Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi kicked off her historic first trip overseas in more than two decades with a visit to meet Burmese migrant workers in Thailand on Wednesday.
Hundreds of people packed a narrow street in Samut Sakhon province south of Bangkok, where the opposition leader, who has ventured abroad for the first time since 1988, was due to address them.
Cheering Burmese migrants held up banners with Suu Kyi’s picture and signs in Burmese and English that read “Free Burma” and “We want to go home.”
“I am very happy and I want to cry. I feel that we will get democracy in Burma,” said Phyu, who has been in Thailand for six years.
Suu Kyi’s foray onto the world stage is a significant indication of confidence in dramatic changes that have swept her homeland since a near 50-year military dictatorship was replaced with a quasi-civilian regime last year.
The former political prisoner, who won a seat in parliament in historic April by-elections, is expected to meet the Thai prime minister and attend the World Economic Forum on East Asia during several days in the country.
Her decision to begin the trip by meeting some of the hundreds of thousands of Burmese migrants, who work in low paid jobs in Thai homes, factories and fishing boats, shines a global spotlight on a group that has long been marginalized and prone to exploitation.
Thailand’s workforce is heavily reliant on low-cost foreign workers, both legal and trafficked, with Burmese nationals accounting for around 80 percent of the two million registered foreign workers in the kingdom.
Migrants in the crowd said they hoped Suu Kyi’s visit would help improve their lot in Thailand.
“It would be great if she could do more for us. We want to get the same wages as Thai workers and I hope she can arrange this for us,” said Kyi Lwin, a 33-year-old factory worker.
But others said their sights are set on a return to Burma.
“Most of the workers here want to go back home but we can’t afford that. There are no jobs back there and it’s difficult to eat, difficult to live,” said Aung Htun, 28, a rice mill worker.
Migrant rights activist Andy Hall, who is helping to organize the visit, said Suu Kyi would meet Burmese nationals with an array of experiences — from those trafficked and sold into modern day slavery on Thai fishing boats, to those able to make money and settle down with their families.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Japan’s Kyoto University, said the veteran activist was looking to “reconnect her lost connection with those who live outside the country”.
“There are a lot of Burmese exiles in Thailand, Burmese dissidents and immigrant workers, that is why she chose to go there,” he said.
Suu Kyi’s ventures overseas, which also include a European tour in June, are seen as the completion of her transformation from prisoner to global politician.
The 66-year-old, who spent 15 of the past 22 years under house arrest, refused to travel abroad in the past even when the former junta denied her dying husband a visa to visit her, because of fears she would never be allowed to return.
Suu Kyi also said she would meet refugees in the north of the country, where roughly 100,000 Burmese live in camps after being displaced by conflict in Burma’s eastern border areas.
She is scheduled to speak at an open discussion with World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab and appear on Friday at a session on the role of Asian women.