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Mistrust Between Muslims and Buddhists

Nicholas Kristof, right, interviewed a farmer in a Muslim village outside of Mrauk-U. Adam B. Ellick is filming, left. (Photo: Nicole Sganga)

By Adam B. Ellick and Nicholas Kristof 
June 16, 2014

SITTWE, Myanmar — 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 only time he flatly refused to go somewhere was to a Buddhist village, for fear that we would be punished for having talked to Muslim villagers earlier.

During our reporting, we had to employ both Buddhist and Muslim translators, but the Muslim translator couldn’t leave the camp, since Myanmar authorities confined the Rohingya here to quasi-concentration camps or to their own villages. As we struggled to locate a Muslim village one day, our translator called a local friend to help us out. A few minutes later, a teenager arrived on a motorbike wearing an anti-Rohingya T-shirt.

Myanmar offered a lesson in contradiction. The country is making lots of progress, including in its advance from dictatorship to democracy — with presidential elections expected next year. A surge of foreign investment has sparked a much needed economic boom. The domestic press has been largely liberalized, and our 12 days of unrestricted reporting in Myanmar would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. The authorities flaunt this new openness by granting access to reporters, while at the same time they engage in brutal policies against the Muslim minority. Usually regimes that are so repressive don’t give journalists visas to roam around freely.

After our trip in these remote areas, we flew to the largest city, Yangon. It seemed like a different country — far more developed and peaceful. Myanmar is a friendly place; smiles are common. The ethnic tension, however, still seems widespread. Our airport taxi driver initiated a conversation, inquiring about our travels. We told him we had just been in Rakhine State, and he replied with a smile, “Well, I heard a cyclone is supposed to hit the area. I hope it wipes out all of the Muslims.”

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