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March 2, 2024

Myanmar junta’s switch to electronic voting won’t bode well for voters, analysts say

Myanmar’s ruling junta is considering the use of electronic voting machines in an upcoming election, a move that poses security risks for those who vote against military-backed parties and allow the regime to manipulate the votes using census data, analysts say.  

The junta, which unseated the elected government in a Feb. 2021 coup, said previously that it expected to hold general elections in August. But on Feb. 1, the second anniversary of the coup, the regime announced it was extending its state of emergency imposed when it seized power, delaying elections because of ongoing fighting with anti-regime forces throughout Myanmar.

Election fraud has been a long-standing problem in the Southeast Asian nation since the armed forces first seized power in a coup in 1962 and during successive authoritarian regimes. In the past, the military has rigged elections and rejected or annulled voting results. 

Junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who has vowed to hold a free and fair election, met with Union Election Commission officials in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw on Feb. 9 to see a demonstration of new Myanmar Electronic Voting Machines, or MEVMs, in action.

The new electronic voting system links census data and household member registration information and records citizens who vote. 

The machine comprises a control unit, balloting unit and verification unit, all powered by a 12-volt battery, according to the online publication The Irrawaddy, citing information from a junta statement.  

The junta plans to test the machines with 2,000 mock votes at a polling station, the report said, citing information leaked from the regime-controlled Union Election Commission.

A parliamentary and election observer who declined to be named for security reasons said the new system, which contains personal information and political affiliations, could endanger those who do not vote in protest of the junta’s election.

“International experience is necessary to implement such an electronic voting system,” he said.

“But by neglecting these fine examples and creating an e-voting system only with the inexperienced help of those in the tech community close to the military, it can be concluded that it is probably designed to favor the military-backed party in the election or to threaten people that they have non-voter information records and pressure citizens who will not vote in protest against their unfair elections,” he said.

The observer also said the military junta must be held responsible for the security and personal information of individuals who will or will not vote in the elections if the electronic balloting system is used. 

‘The door should be open’

Min Aung Hlaing told a National Defense and Security Council meeting on Jan. 31 that it would be up to individuals whether to vote, though it was the government’s responsibility to make the voting possible.

Technology experts told RFA that the most likely electronic voting system to be used is a direct-recording electronic voting machine, or DRE, that requires people to press a button to vote for representatives. 

A technology expert, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons, said it would take years to develop such an electronic voting system, and that the technology used must be subject to independent scrutiny at any time.

“The door should be open to any impartial and neutral group to check the credibility of the program at any time to know what is written in a program because we don’t know what kind of gaps there are,” he said.

Neither the military nor the Union Election Commission has released any official news or detailed information about the electronic voting system. 

RFA could not reach commission member Khin Maung Oo for comment.

Thar Tun Hla, chairman of the Arakan National Party, said the electronic voting system may prove difficult for some voters to use because they do not know how to cast a paper ballot. 

“Citizens, let alone the political parties, do not understand how these machines work,” he said. “Voters need to have clear knowledge to use those machines when they vote.”

At a time when it is difficult to even collect accurate demographic information for the ballot right now, the effort to implement an electronic voting system is questionable, political analysts said.

Political observer Than Soe Naing said the election would not be free and fair because the junta could use the new voting system to manipulate votes for an outcome favorable to the military.

“E-voting will enable the military to fabricate the voting data as they see fit,” he said. “That’s why they are using it to their advantage.”

Translated by Myo Min Aung for RFA Burmese. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Paul Eckert.

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