KUTUPALONG, Bangladesh — His people, the Rohingya, are stateless, and the evidence of it is etched into his skin.
The Burmese military beat his legs and feet mercilessly and chased him out of his native land in the 1990s. In a refugee camp in Bangladesh, police tortured him for leading a mass refusal of a policy that forced the Rohingya back to Burma.
Abdusalam imagined himself the unsung Gandhi, Mandela or King Jr. of his people. And while those champions of freedom inspired him, another was the vessel of his hopes: Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's anti-
authoritarian icon. He dreamed she would bravely face down the military and welcome the Rohingya back to their homes as citizens.
The first part came true. But sitting in a decrepit shack in the refugee camp in Bangladesh where he now expects to live the rest of his days, he had only disappointment for Suu Kyi.
“She’s made a deal with the devil,” he said.
Suu Kyi has been Burma's de facto leader since 2016, but she has said nothing to quell intensifying bouts of violence against the Rohingya.
Over the past two months, the decades-old cycle of violence between the Muslim Rohingya and Burma’s Buddhist majority has reached a bloody apex. More than half a million Rohingya have sought refuge in Bangladesh. Thousands more continue to escape by the day, carrying with them stories of summary executions, gang rapes and murdered children. In Bangladesh, they join hundreds of thousands more like Abdusalam who fled pogroms in the 1990s and 2000s.
Many are left to wonder: Were we wrong to ever have hoped?
Abdusalam, now 62, first heard of Suu Kyi in 1988, when he was his village’s headman. Word spread of a student uprising against the junta, and that the daughter of Burma’s beloved founding father was leading a new political party, the National League for Democracy, or NLD. She was daring the military — which assassinated her father in 1947 and took over the government in 1962 — to call national elections.
“She was like a bright light,” said Abdusalam, who like many Rohingya uses only one name.
He beat a drum. The villagers assembled. He told them they must all vote for the NLD. And when the day finally came, they did. So did most Rohingya and most of Burma, which is also called Myanmar. Suu Kyi’s party won in a landslide.
What came next was disastrous. Suu Kyi spent 15 of the following 21 years under house arrest, unable to see her dying husband in Britain for fear that she never would be allowed back. The military terrorized groups seen as part of the uprising, including the Rohingya.
Suu Kyi’s name became synonymous with the struggle for human rights. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Her reputation as a saint grew, even though she seldom spoke out against the military’s mistreatment of minority groups.
In retrospect, it is unlikely that Suu Kyi ever had much sympathy for the Rohingya. Francis Wade, the author of "Myanmar's Enemy Within," said Suu Kyi never addressed the Rohingya in her 1988 speeches that had so stirred Abdusalam.
“I’ve never found a historic record of her calling for them to be made citizens,” said Wade.
Even so, Abdusalam held on to his NLD membership card as a talisman through those dark, scarring years.
“The soldiers would come into the mosque while we were praying, when we couldn’t run away without offending God, and kidnap us. Then they made us carry their supplies as if we were donkeys. They would make us cook their pork. They would pour liquor onto our parents’ graves. They would come into our village, see a girl they wanted, take her to her home, tell her family to leave and rape her right there in her own house,” he said. “Everything we had could be taken at a moment’s notice.”
He stood up to reenact a raid on his village. Spittle flew from his mouth as he shouted. He swung his arms wildly as if he were wielding a machete. His voice grew hoarse. He lunged forward, jabbing the phantom blade before collapsing into a chair, overcome with grief.
“They killed a baby like that in front of me,” he said, his face buried in his lap as he wept into his sarong. “We were just animals to them.”
The Rohingya occupy a uniquely marginalized spot in Burma’s ethnic hierarchy. They are Muslims in a country that is nearly 90 percent Buddhist. They aren’t citizens. While some Rohingya claim centuries of history in what is now Burma, many Burmese see them as a post-colonial stain, brought by the British from Bengal in the 19th century to work the fields and left to grow in number through the 20th. Their distinct appearance sets them apart, and their overt religiosity makes them suspect; the military has used a feeble Rohingya insurgency to cast all Rohingya as potential terrorists.
Suu Kyi hasn’t participated in the demonizing of the Rohingya that now has become widespread in Burma, but she has protested the use of the term “Rohingya.” Spokesmen for her office prefer the term “Bengali,” which implies that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants despite being born in Burma. In a speech last week addressing the crisis, she referred to the Rohingya obliquely as “those who have crossed over to Bangladesh.”
The orders to act against the Rohingya did not originate with Suu Kyi but with Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, Burma’s top military official. But she has not acknowledged atrocities committed against them, which have been documented in detail by journalists and human rights organizations.
She and the military have denied allegations that the expulsion or even extermination of the Rohingya is underway, claiming instead that "cleansing operations" in Rohingya villages are aimed at rooting out an Islamist insurgency. The United Nations has repeatedly described the operations as "ethnic cleansing" and said that the military's intent is not just to drive out the Rohingya but to prevent their return by incinerating hundreds of their villages.
Suu Kyi’s diluted response to the crisis also may reflect her continued subordination to the military, which retained a central role in the government even while making democratic concessions. A quarter of seats in the parliament are reserved for the military, as are the Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs and Defense ministries. The military holds a majority of seats on the National Defense and Security Council, which has the power to dissolve the government.
That means the military could step in and replace Suu Kyi if it felt she was interfering with its plans. If Suu Kyi expressed public support for the Rohingya, her standing among most Burmese could plummet, making her removal easier. Burmese citizenship for the Rohingya is almost unthinkable in the current political climate.
“The chances are getting slimmer and slimmer — nonexistent now, probably,” said Wade.
The death of that dream is crushing for Mohammad Siddiq, whose father, Mohammad Hussein, was a proud card-carrying, flag-waving NLD member. He recalled that his father’s NLD card even saved their family from forced repatriation in the 1990s.
“The U.N. stepped in and told the Bangladeshis that anyone who was associated with the NLD was at extra risk of getting killed if they went back,” said Siddiq. “Baba even told a judge here once, ‘When democracy comes to Burma, then we’ll immediately go back!’ And he would go find the red NLD flag he brought with him and show it to us.”
Hussein died in 2014, living long enough to lose hope in the NLD but not to witness the calamity that has befallen the Rohingya in the past two months. Siddiq, now 33, thinks the Rohingya will be stateless forever.
“Baba would put us to bed at night, and lots of times he would tell us stories about Burma. ‘We have paddies there,’ he’d say. ‘Just like the locals here have their own paddies.’ It makes me cry just to think about it,” he said. “Ever since I’ve become a man, I’ve never tasted a fresh fish like the one’s he’d tell us about. He died, too, without tasting it again.”
Correction: A previous version of this story said that Aung San Suu Kyi became Burma’s de facto leader in 2012. She attained that status in 2016. The story has been updated.