Jubilant Burmese migrant workers greeted Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday morning, who told them she is working to make it possible for them to return home.
Thousands of local people and migrant workers packed a narrow street in Samut Sakhon near Bangkok to hear her speak during her first foreign trip in 24 years.
Standing on the balcony of the Library and Office of the Migrant Worker Rights Network building, she told the migrant workers that she came to Thailand to learn about their conditions first hand.
Suu Kyi invited the representatives of 30 migrant workers to a discussion on worker’s challenges in Thailand. Migrant workers discussed problems of access to accident compensation and the workmen’s compensation fund, exploitation by job brokers in the Nationality Verification (NV) process, human trafficking problems and access to education for migrant workers’s children in Thailand.
They also said many workers underwent the NV process, but they were not eligible to take part in the social security system. Migrant workers also told Suu Kyi about the plight of crime victims who endure rape and robbery.
Suu Kyi acknowledged the issues and urged migrant workers in Thailand to seek their rights and to shoulder that responsibility. She said migrants should unite and give mutual support, and that she would talk to the governments of the two countries to seek solutions to such problems.
“I will never forget you, and I will discuss your troubles with the Thai government to help improve your well-being,” the National League for Democracy Party leader said. “I ask you to be patient and please work to your full potential as assigned by your employers. I'll try to develop our country so you can come back home and apply your skills and knowledge and make our country prosper."
Suu Kyi, who will speak to the World Economic Forum on Friday in Bangkok, will meet with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, the former prime minister.
She told a crowd of thousands, “Don't feel down, or weak. History is always changing.”
“Today, I will make you one promise: I will try my best for you,” she said.
After speaking to the crowd, the Nobel Peace Prize winner met with migrant workers who told her they faced mistreatment from employers but lack knowledge of their rights and have no legal means to settle disputes.
Thailand hosts around 2.5 million Burmese who have fled here to work low-skilled jobs as domestic servants or in manual labor industries like fisheries and the garment sector.
Andy Hall, a researcher at the Institute for Population and Social Research at Thailand's Mahidol University, said up to a million of them are undocumented, and they make up between 5 and 10 percent of the Thai work force, contributing as much as 7 percent of the nation's GDP.
Many are exploited and paid reduced wages, he said. Some have been trafficked; some have had their passports confiscated by employers. Hall said they were nevertheless “the lifeblood of a lot of the Myanmar economy, sending home money to support families who don't have enough money to eat.”
“They have no voice, they can never speak up or stand up,” Hall said. “So for Aung San Suu Kyi to visit is like a dream come true, someone who finally may be able to bring attention to their suffering.”
About 30 km southwest of Bangkok, Samut Sakhon is home to tens of thousands of Burmese migrants, documented and undocumented, who are the primary labor force in Thailand's fisheries industry.
Since becoming a Member of Parliament, this is Suu Kyi first trip abroad after spending 15 of the last 24 years under house arrest.
Following her trip to Bangkok, she is scheduled to visit Norway, Britain, Ireland and France, according to a NLD spokespersons. First, she will return to Burma before heading to Oslo, Norway, where she will receive her long-delayed Nobel Peace Prize.