MAHACHAI (Thailand): Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi yesterday told an ecstatic crowd of Myanmar migrants in Thailand she would do all she could to help them, as she kicked off her first trip abroad in 24 years.
“I can give you one promise – I will try my best for you,” Suu Kyi told a crowd of hundreds packing a narrow street in Samut Sakhon province south of Bangkok to see the opposition leader, who had not left her homeland since 1988.
“May you be able to return to the country soon,” she said to the cheering migrants, many of whom held up banners with Suu Kyi’s picture and signs in Burmese and English that read “Free Burma” and “We want to go home”.
The opposition leader was given a rapturous welcome in Mahachai, a key seafood processing area that is home to one of the highest concentrations of Myanmar migrants in Thailand.
“I am very happy and I want to cry. I feel that we will get democracy in Myanmar,” said one migrant worker in the crowd, who only gave her name as Phyu.
Suu Kyi praised the strong “spirit” of workers from Myanmar, also known as Burma, “in spite of the many troubles they have been through” in comments to journalists after the speech.
“All of them say one thing – we want to go back to Burma as soon as possible. That of course is part of our responsibility,” she said.
Suu Kyi’s foray beyond Myanmar’s borders is a significant show of confidence in dramatic changes that have swept her homeland since a near 50-year military dictatorship was replaced with a quasi-civilian regime last year.
The former political prisoner, who won a seat in parliament in historic April by-elections, is expected to meet Thailand’s prime minister and attend the World Economic Forum on East Asia during several days in the country.
Her decision to begin the trip by meeting some of the hundreds of thousands of Myanmar migrants who work in low paid jobs in Thai homes, factories and fishing boats, shines a spotlight on a group that has long been marginalised and prone to exploitation.
Thailand’s workforce is heavily reliant on low-cost foreign workers, both legal and illegal, with Myanmar nationals accounting for around 80% of the two million registered migrants in the kingdom. There are thought to be a further one million undocumented foreign workers.
“Most of the workers here want to go back home but we can’t afford that. There are no jobs back there and it’s difficult to eat, difficult to live,” said Aung Htun, 28, a rice mill worker.
Suu Kyi met several migrant workers as part of her visit, hearing stories that conveyed a range of experiences and promised to discuss the issues raised with the Thai authorities.
Myanmar, which activists estimate has about 10 percent of its population living overseas, is in the process of trying to rebuild an economy left in tatters by military dictatorship, while encouraging increased remittances from the diaspora.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Japan’s Kyoto University, said the veteran activist was looking to “reconnect” with Myanmar expatriates.
“There are a lot of Burmese exiles in Thailand, Burmese dissidents and immigrant workers, that is why she chose to go there,” he said.
Suu Kyi’s ventures overseas, which also include a European tour in June, are seen as the completion of her transformation from prisoner to global politician.
The 66-year-old, who spent 15 of the past 22 years under house arrest, refused to travel abroad in the past even when the former junta denied her dying husband a visa to visit her, because of fears she would never be allowed to return.
Suu Kyi also said she would meet refugees in northern Thailand, where roughly 100,000 people live in camps after being displaced by ethnic conflict in Myanmar’s eastern border areas.
She is set to meet business leaders at the World Economic Forum and appear at two events at the Bangkok forum tomorrow.
Suu Kyi’s European travel plans include an address to an International Labour Organisation conference in Geneva and a speech in Oslo to finally accept the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded in 1991 for her peaceful struggle for democracy.
She also intends to travel to Britain, where she lived for years with her family, and will address parliament in London.