For Myanmar refugees and migrants in Thailand, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s three-day official visit in June raised hopes and expectations.
In her official capacity as Myanmar’s foreign minister and state counselor, the Nobel peace laureate flew to Bangkok on Thursday June 23, on her second official trip abroad since the National League for Democracy was sworn in as the new Myanmar government in April 2016.
FED director Htoo Chit and staff met with Aung San Suu Kyi to express the difficulties faced by the Myanmar migrant community in Thailand.
Meeting with migrant workers
Upon her arrival in Bangkok, Aung San Suu Kyi met with Myanmar migrant worker representatives in Mahachai district of central Thailand’s seaport town of Samut Sakhon. Despite the rain, hundreds of migrants had turned up to welcome their de facto national leader. Speaking to a crowd of a few hundred migrant workers, Aung San Suu Kyi pressed for better understanding and mutual respect between people of both countries and encouraged all migrants to abide by the laws and regulations of their host country. She also urged for improved relations with the Thai authorities and the Myanmar embassy.
“Burmese people have to live in Thailand as guests, and as such, the hosts will respect the guests. (…) The Myanmar embassy must help Burmese workers in Thailand.”
The meeting was however tainted with reports of limited media access and restricted access to migrant workers. In fact, those who were able to attend the meeting with the Lady of Rangoon were hand-picked by Thai bosses, according to Htoo Chit, director of FED. These workers earn minimum wage and experience decent working conditions.
“We thought one or two representatives from the 13 Thailand-based activist groups for workers that arranged for the migrant labourers to see Aung San Suu Kyi would have a chance to attend the meeting. (…) The workers who are really suffering couldn’t see Aung San Suu Kyi, that’s why a lot of workers are in front of the hall and are showing their dissatisfaction.”
It has been reported that authorities in Thailand prevented labour rights groups from submitting documents to Aung San Suu Kyi about labour rights violations suffered by Myanmar migrant workers. 4 million Myanmar nationals are believed to live and work in Thailand – although the Thai Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare puts the number at more than 1.4 million. They are often victims of human trafficking and slavery in the fishing and sex industry. For the majority, their illegal situation makes them all the more vulnerable.
Bilateral talks and agreements
Friday June 24, Aung San Suu Kyi met with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha to discuss a wide range of bilateral issues including the protection of migrant workers, the assistance of displaced persons and the responsibility of both Thai and Myanmar governments.
Labor ministers of both countries signed two agreements and one memorandum of understanding, covering employment, labour cooperation and border crossing.
Leaders of both countries agreed on the importance of increasing the volume of trade between the two countries and playing an active role in bringing about peace, stability and prosperity to the ASEAN community.
Refugee camp visit scrapped
Aung San Suu Kyi’s official visit to the Burmese Tham Hin refugee camp in Ratchaburi province on Saturday June 26, was cancelled by local Thai authorities with no reason given.
Tham Hin is one of 9 camps along the Thai-Myanmar border, home to 6000 refugees having fled war-torn zones in eastern parts of Myanmar. Repatriation issues were indeed on Aung San Suu Kyi’s agenda and were later discussed with Thai authorities.
Rohingya plight silenced
Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the violent persecution of Myanmar’s minority Muslim Rohingya has been a disappointment for campaigners. She has publicly expressed her will not to discuss this matter.
The Burmese government has recently suggested the Rohingya be referred to as “Muslim community in Rakhine State” while thousands of Buddhist protesters want them to be called “Bengali” and consider them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Over the past few years, the rise in nationalism has increased tensions between the stateless Rohingya and Buddhist extremists. The Rohingya are described by the UN as the world’s most persecuted minority group.
“All our hopes in the leadership of democratic statesmen have faded away”, said Haji Ismail, representative of the Rohingya community in Thailand. “Indeed we did not hope for this sort of harsh and negative political stance and undemocratic rhetoric from our Nobel peace laureate.”