Myanmar migrant plight in spotlight as Suu Kyi visits Thailand

PHOTO: Reuters

MAHACHAI, Thailand - Hundreds of migrants from Myanmar gave Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi a thunderous welcome to neighbouring Thailand on Thursday on her first visit since her National League for Democracy swept to election victory in November.

Thailand is home to between two and three million migrant workers from Myanmar, many of whom perform back-breaking jobs most Thais are unwilling to do.

Her visit has prompted renewed calls for better protection of migrant workers, many of whom are undocumented and whom rights groups say are vulnerable to abuse.

"We hope she will pressure the Thai government to have sympathy for us," said Ma Kout Shwe, a steel-factory worker from Myanmar.

Suu Kyi and Thai junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha will on Friday sign a memorandum of understanding to help Myanmar migrants work legally in Thailand, according to a Thai government document distributed before the visit.

Many of those gathered at the Talay Thai market in Mahachai, a fishing port just west of Bangkok, wore t-shirts bearing the words: "We love Aung San Suu Kyi."

Many migrants in Mahachai work on fishing boats or in seafood processing plants. The industry's reputation has been tarnished by instances of human trafficking, forced labour and violence.

Thursday's visit is Suu Kyi's second official trip abroad since the NLD government took office on March 30.

She is making the three-day visit in her official capacity as state counsellor, a position created for her, and as foreign minister. It will mark the first meeting between the democracy icon and members of the Thai military government that seized power in a bloodless May 2014 coup.

The junta has been jittery over Suu Kyi's visit. A press conference in Bangkok on the plight of Myanmar's 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya minority ended abruptly on Thursday after the Thai authorities put pressure on the human rights groups that organised it.

Suu Kyi has been criticized overseas, and by some in Myanmar, for saying little about the abuses faced by the Rohingya, who live in apartheid-like conditions and are seen by many Myanmar Buddhists as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

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