When Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi last visited Thailand four years ago, it was as head of her country’s opposition party to offer moral support to the huge numbers of her countrymen who work here as migrant laborers in menial jobs, often in exploitative conditions.
On Thursday she arrives back as her country’s elected de-facto leader to tackle on an official basis the problems faced by Myanmar migrant workers the government estimates to number 1.4 million, but advocates say is at least twice that.
In her new position of more power and responsibility, Suu Kyi faces greater scrutiny than she did as a democracy heroine fighting military rule. The trip puts her in the spotlight as questions have arisen about her government’s policies, particularly toward the oppressed Rohingya Muslim minority, which critics say falls short of what they expected from the Nobel peace laureate.
A highlight of Suu Kyi’s visit will likely be a town hall-type meeting on Thursday with Myanmar migrant workers in the Thai port of Mahachai, where many work, reprising a similar meeting in 2012 that drew tens of thousands.
She is expected to sign an agreement on Friday with the Thai labor ministry that will slash a “work break” required after four years of labor in Thailand, from three years to 30 days. The three-year requirement means many Myanmar migrant workers would rather stay illegally in Thailand than return home to bleak job prospects for such a long period.
Suu Kyi will also sign a memorandum of understanding on labor cooperation to ensure productive Thai-Myanmar relations on issues of academic cooperation and workers’ skill development.
“For the migrant workers, it will probably bring a positive result for them, as Suu Kyi promised to try to get rights for migrant workers in Thailand, and I think she will try to deal with the Thai government on this,” said Naing Han Thar, vice chairman of the United Nationalities Federal Council and chairman of the New Mon State Party.
Otherwise, it was hard to predict what sort of results her trip would bring, he said.
Suu Kyi was scheduled to visit a refugee camp in the western province of Ratchaburi, bordering Myanmar, but that was canceled due to poor weather, the Thai foreign ministry said.
There are about 100,000 refugees from Myanmar in camps just inside the Thai border, and their eventual repatriation has been discussed for decades. But combat in Myanmar’s ethnic-controlled border regions has never completely ceased, though there are hopes that with the army out of power, peace can be achieved.
Suu Kyi’s 2012 visit was her first trip abroad in 24 years, with much of that time spent under house arrest under Myanmar’s then-military government. She was freed after a 2010 election—boycotted by her National League for Democracy party—installed a military-backed government.
Her party swept last year’s general election to take power in March, but she is barred from becoming president because of a constitutional clause that bars anyone with a foreign spouse or child from holding the job. Her two sons are British, as was her late husband. Instead, her party created the post of State Counsellor, putting her in charge of her amenable party colleague, President Htin Kyaw.
Also foreign minister, she made her first official trip in early May to Lao PDR, accompanying Htin Kyaw on a low-key visit.
Her three-day visit to Thailand has more at stake. Besides the migrant and refugee issues, Bangkok is a regional center for the international media keen to scrutinize her. Suu Kyi displays coolness toward the press at home, and her government is not much more communicative than the military-backed regime it replaced.
Suu Kyi, who won her Nobel prize for her nonviolent promotion of democracy, is being hosted by Thailand’s markedly undemocratic military junta, and her trip is being tightly scripted, with no chance for the media to question to her, even at a joint press appearance on Friday with Thai Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, where organizers say a joint statement will be read.
One issue overhanging her visit — even if she isn’t directly asked about it— is her government’s treatment of the Rohingyas, a Muslim minority of about 1 million who generally have been deprived of citizenship under Myanmar law and are targets of discrimination and violence.
Many of the country’s Buddhist majority, who typically call them “Bengalis,” say the Rohingya are mostly illegal immigrants and not a native ethnic group when, in fact, many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
Rights activists have criticized Suu Kyi for failing to ensure justice for the Rohingya, many of whom live in poor conditions in internal displacement camps after communal violence forced them from their homes.
Image credits: AP