Suu Kyi tackles migrant workers' plight during Thailand trip

AP News
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Posted: Jun 23, 2016 7:23 AM
Suu Kyi tackles migrant workers' plight during Thailand trip

MAHACHAI, Thailand (AP) — In a demonstration of her popular appeal, Myanmar de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi received a rapturous welcome Thursday as she presided over a town hall-type meeting with some of the huge population of migrant workers from her homeland who eke out a living in Thailand.

Her meeting with countrymen in the Thai port town of Mahachai, where many work, reprised a similar meeting in 2012 that drew tens of thousands. The numbers this time appeared to be lower, but the level of adulation was high, as the cheering crowd had to be held back from mobbing her.

Overshadowing her visit — though not addressed by her or her Thai hosts — is her government's treatment of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority of about 1 million who generally have been deprived of citizenship under Myanmar law and are targets of discrimination and violence.

Suu Kyi spoke to several hundred people in a meeting hall for 20 minutes before stepping down from the stage in frustration at a faulty sound system to engage face-to-face with members of the audience, who gave her questions and comments about what she could do to help their often difficult lives.

A large crowd of several thousand waiting outside burst into cheers and song as she was leaving, after staying for the duration of her 45-minute meeting even as a heavy rain poured down on them.

When Suu Kyi last visited Thailand four years ago, it was as head of her country's opposition party to offer moral support to her countrymen who work here in menial jobs, often in exploitative conditions.

She arrived back as her country's elected 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 Rohingya minority, which critics say fall short of what they expected from the Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Many in the country's Buddhist majority say the Rohingya are mostly illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and not a native ethnic group, although 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.

Suu Kyi is being hosted by Thailand's military junta, and her trip is being tightly scripted, with no opportunities for the media to question her on the issue.

Thai police forced organizers to change the format of a news conference held by Rohingya activists on Thursday, allowing them to read prepared statements but not take questions. Police said the event could violate a law against instigating unrest.

Her focus, however, is on the migrant workers' situation. She is scheduled to sign two agreements to improve the migrants' working conditions and make it easier for them to work legally.

"In 2012, she gave a promise to the workers ... that she would support them, both to return to Myanmar but also to have a better life here," said Andy Hall, who advises the Migrant Workers Rights Network. "I think the workers see her visit, both as something that would result in greater protection for them, but also (as) another sign that the time is coming when they can eventually go back home to their motherland and continue their lives there."

Suu Kyi was scheduled to visit a refugee camp Saturday 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 National League for Democracy party swept last year's general election to take power in March, but she is blocked from becoming president by a clause in the constitution enacted under army rule that bars her from holding the post. As a workaround, her party created the post of state counsellor, putting her in charge of her amenable colleague, President Htin Kyaw. She also is foreign minister.

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Associated Press writers Esther Htusan in Yangon, Myanmar, and Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.