Suu Kyi Assures Burmese Refugees

Ending a nearly week-long visit to Thailand, the opposition leader grapples with a massive Burmese refugee problem.

2012-06-02
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Aung San Suu Kyi speaking to Burmese refugees at the Mae La camp on Thailand's border.
RFA

Aung San Suu Kyi visited a sprawling Burmese refugee camp in Thailand Saturday at the end of her first foreign trip, assuring the 100,000-odd refugees in the country that she would strive to alleviate their plight with the help of Thai authorities and the international community.

She was given a rousing welcome by the refugees at the Mae La camp, where she met community leaders who briefed her on the health and other problems confronting them.

“I won’t forget you. I will try to help as best I can with your health care needs, I will try my best for you,” Suu Kyi said without the aid of a microphone, her voice drowned by the cheering crowd kept at bay by a large team of security personnel.

RFA reporters at the scene said the refugees, cramped inside the camp of bamboo and thatched huts, had waited for three hours under the intense sun to catch a glimpse of the 66-year-old Nobel laureate.

Speaking at a press conference at Mae Sot Airport before returning  home, Aung San Suu Kyi said that she had focused on the twin issues of Burmese migrant workers and refugees during her talks with leaders in Bangkok.

“These two issues are the most serious issues, and I discussed the refugees’ situation and the conditions that resulted in them becoming refugees,” she said, adding that she was satisfied with the talks.

"I will do whatever I can to help solve these two issues as soon as possible,” she said. “At this stage, it is only a discussion. No outcome has been achieved yet.”

Efforts must be made to create conditions in Burma that will enable migrant workers and refugees to return home, she said.

International help

Saw Tun Tun, the chairman of Mae La refugee camp, said Aung San Suu Kyi assured them that she would raise the refugee issue with the international community.

The camp is located on the Thai border where up to 140,000 Karen refugees sought shelter after fleeing a war fought by the ethnic group seeking greater autonomy since Burma obtained independence from Britain in 1948 — one of the longest-running insurgencies in the world.

The Karen National Union signed a pact with Burma's reform-minded government in January this year in a move that raised hopes of a permanent end to one of the world's oldest civil conflicts.

The government of Burmese President Thein Sein negotiated a ceasefire agreement with the rebel Karen National Union (KNU) in April amid plans to repatriate the refugees before the rainy season this year, presumably in June.

Reports indicate that Thai and Burmese officials have been engaging international organizations to assist in the process.

But nongovernmental organizations caution that no repatriation should take place before the peace process between the government and the KNU is guaranteed.

May Phaw Kyi, a 37-year-old Karen refugee who arrived in the camp in 2006, said Aung San Suu Kyi gave her hope of a return to her village.

"We want to go back to our village to be reunited with our parents, brothers and sisters. We can if we get democracy," Agence France-Presse quoted her as saying.

Migrant workers

Preecha Jaipetch, the head district officer of Mae Sot, said the Thai government is working on a policy to improve the situation of Burmese migrant workers, whom Aung San Suu Kyi visited in the Thai town of Maha Chai, outside Bangkok.

He said that the policy would include setting a minimum wage for legal Burmese workers that will be equal to that of Thai citizens. This policy will be implemented within three to five years, he said, according to the exile Irrawaddy online journal.

Many of the 2.5 million Burmese migrants in Thailand came illegally to take up low-skilled jobs as domestic servants or in manual labor industries like fisheries and the garment sector. They typically lack health and social security benefits.

Aung San Suu Kyi arrived in Thailand on Tuesday for a six-day official visit—her first abroad since being released in November 2010 from nearly 15 years of house arrest over the past two decades.

On Friday, she told a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Bangkok that Burma needs to commit to lasting reforms that will weed out corruption and draw foreign investment which can create jobs to defuse an unemployment "time bomb."

“We want a national commitment to become firm. Without this national commitment we cannot go forward,” she said

Reported by RFA's Burmese service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.

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