SAMUT SAKHON – Making her first foreign visit in 24 years, this morning Burma opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi addressed a crowd of around 2000 Burmese migrants in the Thai port town of Mahachai.
The National League for Democracy (NLD) leader told the gathering, many of whom carried placards saying “We Love Daw Suu” and held flowers aloft to give to the visiting parliamentarian, that she would fight for the rights of Burmese in Thailand, but added that she hoped that migrant workers could return to Burma in the future, if the country’s economy develops and prospers.
“Please respect the law in your host country, but learn the law so you can defend your rights here,” Aung San Suu Kyi urged the crowd.
In between two short addresses delivered from a 3rd floor balcony part-obscured by a tangle of electricity cables – a similar setting to her speeches given in cities across Burma – thanaka-pasted women chanted and held aloft posters of Suu Kyi and of her father, Gen. Aung San, regarded by many Burmese as an independence hero.
Prior to yesterday, Suu Kyi had not left Burma since returning to tend to her ailing mother in 1988, before becoming the leader of the country’s opposition and winning a 1990 election. Since 1989, she spent 15 years under various forms of detention, before being freed in November 2010 and winning a seat in Burma’s military-dominated legislature in April this year.
Aung San Suu Kyi arrived at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport on Tuesday night, pausing momentarily for photographers before speeding to the plush riverside Shangri-La hotel, where she will address the World Economic Forum on Friday. A 45 minute drive away, Samut Sakhon hosts around 300,000 Burmese migrants, many of whom work in the fishing industry centred around the Mahachai port town.
After her address to the WEF on Friday, Aung San Suu Kyi will travel to the Thai-Burma border to visit some of the 140000 Burmese refugees in 9 camps along the frontier, and meet with Burmese NGO workers and medics who have long catered for Burmese refugees from war-torn Karen state inside Burma
Today, however, the focus was on the estimated 2-3 million Burmese migrants in Thailand, many of whom are undocumented and who make up between 5-10% of Thailand’s work force. Burmese and other migrants from Cambodia and Laos often make up for labour shortages in low-paying, menial sectors. But Burmese migrant workers in Thailand are often victims of human traffickers and can end up working in slave conditions in factories or on fishing boats.
Inside the Samut Sakhon migrant verification centre, one of nine across Thailand to enable undocumented Burmese migrants legalise their working status in Thailand, Aung San Suu Kyi met with NGO workers and trade unionists who assist the migrants, and heard stories from a group of 30 workers now living in Thailand.
Among the Burmese migrant workers who had a short meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi inside centre was 25 year Nai Lin from Sagaing in Burma. Speaking to The Irrawaddy after the meeting, he told Aung San Suu Kyi about how he lost his right hand in a work injury sustained while employed at a plastics factory.
“I told The Lady about my accident and about how Thai police often stop me and other Burmese to try get money from us,” he said.
“She told us that she will do all she can not just for one or two workers but for all of us,” he added.
Nai Lin said he would like to go back to Burma someday soon, if the country’s reforms lead to economic growth and development.
“My father, mother and 3 sisters are all there,”, he said. “I miss them a lot, I am here alone.”
Outside on the thronged and baking-hot street below the balcony from where Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to the crowd, Bangkok-based Burmese activist Thar Tun Aung said that it was a great day for his compatriots living in Thailand.
“It is a major occasion for us, many of us are away from your country for many years now,” he said. “The Lady gives us hope that we can go back.”Show