Stockholm-based group withdraws support for election app with controversial ethnicity data 

A Stockholm-based pro-democracy organisation has withdrawn its support for a controversial smartphone app made for Myanmar’s election, which drew criticism last month for referring to Rohingya candidates as “Bengali”.

In a confidential letter to the Union Election Commission (UEC), seen by Myanmar Now, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) said it had “decided to withdraw our association” with the mVoter2020 app.

The app has the potential “to infringe on human rights and adversely affect election security and integrity,” said the letter, which is dated October 16.

Last month activists from Justice for Myanmar warned the app risked inflaming “racism and religious nationalism” and contributing to the erasure of the Rohingya’s identity by listing MP candidates’ official ethnicity and religion.

“Instead of providing access to much-needed, accurate information for voters, the mVoter2020 app risks inflaming ethnic and religious nationalism during the election,” Yadanar Maung, a spokesperson for the group, said at the time.

“The publicising of candidate race and religion would be unacceptable to voters in donor countries, and is unacceptable in Myanmar,” she added.

It is unclear why International IDEA, an intergovernmental organisation, did not publicise its decision to withdraw its support for the app. Alistair Scrutton, International IDEA’s head of communications, told Myanmar Now the organisation would not be commenting on the letter.

The letter, which is signed by its secretary general Dr Kevin Casas-Zamora and addressed to UEC chair Hla Thein, was sent just two weeks after International IDEA publicly defended its involvement in the project.

The UEC requires all candidates applying to run in Myanmar’s general election to state their ethnic background and their religion as it appears on their National Registration Cards, as well as that of their parents, on their applications.

Rohingya candidates, many of whom have been barred from running, must put “Bengali” on their applications because their ethnic name is not recognised by the government.

International IDEA has said it helped to develop the candidate database for the app, but it argued in a public statement early this month that the app’s content was the “sole responsibility” of the election commission.

The statement also argued that candidates had to submit ethnic data by law when applying to run in an election, and implied that this justified publishing such data.

Yet in his private letter to the commission, Casas-Zamora said the law was not a good reason to publicise the data.

“We do not believe that the publication of ethnic and religious identification data is a requirement per current election legislation and we believe that the disclosure of such official candidate data should be voluntary and based on consent given by candidates,” he said.

“We also believe that information on the candidates’ parents’ ethnic and

religious identity is insubstantial and irrelevant to an election,” the letter said.

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