EU slammed for funding ‘discriminatory’ Myanmar voting application

An EU-funded voting application in Myanmar has come under heavy criticism for inciting "racial and religious vilification" in the country by profiling candidates' ethnicity and beliefs, using derogatory terminology to designate those of Rohingya descent.

The mVoter 2020 application has been developed under the EU-funded STEP Democracy Project. [Shutterstock]

An EU-funded voting application in Myanmar has come under heavy criticism for inciting “racial and religious vilification” in the country by profiling candidates’ ethnicity and beliefs, using derogatory terminology to designate those of Rohingya descent.

The mVoter 2020 application has been developed under the EU-funded STEP Democracy Project, which claims to support ‘inclusive, peaceful and credible electoral processes’ in Myanmar, in order to assist the democratic transition in the country.

However, the app, which launched in Myanmar on September 29, has provoked the ire of rights groups, who warn that it exacerbates religious tensions and contributes to the discrimination of subjugated Rohingya minorities.

Such communities are listed in the app as ‘Bengali,’ a term that suggests these individuals are immigrants from Bangladesh. The Rohingya community believe the term is applied in a derogatory context, taking into account the human rights abuses and persecutions that this demographic has been subjected to.

Candidate verification database

The app uses data from a candidate verification database, including information such as nominees’ race and religion, as well as those of family members. Rights groups say that through this process, members of the Rohingya community have been ‘systematically disqualified’ from standing for election.

A recent case in point refers to how a Rohingya candidate, listed as ‘Bengali’ on the app, was disqualified from taking part in the upcoming elections after the election commission said that information they obtained revealed that his parents were not Mynamar citizens.

“It is appalling that the EU would support an app highlighting the “race” and religion of candidates, without considering the immense harm they can do to minorities and the real risks of vilification and violence,” said Yadanar Maung, spokesperson for the rights group Justice For Myanmar.

“According to democratic values, voters should judge candidates on their merits, not based on their religion or outdated categories of “race” which, in the case of the Rohingya, means denial of their identity, and in the case of other indigenous peoples, does not even necessarily match the identity of candidates and their communities,” Maung added.

After concerns were recently levelled at the EU for its role in supporting the app, Pierre Michel, public diplomacy adviser to the EU’s Myanmar mission, told Reuters that the bloc had “strongly advocated for the removal of all controversial data that could lead to discrimination and exclusion.”

EU election observation mission recommendations

On the other side of the coin, however, representatives from the EU as well as partners involved in the development of the app, have praised the app for its capacity to provide more information about prospective candidates for election.

Speaking as part of a launch event hosted by the Union Election Commission,  Johann Hesse of the EU Delegation to Myanmar said the candidate information database was a “positive step” in implementing the EU election observation mission recommendations of 2015, as through the use of the app, the public is “better informed” on the electoral process and the candidates.

However, as part of those recommendations issued, the EU states that “unreasonable restrictions on the right to stand should be amended, bringing provisions in this regard into line with international standards and specifically the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

“In this regard: The requirement for the parents of a candidate to have both been citizens is an unreasonable requirement and should be dropped,” the document notes.

The implementing authority of the EU’s STEP Democracy Project is the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an intergovernmental organisation, which includes several EU member states and is currently chaired by Sweden.

General elections are set to take place across Myanmar on 8 November, and for critics of the application, the EU should act quickly to take a stand against the technology’s misuse.

“Urgent action is needed now before more damage is done through the publication of this discriminatory data,” Yadanar Maung said. “As the EU acts on the authority of its member states, the denial of Rohingya is being done in their name.”

“The role of the EU must be to support human rights, democratisation, and ensure accountability for perpetrators of international crimes. This means never validating Myanmar’s systemic discrimination and exclusion, as they have done through mVoter 2020 app,” Maung said.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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