SAMUT SAKHON, Thailand — Despite around ten thousand Burmese migrant workers in Thailand waiting hours—under both the hot sun and, later, rain—for the opportunity to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, less than five hundred were ultimately permitted to do so.
This caused widespread frustration at the Talay Thai Seafood Market in Mahachai, and led to the deployment of almost 1,000 security personnel by Thai authorities to quell any agitation, although the crowd remained peaceful.
Many of the migrants had reportedly traveled from all over Thailand to Mahachai, a port town in Samut Sakhon province about 45 kilometers southwest of the Thai capital of Bangkok. Those who were allowed to meet with Burma’s de-facto leader had been bused in under the approval of Thai authorities and wore stickers demonstrating their permission to enter the factory.
Zin Mar, a garment worker in Bangkok’s Bang Khae district, expressed her disappointment over not being able to meet Suu Kyi: “I came here at six in the morning, but only saw her from far away.”
On Suu Kyi’s arrival at the Mahachai market on Thursday afternoon, the Burmese migrant workers followed and waited outside, waving flags and singing the Burmese national anthem, as they were told that she would be addressing the crowd.
But heavy rain—a common afternoon occurrence during Thailand’s monsoon season—prompted Suu Kyi to abandon course.
During her later meeting with the several hundred selected factory workers, Suu Kyi said, “My visit to Thailand mainly aims to deepen mutual understanding and friendship between the two countries.”
“I want to listen to the voices of our citizens,” Suu Kyi said. “I request you to speak frankly about what you expect us to do for you. But make sure you make reasonable demands. If you make unrealistic demands, we can only reply that it is impossible.”
Suu Kyi said that they were trying to secure proper identity documents for migrant workers, including passports and formal Certificates of Identity, and the Thai government did not object to such plans.
“We are trying to make sure our citizens obtain their fundamental rights granted by the laws of this country,” Suu Kyi said.
However, according to the few journalists who had access to the meeting, there was not a great deal of productive discussion—in part because, at the factory in question, workers were earning the official minimum wage and had an acceptable working environment.
Deeper concerns among the Burmese migrant community, and the activities of labor rights groups, were reportedly not discussed.
On the grounds of security, Thai authorities had effectively blocked access to Suu Kyi for labor rights groups and NGOs. Labor rights groups had prepared documents to hand to Suu Kyi, but did not succeed in doing so; they also said they felt as though the Thai government did not want to hear about the labor rights violations experienced by migrant workers from Burma.
Ma Oo of the Burma Association Thailand said she was pushed away when she tried to give a letter to Suu Kyi on her way out.
Ma Thida, who works at a chicken processing factory in Mahachai, shared her frustration on Thursday morning that she had been restricted from engaging with Suu Kyi along with thousands of other Burmese migrants.
Hailing from Taungdwingyi Township in central Burma’s Magwe Division, she said, “We do not get full labor rights,” and explained that many migrant workers must take on extra jobs on weekends as wage laborers.
Thailand-based migrant rights campaigner Andy Hall wrote on Twitter that he had briefly spoken with Suu Kyi in Mahachai: “Andy, tell all my people I am disappointed I cannot give a speech to them outside today, but I know their problems well!” she reportedly said to him.