine (13%) or Tanintharyi (8%). 69% of households use firewood or charcoal for cooking, with the figure 92% in rural areas and 52% in urban areas. Households reporting sanitary toilet facilities (74% nationwide) varied greatly between Yangon (91%) and Rakhine state (32%). 

Astonishingly, the average household ownership of mobile phones is 33% – sim cards were exorbitantly expensive up until very recently — yet here too there is a divide between rural (21%) and urban (64%) populations. As I've noted previously, mobile phone penetration will be a key part of development and finance in rural communities.

Transport is a similar story. Some 72% of household cars, trucks and vans are in urban areas compared to 28% in urban areas, where 29% of households living in rural areas still use bullock-drawn carts.

The census found that 2 million people are living outside Myanmar (61% were men), with half of those from the eastern states of Mon, Kayin and Shan. Up to 70% of those living abroad are in Thailand, followed by Malaysia (15%), China (5%), Singapore (4%), and the US (2%). The gender ratio shows 93 males for every 100 females, and the census put unemployment at 4%, though it is almost twice as high for 15-29 year-olds. 

The census highlights the work that must be done to bridge Myanmar's rural-urban divide. Building equal and inclusive growth could help Myanmar leapfrog other countries in the region on the path to development. Indeed, a recent forecast by UNESCAP suggested Myanmar could leave the Least-Developed Countries list by 2018. Balanced development will be crucial to prevent future problems. 

In regard to the November elections, the most worrying finding is that 27% of people have no form of ID. That makes voter identification for the election near impossible. Naypyidaw has recently begun to roll out temporary 'pink' ID cards, though this follows the controversial reclaiming of hundreds of thousands of temporary 'white' ID cards, many held by Rohingya (this happened after the census data was collected, meaning the true figure for those without ID is likely higher by a percentage point or so).

The next problem will be the release of highly sensitive ethnicity and religion data (see my previous post here), which will without doubt provoke loud public debate and very likely, given Myanmar's volatile ethnic tensions, protests and possible violence. Those problems are not unexpected and the controlled release of the information by the Myanmar Government should mitigate some of the fallout. 

The trove of census data released so far should go to building a better, more inclusive and equal Myanmar. After a rough road getting to this point, Myanmar's 51 million citizens deserve as much.