Mixed Feelings for Suu Kyi’s Mae La Visit

By Brennan O’Connor 31 May 2012

Burmese pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s expected visit to Mae La refugee camp on Saturday has provoked mixed feelings from residents.

The Nobel Laureate is currently in Bangkok to attend a meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) but will travel to the town of Mae Sot, by the Thai-Burmese border, at the weekend to meet displaced civilians in the vicinity.

Ethnic Karen leaders invited Suu Kyi to Mae La, boasting a population of 50,000 and the largest of nine camps along the frontier, so she can learn more about the lives of the approximately 140,000 refugees living in the area.

Mae La resident Naw Mu Kpaw is happy about Suu Kyi’s visit but does not understand the purpose of her trip—thinking she will perhaps try to convince local people to return to Burma.

“Suu Kyi is working for the people of Burma, all of the people, not only the Karen,” she told The Irrawaddy. “But she needs to know about the problems affecting our people. We have to hide in the forest from the Burmese armed forces after they attack our villages. Many of us have even been used as forced labor.”

Despite several ceasefire agreements being signed between the Karen National Union (KNU) and Burmese government since January, Naypyidaw continues to send troops to Karen State, she added.

“Suu Kyi spent many years being captive but now the Thein Sein government allows her into Parliament. How she can have any real leverage?” asks Naw Mu Kpaw.

“Suu Kyi can’t change the system from within while she is under the Thein Sein government. The Burmese and Thai governments want to do business so they are using her because people believe in her.”

Maung, a former 7th Brigade soldier for the KNU’s military wing, the Karen National Liberation Army, also wonders why Suu Kyi is coming, but unlike Naw Mu Kpaw he is not interested in hearing what she has to say.

“If she comes I’m not going to see her,” he says, rubbing his elbows together—all that is left of his arms after a landmine he was removing exploded three years ago. Now he lives at Care Villa, a support center for amputees. “If she comes to help our people get freedom then that is good.”

Maung explained that there still is not peace in ethnic areas despite favorable news about democratic reform from central government, and conflicts must be stopped all over Burma rather than just Karen State.

“Suu Kyi is a democratic leader so if she doesn’t talk about the conflict in Kachin State what can she do for the Karen?” he asked. “After she comes here she must go there and stop the fighting. If she does that, I will believe she really is sincere.”

News of Suu Kyi’s visit to Mae La came shortly after she announced her intention to attend WEF in Bangkok on Thursday. Her trip has been heralded as a historic new era for Burma as she previously refused to leave the country, even when her husband Michael Aris died in 1999, for fears that the previous ruling military junta would prohibit her return.

Saw Tun Tun, chairman of Mae La Refugee Camp Committee, believes Suu Kyi is genuine. “She knows a lot about the Karen people. Recently Suu Kyi met with our Karen peace delegation,” he said.

“It is her first trip out of the country and the first time she will come to a refugee camp. We are very happy to have the opportunity to welcome her. Suu Kyi represents hope for so many people. There’s going to be huge crowd of people who will come to see her. It’s going to be an exciting day for us.”

Saw Tun Tun was a medical student in Rangoon during the 1988 student protests. During that year, he returned to his hometown Pa-an, capital of Karen State, to help organize demonstrations against the regime. But the prospective doctor was forced to flee to Thailand in 1990 when the Burmese authorities started closing in.

Karen community leaders will share information and discuss the possible repatriation of refugees during Suu Kyi’s visit, he said, adding that there still needs to be further change before it is safe to go home.

“We still don’t completely trust the government,” said Saw Tun Tun. “Right now it’s only a ceasefire and can be easily broken. Fighting could start up again. For repatriation to happen, we need peace and security along the border. We hope that after the 2015 elections we will get a democratic government. Then we could go home.”

Paw K’Tar Moo is a student at Mae La who came to the camp after hiding in the jungle for several days when government troops burned down her village in 2006.

The 21-year-old knows about Suu Kyi from radio news reports but did not realize that she was coming to the area. “If I can see her I will be very happy,” she said.