This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Myanmar’s junta is updating the country’s antiquated paper identification system with smart electronic cards and asking China – no stranger to keeping tabs on its citizens – for technical assistance.
Late last month, the official Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported that during a recent trip to China, Myint Kyaing, the junta’s minister of immigration and population, called on Beijing to help replace his country’s national registration IDs with smart cards featuring biometric data that can be checked by computer.
In addition to making IDs less susceptible to damage, they will also include information such as a person’s name, date of birth, address, race or ethnicity, hair and eye color, and height as scannable data, the report said, as part of a bid to make the country’s election process smoother.
In June, RFA reported that a widely used Chinese video surveillance company sanctioned by Western governments incorporates an AI technology that automatically alerts authorities if a person is detected unfurling a banner.
Government tracking technologies have proliferated in China over the last several years amid the COVID-19 pandemic. A series of mass technology procurements by police forces across the country have greatly increased authorities’ abilities to clamp down on social freedoms, control citizens and, critics say, abuse groups targeted by the government.
Critics of the junta’s proposed ID update say they fear it will be used to monitor Myanmar’s citizens and keep them in line amid political instability resulting from the military’s February 2021 coup d’etat.
A resident of Yangon who gave his name as Phone Myint told RFA Burmese that the people of Myanmar have no need for the national ID scheme or any other policies put forth by the junta.
“I think it will work only if there is interest from people,” said the resident, who asked not to reveal his identity citing fear of reprisal. “Either way, we have seen the junta’s staffer starting to visit the city’s various wards to implement their project.”
Armed resistance groups in Magway region, which has been beset by conflict since the coup, vowed to oppose the plan.
Wei Kyi, an official with the anti-junta People’s Defense Force, or PDF, in Magway’s Yesagyo township said that the updated IDs are part of the junta’s efforts to maintain control of the nation.
“We assume the junta formulates policies and procedures only as a way to stay in power and that this plan is just another of its projects to keep citizens in check, as well as to target and suppress those who oppose it,” he said.
Attempts by RFA to contact junta Deputy Information Minister Major Gen. Zaw Min Tun for comment on the proposed ID update went unanswered Wednesday.
Ending bureaucracy or surveilling the people?
Thein Tun Oo, executive director of the Thayninga Institute for Strategic Studies, which is made up of former military officers, touted the “advantages” of switching to smart electronic ID cards in comments he made to RFA.
“People will be able to apply for jobs using only smart ID cards and the employers can receive all their bio data just by using the smart IDs,” he said. “If we can make use of the electronic ID system properly, it will save us time by eliminating the bureaucracy.”
Nonetheless, Thein Tun Oo acknowledged that it “could be difficult to implement the plan under the current circumstances.”
Hla Kyaw Zaw, a researcher of Myanmar affairs, said it is unclear whether China has any interest in providing technical assistance for such a project, noting that the junta has only “casually suggested” the help was forthcoming.
But he said that the junta is likely “asking for help from other countries” as well, as part of its bid to hold an election that would legitimize its control of Myanmar.
“The junta is rushing to hold an election which they seem to have considered to be a favorable solution [to ending the political crisis],” he said.
Junta chief Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing said at a Sept. 1 meeting that elections “will be held after the national census” in 2024, but no further details have been forthcoming.
RFA inquired about Beijing’s willingness to collaborate with the junta for the national ID scheme at the Chinese Embassy in Yangon, as well as Myanmar’s Consulate in Kunming, the capital of southwest China’s Yunnan province, but received no answer.
Political commentator Than Soe Naing suggested that the junta cares little for using the proposed IDs to prepare for the election.
He said that with roughly 4% of the population of 54 million displaced by conflict, according to data from the United Nations, and “millions of others who have left the country” or joined the armed resistance in territories outside of the junta’s control, Myanmar is not in a position to create a nationwide database of verifiable census data.
Instead, he said, the junta has a far simpler and more nefarious purpose in mind: “to further suppress the people.”