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People cross a road walking past an election campaign poster in Yangon on Oct. 7, 2020.


A Myanmar election app backed by foreign funding, including an organization supported by the Canadian government, is “clearly discriminatory” toward the country’s persecuted Rohingya population, the former head of a United Nations fact-finding mission says.

The mVoter2020, released last week, delivers information on nearly 7,000 candidates onto smartphones ahead of the country’s Nov. 8 election, in what was billed as an important contribution to democracy in a country where large numbers of people remain under orders to stay inside because of the pandemic.

But the app and its underlying technology, backed by the Asia Foundation and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), include information on the ethnicity and religion of candidates.

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It is data that can be useful in a country that designates electoral seats for some specific groups but which critics say underpins divisive identity politics in the country. The app also described at least two Rohingya candidates using the term “Bengali,” an epithet employed by Myanmar leaders and Buddhist nationalists in a country whose armed forces have been accused of genocidal attacks on the largely Muslim minority group.

Canada is a member state of the International IDEA, whose board includes a Canadian representative, Nicole Goodman, a political scientist at Brock University. Former Canadian ambassador to Myanmar Mark McDowell also played a key role, first as head of the Myanmar country program for International IDEA and now as Myanmar country representative for the Asia Foundation.

Last week, Mr. McDowell attended the formal launch of the app, which was developed by a local tech company and is being operated by the country’s Union Election Commission. Ms. Goodman was not available for comment. Mr. McDowell declined to comment.

But the app has become a new focal point for anger about continuing ethnic divisions in Myanmar, and in particular the treatment of Rohingya people, whose existence as a distinct local ethnic group is largely denied in the country. The term “Bengali,” which has been called a form of hate speech, has been used to describe the Rohingya as foreign invaders.

“We should really take issue with those people in charge who are responsible for developing this particular app, that in fact is misleading and fundamentally discriminatory against a particular social ethnic grouping in Myanmar,” said Marzuki Darusman, the former attorney-general of Indonesia who served as head of a UN fact-finding mission to Myanmar.

The app’s treatment of the Rohingya, in particular, is “scandalous” and “completely unacceptable,” he said.

The data used by the app comes directly from an official Myanmar government database, which is built up with information from candidates, who are required to include information on race and religion. In Myanmar, some ballots are reserved for people of certain ethnic groups to vote for set-aside seats. The app was designed to help voters understand the intricacies of a complex election that includes parliamentary, state and local polls on the same day.

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The app’s designation of candidates by belief and ethnicity, meanwhile, reflects a deep divide that remains in a country where deadly clashes between armed ethnic groups and the military remain commonplace and nationalists openly denigrate the Rohingya.

“The process of electoral reform and democracy reform is an ongoing process in Myanmar and requires a lot of additional effort,” said Marcus Brand, the current Myanmar head for International IDEA. “The way in which ethnicity and religion play a role in Myanmar society and governance is something that still needs a lot of reflection – and it needs to be ensured that there is no discrimination and exclusion resulting from an effort to boost inclusion.”

International IDEA has said it “will continue to advocate for reforming the relevant provisions with due regard to international human-rights norms and democratic standards.”

The European Union, whose Support to Electoral Processes and Democracy program financially supported the app, sees “promotion of transparency as a key dimension of electoral accountability,” said spokesman Pierre Michel, public diplomacy adviser to the EU delegation to Myanmar.

But, he said, “the EU should have been warned about the inclusion of discriminatory data” in the app, and “has from the onset strongly advocated for the removal of all controversial data that could lead to discrimination and exclusion.”

One of the Rohingya candidates was disqualified by the Union Election Commission on Oct. 1, after previously being cleared to stand for election. The commission said Aye Win’s father was not a citizen, and therefore the son was not eligible to run. Mr. Aye Win is challenging the disqualification. Myanmar has denied formal citizenship to most Rohingya.

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Critics argue that international organizations should push for the elimination of racial markers, rather than including them in a foreign-backed app.

“It is appalling that International IDEA and the EU would produce 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. There is no benefit in creating an app with racist and discriminatory data,” said Yadanar Maung, the assumed name used by a spokesperson for Justice for Myanmar, a group of activists who work anonymously to protect their safety.

And “as International IDEA acts on the authority of its member states, the denial of Rohingya is being done in Canada’s name,” she said.

Ottawa condemned the term used in the app. Global Affairs Canada says “the othering of the Rohingya as ‘Bengali’ in the UEC’s mobile app does not reflect Canada’s position on the issue,” according to spokeswoman Angela Savard.

“We consider the inclusion of any terms that deny the Rohingya their identity, including the term ‘Bengali,’ as potentially damaging to a peaceful and inclusive pre-election environment.”

To be associated with the term “Bengali” is to be associated with some of the worst actions against the Rohingya, said Yee Mon Htun, a Myanmar-born Canadian lawyer who is now an instructor and lecturer at Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic.

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More than 730,000 Rohingya have been driven out of Myanmar after 2017 “clearance operations” against the group in which women were raped and children burned to death as homes were torched.

The idea that Rohingya are “foreign interlopers threatening the integrity of this country is why any violence or crimes against them is justified – because they’re not from this country,” said Ms. Htun, who recently completed a year working with organizations inside Myanmar to study hate speech.

The term “Bengali” fits with a broader current of dehumanizing rhetoric against the Rohingya, she said, and “what’s happened in Myanmar shows that what seems like benign hate speech can translate into gross atrocities on the ground.”

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