Burma's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday told a crowd of Myanmar migrants in Thailand she would try her best to help them, on the first stop of her first trip abroad in 24 years.
AFP - Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday told an ecstatic crowd of Myanmar migrants in Thailand she would do all she could to help them, on the first stop of 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 who packed a narrow street in Samut Sakhon province south of Bangkok to see the opposition leader, who had not left her homeland since 1988.
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.
"All of them say one thing -- they want to go back to Burma as soon as possible. That of course is part of our responsibility," she said, adding that her visit to Mahachai was like being "back in Yangon".
Cheering Myanmar migrants held up banners with Suu Kyi's picture and signs in Burmese and English that read "Free Burma" and "We want to go home".
"I am very happy and I want to cry. I feel that we will get democracy in Myanmar," said Phyu, who has been in Thailand for six years.
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 trafficked, with Myanmar nationals accounting for around 80 percent 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 with the Thai authorities.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Japan's Kyoto University, said the veteran activist was looking to "reconnect her lost connection with those who live outside the country".
"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 scheduled to speak at an open discussion with World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab and appear on Friday at a session on the role of Asian women.
Suu Kyi's European travel plans include an address to an International Labour Organization conference in Geneva on June 14.
After that she will make a speech in Oslo on June 16 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 on June 21.
Myanmar President Thein Sein, who is credited with a string of reforms that have prompted the international community to ease sanctions, has postponed an official visit to Thailand which would have clashed with Suu Kyi's trip.
He will now travel to the country on June 4 and 5, according to the Thai foreign ministry.
Date created : 2012-05-29