Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi visits troubled diaspora in Thailand

BANGKOK, JUNE 23: Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi arrives on Thursday (Jun 23) in Thailand where she is expected to be garlanded by her adoring compatriots, hundreds of thousands of whom have sought work and sanctuary from war across the border.

It is Suu Kyi’s highest profile overseas visit since her pro-democracy party took power in April, ending nearly half a century of military domination.

Her government has seeded hopes for a new era of prosperity that could eventually convince the army of low-paid Myanmar labourers in Thailand to return home.

The two Southeast Asian neighbours have travelled in starkly different directions in recent years.

While Myanmar’s junta has rolled back its chokehold on politics, last year allowing the freest elections in decades, Thailand remains in the grip of a military that seized power in 2014.

As Myanmar’s democracy champion, Suu Kyi is expected to receive a rock star welcome during a visit to a major fish market in Samut Sakhon later Thursday.

The area, just outside Bangkok, is the seat of Thailand’s huge seafood industry and home to more than 100,000 Myanmar labourers. But the sector has been battered by accusations of slavery and other labour abuses.

Seeking to escape poverty at home, some one million registered Myanmar migrant workers form the backbone of Thailand’s manual workforce.

Tens of thousands of others work illegally, with some estimates putting the total number of Myanmar nationals in Thailand at three million.

Rights groups say migrants are often exploited by unscrupulous officials, trafficking gangs and employment agencies who charge huge sums to get them poorly paid work.

Their low status mean Myanmar workers are treated with scorn and mistrust by many Thais.

‘HEARTS WILL LIGHT UP’

“They all want to go home, but they are just waiting for the economic situation to improve significantly,” explained Andy Hall, a prominent migrant rights activist who works in Thailand.

Speaking of Suu Kyi, who was received by rapturous crowds when she visited the seaport four years ago, he added: “Through very difficult times they (the workers) have kept hope in their hearts, and it will light up when she comes.”

The nemesis of Myanmar’s generals throughout a quarter-century of struggle for democracy, the Nobel laureate will meet with the leader of the Thai junta in Bangkok on Friday.

The 71-year-old is officially Myanmar’s foreign minister and state counsellor, but also the de facto leader of her country despite a military-era constitution that bars her from the presidency.

She is scheduled to travel to a refugee camp in Ratchaburi province on Saturday. It is one of nearly a dozen camps that line the two nations’ border and hold more than 100,000 refugees who have fled conflict in Myanmar.

Many are ethnic Karen who were displaced by a long-running war with Myanmar’s army. The violence abated following a 2012 ceasefire, but conflict with other ethnic rebel groups continues.

Thailand officially does not accept refugees or naturalise the displaced in the camps – although many have been born there.

But Suu Kyi is not scheduled to visit any of the Thai centres holding some 400 Rohingya, a Muslim group who has fled poverty and persecution in western Myanmar.

She has so far disappointed campaigners who hoped she would throw her moral weight behind the stateless minority.

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