Myanmar goes to the polls on Sunday, taking its biggest stride yet in a journey to democracy from dictatorship, but the legacy of military rule means opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi cannot become president even if her party wins a landslide. The sense of excitement in the Southeast Asian nation was palpable on the eve of the election as around 30 million people prepared to vote in the first free nationwide poll in a quarter of a century.
We’ve worked together on documentaries in other difficult countries such as Iran, but reporting this video in Myanmar was particularly challenging because of the mistrust between the Buddhist and Muslim communities. In covering the plight of the Rohingya, a resented Muslim minority in this predominantly Buddhist country, we had to coax Buddhist drivers to go places where they sometimes felt profoundly uncomfortable. One driver, who flaunted a Buddhist pride tattoo, was willing to drive five hours along bumpy roads to different parts of Rakhine State in western Myanmar, but as we approached certain Muslim villages, he became skittish and warned us of danger, police checkpoints, a nonexistent curfew and a long hike.
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority in Myanmar that has primarily lived in Rakhine State bordering Bangladesh in western Myanmar for at least 200 years. The Myanmar government and others in the country refer to them as “Bengalis” or “illegal migrants,” a reference to the nineteenth century migration of laborers and merchants from India under British rule. Denied citizenship for decades, they have suffered from discrimination, forced labor, and campaigns of violence, which the Irish Centre for Human Rights and others have characterized as crimes against humanity.
The last couple of weeks have been extremely rough ones for Aung San Suu Kyi and her country, but the former Nobel Peace Prize winner is still the chess player to watch in Burma.