Foreign Know-How Called Upon as Burma Gears Up for Smart ID Card Program

By Kyaw Kha 11 April 2013

Burma’s Ministry of Immigration and Population is collaborating with foreign companies to upgrade how the nation keeps track of its citizens by replacing outdated paper-and-ink national identity cards with scannable “smart” cards.

Six companies from South Korea, Japan and Malaysia are in Burma to assist the ministry with the installation of a data center, a precursor to ultimately issuing the smart ID cards in the country.

The firms are helping to compile biographical data as part of a national verification process, according to the ministry.

“It is necessary to install a data center in order to issue smart ID cards. And it requires technical skill. So, we let any companies that approached us to do technical tests in order to find out what kind of requirements are necessary,” Maung Maung Than, the ministry’s chief director, told The Irrawaddy.

He also said the ministry welcomed the input of foreign companies as the country works to issue smart cards to its citizens—a standard for national identification systems in much of the modern developed world.

Burma nationals, numbering more than 60 million, are still issued paper, hand-written ID cards. The cards include the name of the ID holder, the holder’s father’s name, an ID number, the holder’s date and place of birth, religion, height, blood type, and any obvious facial markings.

Burma in 2010 upgraded its passports, which previously contained just a hand-written front page, into a digitally inscribed page with a new bar coded, scannable strip. The Myanmar Passport Issuing Office rolled out passport bar code scanning machines at airports beginning April 1, 2010.

The new system for national ID cards will include detailed biographical and biometric data of the holder that will be easily retrievable by scanning the bar code.

“There will be a lot of costs to upgrade the ID system. So, we started to test how we will work on this,” Maung Maung Than said. “Based on the tests, we will have to calculate the expense, then discuss who will sponsor this project … government or by collecting money from the citizens. The first important thing is installing the data center.”

Burma is a multiethnic nation comprising some 135 ethnicities. While the country is dominated by the majority ethnic Bamar or Burmans, there are seven other major ethnic nationalities: the Karen, Kachin, Shan, Karenni, Mon, Arakan and Chin.

Many people from these minority ethnic groups, living in rural areas, have been displaced due to fighting between the Burmese army and ethnic rebels seeking greater autonomy. Often the displaced have no ID cards, with some even considered stateless by the government.