International IDEA must Remove Racist Labelling of Candidates in Burma Election App
In an open letter on Friday, Civil Rights Defenders and six other Sweden-based organisations express concern about the mVoter 2020 app which has been launched ahead of the 8 November elections in Burma. The app has been developed by International IDEA in partnership with the Union Election Commission (UEC) of Myanmar.
A key issue with the app is that it contains information about candidates’ ethnicity and religion and that it uses the term “Bengali” to refer to Rohingya candidates – a term used in a derogatory way by authorities to erase the Rohingya identity and imply that they are illegal immigrants in Burma.
The open letter was sent on 9 October and addressed to the Secretary-General of International IDEA, Kevin Casas-Zamora. The letter can be downloaded here or read in full below.
Open Letter to the Secretary-General of International IDEA, Kevin Casas-Zamora
Dear Kevin Casas-Zamora,
We write to you to express our serious concerns about the mVoter 2020 app and political candidate database that International IDEA has developed in partnership with the Union Election Commission (UEC) of Myanmar. The app contains information about candidates’ ethnicity and religion and uses the derogatory term “Bengali” to refer to Rohingya candidates. We are also deeply alarmed by reports of candidates being threatened and targeted with hate speech on the basis of their ethnicity and religion.
The app was launched on 29 September 2020 and aims to provide voters with useful information about candidates and electoral procedures ahead of the Myanmar parliamentary elections scheduled for 8 November 2020. However, by prominently listing the ethnicity and religion of political candidates, there is an overwhelming risk that the app contributes to exacerbating existing tensions between groups in society based on ethnic and religious affiliation.
Not only does the candidate profile page in the app contain information on the ethnicity (often referred to as race in Myanmar) and religion of the candidate, it also includes information about the ethnicity and religion of the candidate’s mother and father. In the case of Aye Win (see screenshot below), who identifies himself as a Rohingya, his ethnicity is listed as “Bengali-Bamar”. “Bengali” is a derogatory term used by the Government of Myanmar for Rohingya people, which implies that they are irregular migrants from Bangladesh.
The use of the word “Bengali” is considered racist by many observers and is associated with the apartheid-like policies of the Myanmar government targeting the Rohingya community. It is a term that human rights organisations, as well as the international community, have condemned and do not use. International IDEA should not endorse language associated with the discriminatory policies of the Myanmar government. We therefore urge you to immediately remove the term “Bengali” from the app.
Abul Kalam, President, Swedish Rohingya Association
Anders L. Pettersson, Executive Director, Civil Rights Defenders
Anna Sundström, Secretary General, Olof Palme International Center
Eva Ekelund, Policy Director, Act Church of Sweden
Kristina Jelmin, Executive Director, Swedish Burma Committee
Måns Molander, Nordic Director, Human Rights Watch
Ulrika Strand, Secretary General, Swedish Fund for Human Rights