NLD leader hit many hurdles on Thailand visit, but faces bigger barriers back home
Last month, Aung San Suu Kyi visited Thailand for the first time as State Counsellor and Foreign Minister. She had two key motives for the visit. One was to talk with Thai authorities about giving fair and equal wages to Burmese workers who officially work in Thai industries and food chains. The second was to draw up an appropriate plan to resettle the Burmese refugees in Thailand, who have many ethnic backgrounds, such as Mon, Karen, Kayah, Shan and Burman.
On her three-day visit, she met Burmese migrant workers at Mahachai in Samut Sakhon. Thai officials decided only 500 workers could meet her, saying the limit was for her safety. But when she arrived, only 100 migrants were allowed to meet her – and they were selected by Thai authorities and factory owners, not Myanmar workers’ associations. Thousands of people had hoped to see her and were willing to tell her about poor working conditions, but many were unable to do this.
Authorities restricted access to Suu
It appears that the authorities intentionally blocked people who planned to talk about the difficulties that Burmese migrant workers face in Thailand. Thus, one of Suu Kyi’s main goals – in meeting migrant workers and listening to their difficulties, then discussing them with the Thai prime minister, to get fair treatment for her citizens, was undermined.
Under military rule, Myanmar’s generals didn’t worry about creating jobs for the growing population and university graduates. This led to millions of people leaving to seek jobs in neighbouring countries. Jobs were only created for retired army officers; former regimes put them into civilian administration. And under dictator Gen Than Shwe, the army ordered its regional commanders to seek their own food – many years ago. This lead to the confiscation of farmers’ land so soldiers could plant rice to eat. Land confiscation became widespread and many farmers lost land. Commanders later leased confiscated land back to farmers to get rice or cash. Farmers changed from being land owners to landless farm workers for the army. Many were forced to leave and work illegally in Thailand and Malaysia.
One of the duties that Suu Kyi has is helping Burmese ethnic refugees to resettle in Myanmar. She planned to see a refugee camp on the border but Thai officials cancelled her trip for security and other reasons (“poor weather”). So, her attempt to meet and speak with refugees failed.
One reason why refugees were eager to see her is they have high hope she could help their miserable lives, as Myanmar embassies around the world under the former dictators rarely helped their citizens abroad.
Myanmar people never expected to get help. But when Suu Kyi visited Thailand, they hoped she may be the one who could end their suffering. Some were crying when they found they had no chance to meet her. Most of our people are not happy working in Thailand but they have no choice, as there are few jobs at home.
The big problem on the border is how to resettle the ethnic refugees. Suu Kyi had planned to visit Mae La, one of the biggest camps, which had over 50,000 people living there at one stage, but she was not able to do so. Most residents have lived in the camp for more than two decades; their children were born in the camp and are now beyond teenage years. They are not Thai and were not born in Myanmar but their parents left – fled from being tortured or killed, leaving their farmland and property. Their kids are fluent in Thai but barely speak Burmese. The refugees have no right to work in Thailand and depend on The Border Consortium – funded by the US, EU, plus other foreign groups – for food and other support. To resettle 100,000 refugees is a big challenge for Suu Kyi and her government. They will have to provide living places, create jobs, build hospitals, roads, provide transport, water, etc.
The good thing is Suu Kyi and the Thai PM signed an agreement on labour issues to get equal rights with the Thais according to Thai law. But migrant workers will still face bullying by factory owners and ill-treatment by some authorities. To stop this the Myanmar Embassy needs to protect its own people.
Suu Kyi must also deal with major internal problems and will need to compromise in every sector with the Army commander Min Aung Hlaing. Even though, her party, the National League for Democracy, won a huge victory in the election last year, in reality two governments are running the country. One is her party and the other the military. While the military-backed party lost the election, the Army chief has total control over civilian administrators, the armed forces and police – not President Htin Kyaw and State Counsellor Suu Kyi.
Another headache for ASSK is the crisis in Rakhine state.
One striking thing is former Army general and ex-House Speaker Thura Shwe Mann wrote a note on Facebook to greet Army cadets from the military academy’s intake No.11 on their 47th graduation celebration. He urged Military Academy graduate “brothers” to work with the current government – despite the army backing its opponents, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Shwe Mann was a rival of former president Thein Sein but suffered a surprise coup from the army before the election. After the election and USDP loss, Thein Sein fired Shwe Mann and his clique. But Shwe Mann was appointed by Suu Kyi as chairman of the law advisory committee for parliament. His Facebook note was copied and published in the ‘Seven Days’ journal with the heading “ Shwe Mhann encourages military graduates to cooperate and work with the current government”. This spurred Yangon Army commander Major Lin Tun to file a case against the ‘Seven Days’ journal at Kamayut township on June 25, citing article 131 of the Criminal Code. This refers mostly to Army, Navy, and Airforce personnel who try to split army unity or create a mutiny within the armed forces. If the court believes that ‘Seven Days’ is guilty of this charge, the editor and journalist could be charged with high treason – and face a life sentence or 10 years jail plus a fine. The ‘Seven Days’ editor quickly apologised said they had no ill intent to split the Army.
‘Seven Days’ did nothing wrong. This was a letter written by a former general who encouraged military graduates to cooperate with the new government for the good of the country. It was not ill-intentioned, but in line with the Suu Kyi’s repeated talk about national reconciliation. The rift between the army and democratic forces needs to be healed. Everyone wants to see the government and army working hand-in-hand. But some in the army are not ready to cooperate with the ruling party. That means Suu Kyi has a lot of work to rebuild the country.
Htun Aung Gyaw is a Burmese critic and journalist.