Aung San Suu Kyi met with a few hundred migrant workers from Myanmar during a visit to Thailand on Thursday, while thousands of others waited in the rain outside the factory where she spoke hoping she would address the crowd.
Myanmar’s de facto national leader, who also holds the positions of state counselor, foreign minister, and minister of the President’s Office, met for about 45 minutes with migrant laborers in the Mahachai district of central Thailand’s Samut Sakhon province outside Bangkok.
She is visiting Thailand in her capacities as foreign minister and state counselor.
Aung San Suu Kyi made the stop in Mahachai as part of an official three-day visit to the neighboring country, where she will meet with Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-o-cha on Friday and sign an agreement that will make it easier for Myanmar migrants to work legally in Thailand.
“Burmese people have to live in Thailand as guests, and as such, the hosts will respect the guests,” she told the fewer than 500 migrant workers inside the building. “The Myanmar embassy must help Burmese workers in Thailand.”
Aung San Suu Kyi also told the migrant laborers that she was trying to secure proper identification documents for them to work legally in Thailand.
“We are trying to make sure our citizens obtain their fundamental rights granted by the laws of this country,” she said.
The chosen few
Thirteen Thailand-based activist groups for workers arranged for roughly 500 migrant workers to attend a question-and-answer session with Aung San Suu Kyi inside the factory.
But those who attended were chosen by their Thai bosses, said Htoo Chit, executive director of the Thailand-based migrant rights group Foundation for Education and Development.
“We thought one or two representatives from the 13 Thailand-based activist groups for workers that arranged for the migrant laborers to see Aung San Suu Kyi would have a chance to attend the meeting,” he said. “But it seems only the workers who were chosen by Thai bosses attended.”
“The workers who are really suffering couldn’t see Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said. “That’s why a lot of workers are in front of the hall and are showing their dissatisfaction.”
The discussion was limited partly because those allowed to attend the meeting earn the official minimum wage and have acceptable work conditions, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.
Authorities in Thailand, which has fallen under military dictatorship during the same period that Myanmar has emerged from army rule, prevented labor rights groups from submitting documents to Aung San Suu Kyi about labor rights violations experienced by migrant workers from Myanmar, the report said.
Keep them in line
Meanwhile, hundreds of Thai security personnel were stationed to keep in line thousands of others who waited in the pouring rain for a glimpse of Aung San Suu Kyi, as they chanted her name, waved Myanmar flags, and sang the country’s national anthem.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s office released a statement saying that the state counselor knows very well about the problems that Myanmar migrant workers face in Thailand, and that she was disappointed she could not greet all those who waited for her in heavy rain.
Many migrant workers in Thailand—especially those in the country illegally—are at risk of being trafficked as sex workers or for slave-like labor on fishing boats.
Granting the largely undocumented Myanmar workforce in Thailand permanent status has been the subject of negotiations between the two countries.
But the memorandum of understanding that Aung San Suu Kyi will sign with Prayuth includes provisions to provide proper identity documents for migrant workers and assurances they will be protected from any labor abuses.
Myanmar puts the number of migrant workers living in Thailand at 4 million, with only half legally registered to work there, while Thailand’s Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare puts the number at more than 1.4 million.
Also on Thursday, Thai authorities abruptly prevented human rights groups from holding a news conference in the Thai capital Bangkok on the plight of Myanmar's 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims, saying that the groups could violate the law by causing unrest, international newswire services reported.
Rights groups have criticized Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government for not doing enough to help the stateless and persecuted Rohingya in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, whom the Buddhist majority considers illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Plight of the Rohingya
Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Thailand coincides with a 12-day mission by Yanghee Lee, the United Nations envoy for human rights in Myanmar, who visited Rohingya living in refugee camps in Rakhine’s Sittwe township.
Lee is on her fourth trip to Myanmar to observe the country’s human rights situation especially that of the minority Rohingya Muslims, and to collect information for a report she will submit to the U.N. in September.
About 120,000 Rohingya live in the camps, forced there following communal violence with Rakhine Buddhists four years ago that left more than 200 dead and tens of thousands homeless.
When Lee met with Rohingya in the camps, they told her about the plight of refugees in Rakhine and the impoverished state’s need for development.
Muslim leaders asked her to help remedy the denial of their rights to social services and education, freedom of movement, and business operations.
Lee also met with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists who voiced concerns over her visit, saying that she favors the Rohingya.
“We asked her to submit a fair report with opinions from both sides,” said Kaung San Shee, a Rakhine community leader in Sittwe. “We also asked her to understand the feelings of local Rakhine ethnics.”
“I think it was beneficial to meet with her because we could explain the situation in the state,” he said.
Since Lee’s last trip to Myanmar in August 2015, the NLD government, which came to power in April, has created a committee to work on peace and development in Rakhine.
It also plans to spend more than 70 billion kyats (U.S. $5.9 million) to finance goods and services that promote human resources there.
USDP weighs in
Nevertheless, the government has stirred up controversy by ordering state media not to use the divisive term “Rohingya” during Lee’s visit, and to use the phrase “Muslim community in Rakhine” instead.
On Thursday, the former ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) weighed in on the matter, issuing a statement pointing out that it had clearly objected to the use of the term “Rohingya,” and saying that the current administration should have obtained consent from the ethnic Rakhine people before mandating the use of “Muslim community in Rakhine.”
The statement also urged the NLD government to resolve the problem by using a phrase that is in accordance with Article 364 of the 2008 constitution, which forbids “the abuse of religion for political purposes” and places restrictions on political activities and ethnic groups that have an impact on freedom of religion.
When the USDP ruled Myanmar from 2011 to the end of last March, it did not include the Rohingya on the country’s official list of ethnic groups and refused to accept the term because the majority Buddhists in Rakhine rejected it, the statement said.
Attempts by RFA’s Myanmar Service to contact members of the USDP’s media office for comment were unsuccessful.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Wai Mar Tun RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.