Thousands turn up to greet Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi at Thailand seafood market

Migrant workers supporting Aung San Suu Kyi wave to her at the coastal fishery centre of Samut Sakhon, in Thailand, on June 23, 2016.
Migrant workers supporting Aung San Suu Kyi wave to her at the coastal fishery centre of Samut Sakhon, in Thailand, on June 23, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

Thousands of Myanmar migrants gathered in Thailand's Samut Sakhon province to catch a glimpse of their leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday (June 23), at the start of her three-day trip to Thailand.

But the Thai authorities kept them at a distance, bussing in instead a few hundred handpicked workers to interact with the Nobel laureate at a meeting hall in Talay Thai seafood market.

Even migrant welfare activists invited by the Myanmar embassy were shut out.

After interacting for about 40 minutes with the neatly uniformed workers in the hall, she emerged to the cries of "Mother Suu!" by the thousands that had been waiting outside in the driving rain.

 
 

She told migrant labour activist Andy Hall before being whisked away: "Tell all my people I am disappointed I cannot give a speech to them outside today, but I know their problems well!"

Hours earlier, the Myanmar workers massing at the entrance of the seafood market became enraged when they realised they could not enter its compounds.

In response, they began blocking the entry of busloads of workers handpicked to meet the Myanmar leader.

Some 500 policemen were used to control the agitated crowd, who had arrived with Myanmar flags and portraits of Ms Suu Kyi.

Among the disappointed workers was Mr Nay Min Oo, 38, a jewellery factory worker who had waited for eight hours to see her.

"She is a pillar for Burmese people, she helps us stand strong," he said.

One of the employers present inside the hall, Mr Apichit Prasoprat, the general manager of Bis Pipe Fitting, told The Straits Times the restrictions were unavoidable for security reasons. "Maybe some of them came to Thailand illegally," he said. "We have to verify who they are."

More than a million Myanmar migrants work in Myanmar, mainly in construction, agriculture, seafood and service sectors.

Ms Suu Kyi holds the posts of foreign minister and state counsellor - a post specially created to get around a military crafted rule to bar her from presidency. This is her second state visit since her government took over this year from a military administration. Her first was to Laos, which holds the rotating Asean chairmanship. 

On Friday, she is scheduled to meet Thai Premier Prayut Chan-o-cha, and oversee the signing of a labour agreement that would reduce the hurdles needed for migrants work legally in Thailand. An earlier scheduled visit to a refugee camp has been take off her itinerary.

Although her National League for Democracy party swept last November's general election, it is essentially sharing power with a military which by constitution is entitled to a quarter of all parliamentary seats. Cooperation from the military is essential for Ms Suu Kyi were to achieve lasting peace with all the ethnic armed groups in the country - something she has prioritised.

The country's potential has been bright enough to attract US$9.4 billion in investment in the last fiscal year, largely in the oil and gas, manufacturing and telecommunications sectors. But economic and security conditions are still not thought to be conducive enough for the return of some 100,000 refugees massed in Thai border camps.

Middle income Thailand - Myanmar's second largest trading partner after China - is suffering from sagging economic fortunes caused by moribund exports and political uncertainty. The Kingdom has been run by the military since the May 2014 coup, and a draft Constitution to be put to a referendum on August 7 would give the junta broad oversight over a future elected government.

Despite the awkward contrast of the two neighbours' political fortunes, analysts expect Ms Suu Kyi, a democracy icon,  to hold her tongue until her government gets its own house in order.