Myanmar facial recognition software raises concerns for persecution of ethnic groups including Christians

17 March 2021

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The military government of Myanmar has access to a system of 335 surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition and vehicle licence plate recognition software, a move which raises concerns for persecuted ethnic minorities, including Christians.

Human rights groups warn that the technology poses a threat to those protesting against the military coup orchestrated in February by the Myanmar Army, also known as the Tatmadaw.

Kachin Christians (pictured) are among the persecuted ethnic groups in Myanmar who may be targeted using facial recognition technology

The system, which is active in the capital city Naypyidaw and looks set to be expanded to other areas later this year under a “Safe City” initiative, uses cameras developed by Chinese technology giant Huawei. The company has denied supplying the facial and licence plate recognition technology installed on each camera.

Huawei facial recognition technology tested in China is capable of identifying Uighurs, and other ethnic groups, from surveillance images. The Chinese government’s ongoing persecution of ethnic Uighurs, a mainly-Muslim minority, has been internationally condemned and fears are growing that artificial intelligence is becoming an increasingly important tool in China’s crackdown on non-atheist groups including Christians.

Facial recognition cameras were installed in some state-registered churches in China last year as part of the communist government’s “Sharp Eyes” country-wide surveillance system.

In Myanmar, the use of such technology could aid the Tatmadaw in its ongoing persecution of ethnic Christians including the Chin, Kachin and Karen peoples, as well as the mainly-Muslim Rohingya. In 2018, the UN condemned the army’s treatment of ethnic minority Christians in Kachin and parts of Shan states as “crimes against humanity” committed with a similar “persecutory intent” to the genocide being perpetrated against ethnic Rohingya.

In February 2021 a chilling Myanmar Army document was discovered instructing soldiers to “punish and breakdown” civilians, which would include ethnic-minority Christians, deemed to be against the military regime, or even appearing critical of it in social media posts.

Related Countries

Myanmar (Burma)