Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi began her first trip abroad in nearly a quarter-century by offering
encouragement to impoverished migrants in neighbouring Thailand.
“Don’t feel down, or weak. History is always changing,” she told an exuberant crowd of thousands southwest of Bangkok on Wednesday.
Suu Kyi, who arrived in Bangkok late on Tuesday, left her luxury hotel in the Thai capital for the nearby town of Mahachai, home to Thailand’s largest population of Myanmar migrants.
Many who greeted her held signs saying, “We want to go home”, and Suu Kyi said her visit was aimed at learning how she could help them.
“Today, I will make you one promise: I will try my best for you,” she said.
“I had only seen her on TV and in newspapers,” said Saw Hla Tun, who left Myanmar’s Karen state seven years ago and earns a meager wage carrying heavy salt sacks on his back. “I couldn’t hold back my tears when I saw her.”
After speaking to the crowd from a fourth-floor balcony at a community centre, the Nobel Peace Prize winner met migrant workers who told her they face mistreatment from employers but lack knowledge of their rights and have no legal means to settle disputes.
Al Jazeera’s Wayne Hay, reporting from Bangkok, said Suu Kyi had so far been greeted “very warmly” in Thailand.
Grim working conditions
Many workers from Myanmar are trafficked into Thailand illegally with the promise of a better life and improved financial situation, but the reality is much different.
However, there are stories of workers being detained, abused and even killed.
Sections of the Thai government are complicit in the corruption. The workers cannot even apply for the new temporary Myanmar passport without a broker, organised by local mafia.
Most of the migrants don’t want to be in Thailand. They would rather be back home with their extended families.
They believe Aung San Sui Kyi can help solve their problems.
Wayne Hay / Al Jazeera / Bangkok
“Her first public engagement was to meet the many migrants [from Myanmar] who live in Thailand and discuss their many problems, including trafficking, forced labour and child labour. She has said she hears them and will do her best,” he said on Wednesday.
“There are estimated to be about three million migrant workers in Thailand, most of them are thought to be from Myanmar, many of them mistreated.”
Our correspondent said that Suu Kyi is thought to be planning a trip to at least one camp in Thailand’s north, where thousands of Myanmar refugees have sought safety from fighting in their homeland.
Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years in detention under Myanmar’s military dictatorship, is due to give a speech at this week’s World Economic Forum on East Asia in Bangkok.
Until now, Suu Kyi had refused to leave Myanmar during brief periods of freedom from her years of detention, fearing the generals she was challenging would not allow her back into the country.
Suu Kyi has since been released and is now a parliamentarian having been convinced by President Thein Sein, a former general, to contest a by-election and take part in a political system devised and dominated by retired and serving soldiers.
Thein Sein was also due to give a speech at the same forum in Bangkok, but has since cancelled his visit, according to Myanmar government sources, who requested anonymity.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the leader of Myanmar’s campaign for independence from British rule, spent years away from home, including many in Britain after marrying a British academic, Michael Aris.
She returned to her homeland in 1988 to take care of her dying mother and got caught up in a student-led democracy
uprising that swept the country that year and which the military eventually crushed.
Aung San Suu Kyi was first detained in 1989. From then on, she refused to leave, even after her husband was diagnosed with cancer. Aris died in 1999.
She is also due next month to visit Switzerland, Norway and Britain.
She will give an address in Geneva to an international labour conference on June 14 and will spend a week in Britain
from June 18, during which she will give a speech to both houses of parliament.