Suu Kyi meets her people in Thailand

A Myanmar migrant worker holding up a portrait of Ms Aung San Suu Kyi while waiting for her arrival at a market in Samut Sakhon province near Bangkok yesterday.
A Myanmar migrant worker holding up a portrait of Ms Aung San Suu Kyi while waiting for her arrival at a market in Samut Sakhon province near Bangkok yesterday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

She meets Thai PM today to sign pact giving migrant workers smoother access to jobs

Visiting Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi begins bilateral meetings in Bangkok today with an eye on improving the lot of her countrymen working in Thailand, thousands of whom gave her a rousing welcome yesterday.

There are more than a million Myanmar labourers in the kingdom, most of them in sectors such as construction, agriculture and seafood.

Thousands thronged a seafood market in Samut Sakhon province near Bangkok to catch a glimpse of the Nobel laureate, who headed there shortly after touching down at Suvarnabhumi airport at the start of her three-day visit.

But only a few hundred handpicked by the Thai authorities were allowed into a hall in the Talay Thai market to see Ms Suu Kyi. Even migrant welfare activists invited by the Myanmar embassy were shut out.

After spending about 40 minutes with the neatly uniformed workers, she emerged to the cries of "Mother Suu" from the thousands who had been waiting outside in the 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."

The high-profile trip is her second state visit since her government took power this year from a military administration. Her first was to Laos, which holds the rotating Asean chairmanship.

Ms Suu Kyi, who holds the posts of foreign minister and state counsellor - a position specially created to get around a military-crafted rule to bar her from the presidency - was accompanied by Myanmar's labour and finance ministers.

Today, she is scheduled to meet Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o- cha, and oversee the signing of a labour agreement that would cut the hurdles needed for migrants to 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 is constitutionally entitled to a quarter of all parliamentary seats. Cooperation from the military is essential if Ms Suu Kyi were to achieve lasting peace with all ethnic armed groups in the country - something she has prioritised.

Myanmar's potential has been bright enough to attract US$9.4 billion (S$13 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 deemed conducive enough for the return of some 100,000 refugees massed in Thai border camps.

Middle-income Thailand, Myan- mar'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 Aug 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 to hold her tongue until her government gets its own house in order.

"She will not express any comment or objections to the existing Thai military government," Myanmar political commentator Yan Myo Thein told The Straits Times.

This will be made easier by the fact that there are no plans for press conferences or media interviews during her time in the kingdom.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2016, with the headline 'Suu Kyi meets her people in Thailand'. Print Edition | Subscribe