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Thursday, 30.05.2024
eGovernment Forschung seit 2001 | eGovernment Research since 2001

The new system collects biometric and biographic information from residents

In February 2021, the military staged a coup in Myanmar, citing allegations of “electoral fraud” by the National League for Democracy (NLD) party in the 2020 general elections. We've been monitoring the country since and registered the rise in authoritarian narratives and practices from the military. Our researchers have been on the frontlines of understanding Myanmar's media ecosystem and the many shifts in the narratives spread by the military junta.

One of our researchers wanted to dive deeper into the junta's attempt to implement an electronic biometric identification system, and how that would worsen the country’s human rights situation. The result is the story you can read below, written by our researcher based in Myanmar, whose identity will be kept private for security reasons.

Progress or surveillance?

One midnight, as I was drifting into sleep in a small town in Myanmar, a loud noise banged on my door, startling me awake. With a touch of worry, I opened the door to find the ward administrator, police, and a few soldiers inspecting citizenship ID cards and searching for unregistered guests. It seemed they had received information from informants about unregistered guests suspected of belonging to an opposition anti-coup movement. The following morning, I discovered that my neighbor, the head of the household, had been beaten and taken away for hosting overnight guests without informing the authorities.

Since the coup on 1st February 2021, citizenship ID card inspections by Myanmar's military regime authorities have become commonplace on roads, at checkpoints, and during nighttime house inspections. Citizenship ID cards play a vital role for Myanmar people in daily life; facilitating travel, accessing public services, opening a bank account, making banking transfers, purchasing a SIM card, or applying for a passport. Without civil documents, it's nearly impossible to live a normal life in Myanmar, as access to various services is restricted.

However, citizenship ID cards have been controversial, with different types (CSC, ACSC, NCSC, NRC, FRC, and the latest NVC) given in accordance with discriminatory citizenship laws. Certain ethnic and religious minority groups, especially Muslims, Indians, and Chinese, face restrictions from obtaining full citizenship cards (CSC), limiting their access to rights and services. The Rohingya's plight is particularly devastating, resulting in statelessness and the forced displacement of millions of Rohingya refugees.

The military junta is now attempting to implement an electronic identity card (e-ID) scheme in Myanmar, collecting biometric and biographic information from residents. While the e-ID system is not a new initiative, having been started by U Thein Sein’s USDP administration (2012-2015) and Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD administration (2016-2020), its potentially destructive effects on the population were warned by human rights defenders and activists in the past. The issuance of a smart ID card would be based on the discriminatory 1982 citizenship law and its procedure. Despite public criticism, the previous government appeared cautious in implementing the e-ID system. To develop the structure, financial and technical support was received from foreign Western governments. However, in the post-coup context from 2021, the military junta aggressively resumed the e-ID system, raising serious concerns about its motives amid escalating human rights violations and increased surveillance of citizens and dissidents posing a threat to their power.

In the context of the polarization between anti-Junta resistance groups fighting for the return of democracy and pro-military lobbyists who believe in the military’s fundamental role, two opposing narratives have emerged regarding the e-ID system's implementation in Myanmar.

Pro-military Narrative: “Myanmar's new e-ID system will improve public life”

Pro-military individuals claim that the current national identity cards in Myanmar are outdated and require serious upgrading to catch up with neighboring countries. According to the Ministry of Immigration and Population under the military regime administration, the e-ID system is a precursor to the issuance of a smart ID card in the future. Junta states that the e-ID system is not concerned with being a citizen in the country; all legal residents in Myanmar will be included. A unique 10-digit ID number will be given to all legal residents providing biographic and biometric information to the immigration ministry. Building upon this e-ID system, smart cards will be issued to Myanmar citizens at a later stage in accordance with citizenship laws through a strict verification and scrutiny process, ensuring eligibility for future smart cards. The e-ID system is part of the larger e-governance system being built by the government, with infrastructures such as the human resource database, Business database, and asset database.

Adopting an e-ID scheme, complete with a unique ID number for each person, would offer advantages by enabling authorities to retrieve information promptly and provide enhanced public welfare services.

Using the unique number, people will be able to apply for a driving license, use mobile banking services, make bank transfers, purchase SIM cards, and access education and healthcare services.

The military also claims that the November 2020 elections were full of fraud and irregularities, resulting in the military takeover of power to reestablish order. They assert that about 5 million voters did not have a citizenship ID card but voted, questioning the legitimacy of the elections. Initially, the military regime pledged to conduct the national election in August 2023 after the coup but later opted to delay it until 2025, citing the necessity for additional time for systematic preparation and the requirement for security arrangements due to ongoing conflicts in certain regions of the country. Planning another election in 2025, the de facto regime is putting efforts into issuing citizenship ID cards to citizens under the Pan Khin project, linking it with the implementation of the e-ID project. This project aims to reissue paper-based citizenship cards with smart citizenship ID cards in the future. By issuing more citizenship ID cards and implementing the e-ID system, the military aims to ensure the legitimacy of future elections and prevent illegitimate voters. Protection of race and religion remains a priority, aiming to eliminate ‘illegal’ immigrants from voting and protect the Burmese Buddhist nation. The military disseminates these messages to newly recruited civil servants, emphasizing their pivotal roles in the e-ID system's implementation and the protection of race and religion.

After the military took over power, declared terrorist groups like the National Unity Government (NUG), Committee Representing Phyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), and People Defence Forces (PDF) have caused political instability, armed conflicts, and violence across the country. Implementing the e-ID system, the military government asserts, will provide better protection, peace, and stability by helping identify individuals who may pose harm to the nation.

Counter Narrative: Myanmar's junta will use new citizenship cards as a tool to suppress resistance

In contrast, anti-coup activists and human rights defenders criticize the military regime's pursuit of the e-ID scheme, portraying it as a calculated strategy to surveil dissidents, members of armed resistance groups, journalists, and individuals deemed threatening to military rule. Following the coup, the military's digital surveillance efforts have intensified, encompassing measures such as internet shutdowns, monitoring of social media, the prohibition of opposition news media sites, and the installation of surveillance CCTV cameras in cities under the ambitious ‘smart city’ project.

Since 2021, with assistance from China, the military has been strategically placing CCTV cameras equipped with artificial intelligence systems across the country. These systems can scan and interpret individuals’ faces and license plates, promptly alerting the authorities. Digital activists have condemned the military regime for exploiting these CCTV cameras to locate dissidents, resulting in numerous arrests, detentions, imprisonments, and even executions in Myanmar.

News sources have reported that officials from the Ministry of Immigration, under the military regime, visited China in September 2023 to learn about China’s e-ID system and collaborate for the implementation of the e-ID system and organizing elections. Similar visits to India in July 2023 to explore the Aadhaar e-ID system have fueled concerns among digital activists and human rights defenders. These interactions suggest regional support for the military regime's measures, heightening safety and security concerns for democratic activists and opposition members, given the e-ID system's potential to facilitate easier tracking by the military regime.

Additionally, the e-ID system is poised to exclude a substantial portion of the population due to active conflicts in many regions, hindering military access. Ethnic areas and frontier regions, currently witnessing escalating armed skirmishes, pose challenges for implementation. Residents in these conflict-ridden areas already face discrimination based on their residency location and status on their existing ID cards, and the e-ID system is anticipated to exacerbate these pre-existing challenges. Furthermore, the e-ID system will be built upon the existing discriminatory 1982 citizenship laws that barred the Rohingya ethnic group from becoming citizens. Despite ongoing negotiations for the repatriation of displaced Rohingya from Bangladesh to Myanmar, the Rohingya steadfastly refuse to return without a guarantee of full citizenship. In light of these considerations, the implementation of the e-ID system appears poised to inflict further disastrous consequences on certain ethnic and religious minority groups, perpetuating a cycle of exclusion and marginalization.

In the midst of political polarization between anti-junta and pro-military factions, the implementation of the e-ID system in Myanmar remains a contentious issue with far-reaching implications for the rights and freedoms of its citizens. On the surface, the implementation of the e-ID scheme may appear as progress or a positive step. However, considering the timing of this e-ID implementation, the motives of the military regime are highly questionable, as it appears to lean toward establishing a surveillance state.

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Quelle/Source: Global Voices, 12.03.2024

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