With under a month until the election, controversy is swirling amid criticisms over the mVoter 2020 app, a mobile app intended to educate voters on candidates and parties developed by International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) under the EU funded STEP Democracy programme in partnership with the Asia Foundation and Myanmar’s Union Election Commission (UEC). The app, without the knowledge of candidates concerned, provides voters with biographical information that highlights the religion and race of the candidate and their parents’ race. At least two Rohingya candidates have been labeled as “Bengali”, a term often hurled by the Myanmar government, ultranationalists and others at Rohingya to deny their identity, cultural heritage and disavow them of their statehood.
For Maungdaw Pyithu Hluttaw candidate Dus Muhammed (aka Aye Win) of the Human Rights and Democracy Party, the app lists him and his parents’ race as “Bengali-Bamar”. In response to this issue he said, “We were not informed and didn’t have a chance to argue not to use the Bengali label about us in the app. It’s like an abuse of our rights.” Aye Win was told by the UEC that he would be disqualified from participating as a candidate after initially being approved to run, further confirming the utter disregard by the UEC and the Myanmar government for free and fair elections that reflect genuine democratic norms and the diversity of all peoples in Myanmar.
Aye Win is not alone, Rohingya are barred from participating as candidates and enrolling to vote due to the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law. In response to this incident, International IDEA has distanced themselves from the mVoter 2020 app, removing content related to the launch of the app from their Facebook page and website which came as quite a surprise from this well-known international institute. The information contained within the app, however, remains available on the UEC website and continues to indicate Aye Win as “Bengali-Bamar”. Even if Aye Win’s data is removed from the app as a result of the UEC’s decision to disqualify him, the underlying problem would not be tackled, as the display of the candidate’s race and religion remains in the app. Race and ethnic identity is a seriously contested matter in Myanmar, while Rohingya have been removed from the list of national races, other ethnic nationalities such as Ta’ang and Karenni are called Palaung and Kayah in Myanmar government’s records, contrary to their self-identification. When it comes to religion, people of Muslim faith are particularly targeted and discriminated against, regardless of their ethnicity.
This situation also highlights the pressing need to monitor and call out hate speech and discrimination during this election period. Justice For Myanmar spokesperson Yadanar Maung says this incident “risks inflaming ethnic and religious nationalism during the election” and detracts from the platform and policies of the candidates. In the new joint report, “Hate Speech Ignited: Understanding Hate Speech in Myanmar”, Myanmar CSOs condemn the Myanmar government for their unwillingness to protect ethnic and religious minorities from hate speech and show how ultranationalist groups have utilized the elections to stoke anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim sentiment, by using such terms as ‘Bengali’ and ‘kalar’.
One of the main roles of the UEC during an election is to facilitate a safe space for free political dialogue and for parties to voice their political agendas to voters. Yet, the UEC has recently come under fire for the censorship of a campaign speech by the People’s Party, which concerns critiques of the government’s unjust tax system and the inability for many people to earn a living wage. This comes after the Chin National League for Democracy (CNLD), the Democratic Party for a New Society, Dawei Nationalities Party, and Arakan National Party also accuse the UEC of censorship of their campaign speeches. Conversly, the UEC is willing to allow anti-Rohingya messaging by an independent candidate in Latha Township, Yangon, whose sign reads “No Rohingya” in bold lettering, in clear violation of anti-discrimination provision 9.1.1. (c) of the UEC Code of Conduct for Political Parties.
Meanwhile, government authorities are clamping down on the already limited democratic space available for legitimate free speech and assembly as the election draws closer, with the arrest of 14 student activists from Meiktila University Students Union, Monywa District Students’ Union, Yadanarpon University Students’ Union, Kantpalu Engineering Science Students’ Union, Monywa Education College Students’ Union, Pakokku University Students’ Union, Mandalay Thamawayama College Students’ Union, and Phay University Students’ Union during the period between 15 and 29 September (most of whom are also members of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions). The students are demanding an end to armed conflict and calling for the restoration of full internet access in Rakhine State. Myanmar authorities recently hunted down some students and raided their homes with the purpose of arresting them. Currently, about 30 students are reportedly in hiding in order to avoid arrest. Multiple charges have been laid against these students for holding peaceful protests under the Section 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, Sections 505 (a) and (b) of the Penal Code, and Section 25 of Natural Disaster Management Law. Integral to a functioning democracy and principles of a free and fair election is the ability of the electorate to express their concerns to the government without fear of reprisal. More than 70 civil society organizations have released a joint statement condemning the legal action and demanding immediate release of the 14 students arrested.
The realization of democracy is conditional upon everyone’s voices being heard, but in light of these recent events it is blatantly obvious the Myanmar government and the UEC are knowingly failing in their obligation to the people of Myanmar by censoring their full participation in the election and quashing legitimate expression of their concerns. The international community supporting Myanmar’s election process has a duty to uphold human rights and democratic principles and ensure their operations and programs in Myanmar do not further exacerbate the disenfranchisement of ethnic and religious minorities. They must conduct thorough human rights due diligence and comply with international human rights obligations when they fund, support and champion projects with the Myanmar government and the UEC prior, during and post implementation. This is especially important during the election cycle, where minority groups are vulnerable to hate speech, discrimination, further marginalization and even violence. For those countries that fund International IDEA, such as Germany, Norway, Sweden, Canada, the Netherlands and the EU, immediate and concrete steps must be taken to rectify this situation and ensure complete transparency and ownership of the mistakes made with the mVoter 2020 app. As the organization that initially exposed this discrimination within the mVoter 2020 app stated, “The publishing of candidates race and religion would be unacceptable to voters in [STEP Democracy partner countries], and is unacceptable in Myanmar”. Domestic checks and balances to ensure election fairness have failed with the complicity of these international institutions, so it is the responsibility of these entities and donor governments to take urgent and serious measures to ensure Myanmar government and UEC fulfill their obligation for free, fair and credible elections and remove the race and religion category from the app. We call on the app to be disabled, until such time as the race and religion information is removed. Without this action, the credibility of the upcoming elections will forever be tarnished.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
By 24 Civil Society Organizations
By 77 Civil Society Organizations
By 309 Organization
By All Burma Federation of Student Unions
By Justice For Myanmar
နိုင်ငံတကာဒီမိုကရေစီနှင့် ရွေးကောက်ပွဲအကူအညီပေးရေးအင်စတီကျုနှင့် အီးယူ ငွေးကြေးပံ့ပိုးသည့် ရှေ့သို့မြန်မာ တို့၏ mVoter 2020 မိုဘိုင်းအက်ပလီကေးရှင်းဆိုင်ရာ ဒစ်ဂျစ်တယ်မှတ်တမ်းများ ပယ်ဖျက်မှုသည် ပွင့်လင်းမြင်သာမှုနှင့် တာဝန်ခံမှုအပေါ် အံ့အားသင့်ဖွယ် အလေးမထားမှုကို ပြသ
By Justice For Myanmar
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”