Suu Kyi's Message That Nobody Heard

By Saw Yan Naing 5 June 2012

MAE LA, Thailand—They waited in the searing heat for hours, but when Burma’s pro-democracy heroine Aung San Suu Kyi finally arrived the majority barely caught a glance at her, never mind speak to her and tell her about their plight.

The schedule was botched, security was intimidating, and in the end almost everybody at Mal La refugee camp and in the western Thai town of Mae Sot was left disappointed.

Mae La is the largest refugee camp along the Thai-Burmese border with a population of nearly 50,000 mainly ethnic Karen refugees. About 2,000 had crowded around the camp’s football park from 7:30 in the morning—most dressed in traditional Karen costume; mothers carried babies; schoolchildren had made up signs and posters to greet the Nobel Prize winner.

But when Suu Kyi’s convoy finally reached the pitch, a heavily armed security detail, arranged by the Thai police and military, blocked the well-wishers from getting close to the vehicles.

Naw Wah Ku Shee, an advocate from the Karen Women’s Organization, said, “We are not really satisfied because we didn’t get a chance to talk to her and give her our messages. Many refugees wanted a chance to finally speak out about their difficulties and concerns.”

“I think too many security guards were deployed,” she added. “The Thai authorities seemed to control the entire trip.”

Just ahead of Suu Kyi’s arrival at the Mae La football park, local security guards apprehended about 10 photographers and journalists, including an Irrawaddy reporter and accompanying photographer, for unknown reasons and ushered them out of the camp.

Inside Mae La, children waited along the dirt-track roadside clutching flowers to present to the pro-democracy icon. They cheered and waved as she addressed them standing on a chair. No stage had been set up, neither was she permitted to use a microphone. Few could see her in person; fewer still could hear her amid the chaos.

At one point a journalist from Thailand’s Channel 3 passed her a mic. She took it, but then immediately passed it back when she realized it belonged to a news agency.

“As we don’t have a mic, I am going to have to shout,” she called out, almost inaudibly, her small figure almost swallowed up by the sea of burly soldiers around her. “They didn’t provide us [a microphone] so what are we supposed to do?

“I won’t forget any of you. I will try my best for you!” she shouted, but her voice was smothered.

Journalists were refused the opportunity to ask questions or to arrange photo-ops with The Lady. Some in the crowd called out in Burmese: “Amay [mother] Suu, please speak to us!”

Naw Day Day Poe, the coordinator of social welfare in Mae La camp, said, “We really adore her [Suu Kyi] and support her. But I was not really satisfied about the arrangements for this visit. The organizers didn’t properly inform the camp authorities.”

Suu Kyi’s controversial trip to Mae La refugee camp was initiated by a breakaway faction of Karen rebels—the Karen National Union/ Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council, better known as the Karen Peace Council (KPC) led by Htain Maung and Timothy Laklem, the current spokesperson for the KPC.

Many refugees in the camp voiced opposition to Htain Maung and Timothy who they said were overly keen to take credit for Suu Kyi’s visit but who had failed to make the proper arrangements with the respective Thai authorities.

A few days ago before the visit, a group of Burmese and Thais, including Suu Kyi’s aide Khun Thar Myint—who has close ties with Timothy—secretly entered the camp to arrange Suu Kyi’s trip without informing the Thai military. In fact, several groups and individual refugees complained that they would not support the visit if the KPC were seen as its sponsors. At one point, protests against Suu Kyi’s visit were even discussed.

Community-based organizations in Mae La complained that they had been forbidden by the Thai authorities to distribute leaflets—detailing concerns over refugee repatriation—to Suu Kyi.

Two days after Suu Kyi’s historic visit to Thailand, a saying was circulating the town: “The Lady of Burma missed the Lady of Mae Sot.”

They are, of course, referring to Mae Sot’s internationally acclaimed physician, Dr Cynthia Maung, whose selfless devotion to thousands of Burmese patients over the past 24 years have made her a celebrity—frequently likened to Mother Teresa.

Dr Cynthia’s Mae Tao clinic in Mae Sot provides health care and medical treatment free to the poor, the displaced and to migrants, and has become one of the symbols of Burma’s exile movement since 1988.

A visit to the clinic is an almost obligatory part of any itinerary for diplomats, journalists, celebrities and international figures when they visit the area.

Suu Kyi—or more correctly, Suu Kyi’s organizers—disappointed many when her convoy failed to make a courtesy call at the clinic, which had decorated its entrance with a large poster reading: “You are cordially welcome—the leader of the people of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi.”

According to an agenda circulated among the media, Suu Kyi first planned to meet with ethnic and opposition leaders in Mae Sot and to pay a visit to the Mae Tao clinic to meet Dr Cynthia.

The last-minute cancellation was apparently due to the time spent at Ma La—some three hours—according to Timothy Laklem.

Others, however, said that the Thai authorities had totally rejected Suu Kyi’s meeting with the ethnic leaders in Mae Sot and with Dr Cynthia due to pressure by the Burmese government.

Reports quickly surfaced that the Burmese government had sent a letter to their Thai counterparts asking them not to facilitate such meetings for Suu Kyi.

The governor of Tak Province, Suriya Prasatbuntitya, was quoted in The New York Times as saying that Thailand’s Foreign Ministry asked local authorities to keep her visit “low-key.”

However, when an Irrawaddy reporter returned to Mae La camp on Sunday, the day after Suu Kyi’s visit, the head of camp security said that the Thais had been “very worried” about Suu Kyi’s security while she was touring the camp.

While Suu Kyi’s convoy made its way around Mae La, the Thai police had alerted the security guards to the “possibility” of an incident, and said that they had been warned that a group of five men—four Burmese and one Karen—had sneaked into the camp to assassinate Suu Kyi.

“Some feared another Depayin,” said Ahh Mu, the head of Mae La security, referring to the infamous massacre in central Burma in 2003 when Suu Kyi’s convoy was attacked.

The armed security guards who escorted Suu Kyi’s convoy could be seen scouring the surrounding rooftops and high positions. Sources in Mae Sot said the local authorities were worried that their image would be damaged if anything happened to Suu Kyi on Thai soil.

Soe Aung, a spokesperson for the Forum for Democracy in Burma in Mae Sot, said, “There was some dissatisfaction with the management of the trip, but we now realize that interference by Naypyidaw and attempts to isolate her from Burmese groups made the trip even more complicated.”