In her first visit outside Myanmar (Burma) in 24 years, pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi received a tumultuous welcome from thousands of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand.
Cheering her every word, with some holding placards which read We want to go home and waving flags, Suu Kyi made a point of meeting with her fellow Burmese, most of whom fled poverty and persecution in their homeland.
Numbering around 2.5 million, the Burmese in Thailand occupy the lowest strata of society and earn meager wages toiling at menial jobs in construction, fishing and factories, often illegally.
Another 130,000 Burmese refugees live in camps in Thailand.
However, the sight of Suu Kyi -- the very symbol of Burma’s long battle against a repressive military regime -- provided some hope for the future.
BBC reported that Suu Kyi spoke from a balcony at a community centre in the humble town of Mahachai, about 20 miles south of the gleaming capital city of Bangkok. She declared: I'm here but I feel like I'm in Burma! The crowd shouted back: Aung San Suu Kyi -- democracy!
Don't feel down, or weak. History is always changing, she added to her fellow countrymen.
Today, I will make you one promise: I will try my best for you.
CBC reported that Suu Kyi also met in person with various migrant workers who discussed the abuse and mistreatment they are subject to in Thailand.
A report by Amnesty International in 2011 noted that Burmese migrants in Thailand are frequently vulnerable to trafficking and extortion by both Burmese and Thai authorities. Thailand was also accused by Amnesty of forcibly repatriating Burmese migrants to their native country knowing full well they faced violence and persecution there.
Burmese who are able to stay and work in Thailand face a multitude of challenges.
“Many foreign nationals [in Thailand]… face discrimination in access to work, industrial accident compensation, and disability registration, and were subject to restrictions on their movements as well as dangerous and unhealthy working conditions,” Amnesty stated.
“Alleged instances of extortion, torture and other violence against migrant workers by both employers and officials, including, in particular, law enforcement officers, were either not investigated or not prosecuted.”
Meanwhile, Suu Kyi is also scheduled to meet with Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and attend the World Economic Forum on East Asia Friday, where she will discuss the changing of role of women in Asia.
After briefly returning to Myanmar, Suu Kyi will then embark on a larger trip to Europe, which will include a stop in Oslo, Norway, to pick up the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded in absentia in 1991. On June 21, she will speak before the British parliament.