CHIANGRAI TIMES – Kicking off her first trip abroad in nearly a quarter-century, Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi offered encouragement Wednesday to impoverished migrants whose flight to neighboring Thailand is emblematic of the devastation wrought on her homeland by decades of misrule.
“Don’t feel down, or weak. History is always changing,” she told an exuberant crowd of thousands southwest of Bangkok. Many 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.
Suu Kyi, who arrived in Bangkok late Tuesday, left her luxury hotel and the skyscraper-packed capital Wednesday for the nearby town of Mahachai, home to Thailand’s largest population of Burmese migrants. Thousands of Myanmar’s downtrodden crowded around her and chanted: “Long Live Mother Suu!”
“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 center, the Nobel Peace Prize winner met with migrant workers who told her they face mistreatment from employers but lack knowledge of their rights and have no legal means to settle disputes.
Suu Kyi spent 15 of the last 24 years under house arrest. During intermittent periods of freedom, she dared not leave Myanmar — not even to visit her dying husband — because she feared the military junta ruling at the time would not allow her to return. Now, in a sign of how much life has changed, the democracy activist and newly elected member of Parliament is traveling across Thailand, where she will speak later this week at the World Economic Forum on East Asia.
She’ll return to Myanmar briefly before heading to Europe for a five-country tour in mid-June. Her stops include England, where she’ll address the British Parliament, and Oslo, Norway, to formally accept the Nobel Peace Prize she won 21 years ago.
Fixing a battered economy is one of the most crucial challenges facing Myanmar, also known as Burma, as it begins opening up in the wake of 49 years of military governance that ended only last year.
Thailand hosts around 2.5 million impoverished Burmese who have fled here to work low-skilled jobs as domestic servants or in manual labor industries like fisheries and the garment sector.
Andy Hall, a migrant expert and researcher at the Institute for Population and Social Research at Thailand’s Mahidol University, said the Burmese migrants — up to a million of them undocumented — make up between 5 and 10 percent of the Thai work force, contributing as much as 7 percent of the nation’s GDP.
Many are exploited and paid reduced wages. Some have been trafficked; some have had their passports confiscated by employers. Hall said they were nevertheless “the lifeblood of a lot of the Myanmar economy, sending home money to support families who don’t have enough money to eat.”
“They have no voice, they can never speak up or stand up,” Hall said. “So for Aung San Suu Kyi to visit is like a dream come true, someone who finally may be able to bring attention to their suffering.”
One of the migrants, a 26-year-old woman named Khin Than Nu, works at a Thai canning factory and dreams of her home in Myanmar’s Mon state.
“We left our parents in Burma, and all my brothers and sisters work here to support our parents,” she said. “I hope Daw Suu will help develop our country, and bring jobs so we can go home.”
Associated Press writer Yadana Htun contributed to this report.