Another sign of Myanmar reform? Aung San Suu Kyi's visit to Thailand.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was welcomed in Thailand on Wednesday by crowds of migrant workers from Myanmar waiting to catch even a glimpse of her.

Sakchai Lalit/AP
Myanmar workers hold portraits of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as they gather to hear her speech in Samut Sakhon, Thailand on Wednesday, May 30. Kicking off her first trip abroad in nearly a quarter-century, Suu Kyi spoke with impoverished Myanmar migrant workers in neighboring Thailand today.

Making her first trip outside Myanmar in almost a quarter-century, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi spoke with impoverished Myanmar migrant workers in neighboring Thailand today. 

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is in Thailand to address the World Economic Forum (WEF) and to meet some of the 2-3 million Myanmar nationals living in the country, around 140,000 of whom are refugees who fled decades of fighting in jungle borderlands.

Aung San Suu Kyi's visit is another sign that Myanmar's recent reforms will continue, according to analysts. Changes such as the staging of free and fair by-elections, which were won in a landslide by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) in April, have prompted a relaxation or suspension of Western sanctions and raised hopes of increased investment in the once-hermetic country.

Aung San Suu Kyi's willingness to travel is “a signal that she thinks things have changed enough that she can tour, speak freely, and return to Burma safely,” says Walter Lohman, Asia analyst at the Heritage Foundation

The 1991 Nobel peace laureate and newly-elected MP famously spent 15 years under house arrest in Myanmar, before being freed in November 2010. She famously refused to leave Myanmar in the 1990s, during her house arrest, even to be with her dying husband in Britain, as she feared the country's army rulers would not allow her return to continue her pro-democracy activism.

Addressing a gathering of around 2,000 mostly Myanmar nationals crammed into a side-street in the fishing port town of Mahachai, about an hour from central Bangkok, Aung San Suu Kyi said that she hoped migrant workers could return to Burma in the future, if the country's economy grows on the back of recent reforms which in turn have seen Western economic sanctions relaxed or suspended.

But for now millions of her compatriots are likely to continue working in the more-developed neighbor to the south, which has a GDP per capita of $9,700, while millions of Myanmar's people live on the equivalent of $1-2 per day. Aung San Suu Kyi urged the crowd to “learn the law so you can defend your rights here.”

She will visit a refugee camp on the Thailand-Burma border on Saturday, but Aung San Suu Kyi made Samut Sakhon her first public port-of-call in Thailand today, as the province hosts around 300,000 Myanmar migrants, many of whom work in the fishing industry centered around the Mahachai harbor town.

Laced with sweat from a hot sun and a heaving crowd, people held aloft posters of Aung San Suu Kyi and of her father, Gen. Aung San, who led Burma's fight for independence from colonial rule from London. Migrant worker women, their faces coated in thanaka paste, a make-up made from tree bark, chanted “We love Daw (Aunt) Suu.

This group is part of an estimated 2-3 million Myanmar migrants in Thailand, many of whom are undocumented but make up between 5-10 percent of Thailand's work force and often fill in for labor shortages in poorly-paid, back-breaking jobs in fishing, construction, and domestic help.

For decades, economically-stagnant Myanmar offered scant job opportunities for its people, forcing millions to emigrate to Malaysia, Thailand and beyond. However, in an often desperate search for work and money to send home to penniless families, many Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand cross the border without official documentation and end up trafficked into slave-like conditions aboard Thai fishing vessels or in the sex trade.

In between two brief addresses given from a 3rd floor balcony, Aung San Suu Kyi met indoors with NGO workers and trade unionists who assist migrants, and spoke with a group of 30 Myanmar workers now living in Thailand.

One of those who met Aung San Suu Kyi face-to-face was 25 year Nai Lin from Sagaing in Myanmar. Previously employed in a plastic factory earning 6000 Thai baht ($188) per month, he lost his right hand in a work accident in Thailand and now helps a rice-seller by carrying bags of rice for customers.

“I told her about my struggles,” he said, speaking to the Monitor after Aung San Suu Kyi had left Samut Sakhon to return to Bangkok. “At first when I came to Thailand I did not have papers, so the employer would not let me leave the factory.”

San Man, a volunteer with the Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF), a Thailand-based NGO that lobbies on behalf of migrants, says that the visit was unprecedented. “I thought I would never get to stand so close to The Lady,” she told the Monitor, using a common nickname for Aung San Suu Kyi. “Before we have only seen her in newspapers and on TV.”

Others had waited at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport on Tuesday night for a brief glimpse of the MP, who paused momentarily for photographers at the airport before speeding to the plush riverside Shangri-La hotel, where she will address the WEF on Friday.

Construction worker Aung Myint Myat says that seeing the famous opposition leader topped all other memories of his 8-year stint in Thailand. “I am looking forward so much to this day,” he says.

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