UPDATED at 10:40 A.M. EST on 2016-06-23
Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi will meet with about 3,000 migrants from her country who work in neighboring Thailand to discuss their concerns about their status and risks during a three-day state visit that begins on Thursday, said the head of an activist organization that advocates for migrant workers.
Aung San Suu Kui, who is also foreign minister and Myanmar’s de facto leader, will address migrant laborers on Thursday evening at Tarle camp in the heavily Myanmar-populated southern Bangkok township of Mahachai, home to one of Thailand’s largest seafood markets.
But only those who hold passports and temporary documents known as pink cards will be able to attend, said Kyaw Thaung, director of Myanmar Association in Thailand (MAT), an organization that provides assistance for trafficking victims.
Thirteen Thailand-based activist groups for workers have been arranging for Myanmar laborers to attend the meeting and ask the state counselor questions.
“Thousands of Myanmar migrant workers will attend the meeting, but because it’s the rainy season, the Myanmar embassy has arranged a hall for Aung San Suu Kyi to speak,” Kyaw Thaung said.
The hall will hold 500 people, while 2,500 others will watch her on large screens outside, he said.
Aung San Suu Kyi last met with Myanmar migrant workers in Mahachai in 2012.
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, with most from the Karen, Mon, and Shan ethnic minority groups.
Many migrant workers are at risk in Thailand of being trafficked as sex workers or for hard labor on fishing boats. Granting the largely undocumented Myanmar workforce in Thailand permanent status has been the subject of negotiations between the two countries.
'Workers are suffering'
Kyaw Thaung said he will submit a proposal to Aung San Suu Kyi to ask Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha to allow migrant laborers from Myanmar to work in Thailand for two or three years without a visa or work permit fees.
“Because Thailand is a rich country, and Myanmar workers are suffering, it would be great if Aung San Suu Kyi could ask the Thai prime minister about that,” he said.
He will also urge her to abolish the memorandum-of-understanding system under which many Myanmar workers have become victims of agencies that engage in human trafficking, he said.
“I will tell her that if she still wants to use this MOU, then please get rid of the agencies for workers and do it government-to-government,” Kyaw Thaung said. “I want Myanmar workers who are in jail as a result of human trafficking to be released as well.”
MOU to be signed
During her trip, Aung San Suu Kyi also will visit a temporary shelter for Myanmar displaced persons in Ratchaburi province in the western part of the country, according to an announcement by the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
On Friday, she will meet Prayut Chan-o-cha to discuss bilateral relations, especially labor and development cooperation.
It is expected that a Memorandum of Understanding on the Labor Cooperation Agreement on Employment of Workers and Agreement on Border Crossing will be signed during the visit, according to an announcement by Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Aung San Suu Kyi will be accompanied by Thein Swe, Minister for Labor, Immigration and Population; Kyaw Win, Minister for Planning and Finance; and Kyaw Tin, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs.
The visit will “signify the deepening Thailand-Myanmar ties and lay a solid foundation for both sides to resolve pending issues and further enhance bilateral cooperation,” the statement said.
She will also meet Foreign Affairs Minister Don Pramudwinai on Friday during a town-hall meeting with Thai university students at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
On May 9, Don Pramudwinai visited Myanmar and met with Aung San Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s upcoming visit to Thailand marks her second foreign trip since her National League for Democracy (NLD) party took power in April.
Pink card validity
After officials from both countries met in late February, Thailand began issuing new pink cards with a two-year validity and eligibility for a two-year extension to give foreign workers with temporary cards more time to obtain regular, legal documents from their home country, according to a March 1 article in the Myanmar Times.
But migrant rights groups say that holders of pink cards, which allow people without documents short-term stays in Thailand, can be deported at random and are vulnerable to arrest or extortion by police, the article said.
Furthermore, the holders are not eligible for social security, leave, workers’ compensation or driver’s licenses, it said.
Many workers had been informed that they must pay 500 Thai baht (U.S. $14) to renew their pink cards before a Thai-imposed deadline at the end of June, plus up to 10,000 baht (U.S. $284) to brokers, the article said.
Concerns about migration policies
Meanwhile, the Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN), a membership-based organization for migrant workers from Myanmar who live and work mainly in Thailand, met U.S. embassy officials in Bangkok on Friday to update the American government on the migrant situation in the country.
The group expressed concern about the country’s migration policies, rule of law, recruitment systems, failure to provide a living wage to workers, absence of social dialogue, and limits on the free movement of workers, according to minutes of the meeting obtained by BenarNews, a sister entity of RFA.
Some of MWRN’s recommendations were that Thailand ensure enforcement of the rule of law to prevent ongoing corruption and ensure compliance with basic labor and social protection laws, put in place simple and inexpensive cross-border labor migration procedures with no recruitment fees to reduce trafficking, and strictly regulate labor recruitment agencies involved in migration processes.
Reported by Zarni Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.