Midwives in the Midst of Myanmar’s Anti-Muslim Protests

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Courtesy Sundance Institute

By Jana Monji, AsAmNews Arts & Culture Writer

At the beginning of Midwives, you see women in colorful outfits, but the place where the first and every subsequent baby is delivered isn’t anything like the brightly lit, antiseptic smelling hallways and rooms of US hospitals where nurses, orderlies, and doctors wear monochrome scrubs and no window allows outside air to reach the patients inside. 

Directed by Snow Hnin El Hlaing who was born in Rakhine state where this takes place, this documentary won a Special Jury Prize for Excellence in Vérité Filmmaking.  Midwives revolves around the working lives of two women, both native to the area. Hla is a full-fledged midwife although there doesn’t seem to be an official certification program. She is Buddhist. Her apprentice, Nyo Nyo is Muslim. 

Life hasn’t been easy for Muslims in Myanmar since the ethnic cleansing began. Nyo Nyo recalls, “In this area, we Muslims were once friends with Buddhists.” Now Muslims in this village aren’t allowed to travel. Nyo Nyo says, “They say they searched for ‘Muslim terrorists. Soldiers burned down homes, raped women, and killed Muslims. All the villages fled to the paddy fields. We built makeshift tents and hid. We were too frightened to stay in the villages. During the crisis, five or six babies were born out here. Right in these fields. Do you know what those children were called? ‘Children of Desperate Times.'” 

There’s footage of an angry crowd that includes men dressed in Buddhist priest robes. The crowd is chanting: “We won’t tolerate Rohingya supporters. Terrorists who stole our land! Get out, get out! Terrorist Muslims! We won’t live with them!” One has to wonder if people in Europe and the Americas, where Muslims have often been stereotyped as terrorists watch these people and support their prejudices. Can the Western world feel sympathy for these Myanmar Muslims without being part of the Muslim minority?

Although Hla has accepted  Nyo Nyo as an apprentice there is still some friction and the pressure of prejudice seeps into their exchanges. Bitter words and attitudes are casually cruel. But both Hla and Nyo Nyo understand that they might be the only medical attention these women have available. Their relationship, even though it is professional, brings threats from the locals. Some of the Buddhist villages don’t believe Hla should be treating pregnant Muslim women. 

What the audience sees and hears might not seem alarming, but this documentary has not been shown to either Hla and Nyo Nyo. They might even be in danger. The film emphasizes the importance of women advocating for the medical needs of other women, even during times of upheaval and social instability. There is more than one way to be an activist for women and Midwives shows two women shouldering this burden.

The film states:

In 2016, the Myanmar military began a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Muslims. Tens of thousands of Rohingya were killed. Close to one million fled the country. Those who remain in Myanmar are one of the world’s most persecuted minorities according to the UN. Since the military coup, over 1,300 unarmed protesters, including 50 children, have been killed,  11,120 have been imprisoned, and arrest warrants have been issued for 1964 others. Civil unrest and guerrilla warfare have spread to many regions throughout the country. Close to one million Muslim Rohingya remain exiled in refugee camps outside of Myanmar.

Midwives made its world premiere at Sundance on 21 January 2022. In Burmese with English subtitles. The one-hour-31-minute documentary was purchased by PBS and will air as part of POV’s 35th season

For a longer review, visit AgeOfTheGeek.org.

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