YANGON—Myanmar’s President U Win Myint instructed election officials and ministers on Wednesday to prevent and control the spread of hate speech as well as racial and religious incitement that could threaten or derail the November election.
The president met with the Union Election Commission (UEC), 11 Union ministers and the attorney-general at the Presidential Palace in Naypyitaw to discuss how to hold the election successfully on Nov. 8.
This year’s general election will be the second major step forward for the country’s fragile democratic transition, following the last general election in 2015 which saw the current ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party win in a landslide.
Wednesday’s meeting in Naypyitaw included the heads of the Union Government Office Ministry, the military-controlled defense, home affairs and border affairs ministries, the Labor, Immigration and Population Ministry, the Transport and Communications Ministry, the Information Ministry and the Health Ministry.
President U Win Myint told the officials to ensure the election will be free and fair by taking decisive action against those who hurt, threaten or abuse others’ right to vote or run for office. He also told them to act against election fraud and manipulation as well as campaigns or parties that “misuse” race and religion. According to the President’s Office, he said that the ministers and UEC must prevent speech that promotes hatred between different religions or races and any efforts to disrupt the poll.
In previous polls, Buddhist nationalists campaigned to shun the ruling NLD at the ballot box, saying the party would ruin the country, “race and religion” and turn Myanmar into a country dominated by Muslims. The nationalists instead promoted the military proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
President U Win Myint told the Transport and Communication Ministry to prevent hate speech and words that harm national unity or could incite communal violence, according to the President’s Office.
The spread of hate speech and fake and false information online pose a greater risk in this year’s general election than in previous polls due to the growing influence of social media.
The number of internet users in Myanmar has tripled, from nearly 7 million at the time of the 2015 general election to 22 million in 2020.
“If there is misinformation, it can hamper the success of the 2020 poll,” UEC spokesperson U Myint Naing said at a workshop to raise awareness about hate speech ahead of the election in Naypyitaw in January.
Recently, President’s Office spokesperson U Zaw Htay also said there are fake pages intentionally spreading misinformation, aiming to complicate the political situation as the election nears.
He said that the government is investigating fake news and related pages and will take action against them in accordance with the law.
During the meeting on Wednesday, President U Win Myint also instructed officials to safeguard the right to vote of all eligible voters including military personnel, voters abroad and disabled people. He also told them to ensure that advanced voting is conducted in accordance with regulations and that votes are counted systematically and transparently in the presence of polling station staff, polling station representatives and the general public.
The election commission has called for nationals living abroad to register by Aug. 5 to be able to cast advanced ballots.
According to the UEC, there will be more than 37 million eligible voters, excluding military personnel and their family members, for the November election.