Kyi brings hope for refugees By Brennan O'Connor
Along a bumpy dirt
road leading into the Thai Mae La refugee camp,
excited refugees, holding National League for
Democracy (NLD) flags and posters adorned with
photographs of Myanmar's opposition leader and
Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, wait for
her arrival. It was Suu Kyi's first trip outside
of Myanmar after spending 15 of the past 24 years
under house arrest. The news of her plans to visit
Thailand's largest refugee camp came shortly after
Suu Kyi announced that she would attend the World
Economic Forum (WEF) in Bangkok last week.
About 50,000 people live in Mae La, most
of them Karen who had fled fighting between
Myanmar's armed forces and the Karen National
Liberation Army (KNLA). Shah Ler Moo, 21, came to
Mae La after the Myanmar army burned down his
village in Karen state. His grandfather and
brother were killed during the attack.
Shah Ler Moo was happy
Suu Kyi was coming to the camp.
democracy for our country. I'm hoping she can
help," he said.
Suu Kyi's plane touched
down in Bangkok on May 29 and the next morning she
visited migrants in the Thai port town of
Mahachai. It was her first official public
appearance in Thailand during a five-day hectic
schedule. Thousands of migrants gathered in the
streets and balconies of the factories where they
work, cheering enthusiastically, when Suu Kyi's
delivered a 20-minute speech.
at the WEF, Suu Kyi literally stole the show. "We
have to try and eradicate corruption and
inequality as we proceed towards greater
investment," she said during a closing speech.
Although the Thai government accepted Suu
Kyi's last-minute request to visit Mae La, her
movement during the trip was restricted. She had
to cancel a meeting planned with ethnic leaders
and was not allowed to give a speech to camp
residents. The Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs
issued only five media passes to visit the camp.
This left most of the international press with no
options but to sneak in.
wait for Suu Kyi to arrive at Mae La refugees camp
on June 2.
Kyi arrives at Mae La refugee camp.
Thomas Fuller, of
the New York Times, quoted the governor of Tak
province, Suriya Prasatbuntitya, as saying: "The
Foreign Ministry asked us to keep her visit low
key. Put simply, they didn't want her trip to
become news because they don't want this to affect
our relationship with Burma [Myanmar]."
The Thais were worried about complicating
their new business relationship with Myanmar's
government. As it was, President Thein Sein had
planned to attend the WEF but cancelled his visit
after learning Suu Kyi would be attending. He told
the press he had more pressing matters at
home, although it was widely viewed that he didn't
want to be overshadowed by Suu Kyi.
Although most of the refugees would like
to return to Burma, many don't think it's the
right time yet.
"We want to go home soon,
but there are still many conflicts inside Burma.
There is no guarantee of security for us if we go,
so we need to wait," said Bee Htoo, a second-year
student of Karen Baptist School and College in Mae
The Karen National Union (KNU) and the
Myanmar government have been negotiating a
ceasefire to end more than 63 years of fighting,
but the political situation in ethnic areas
remains fragile at best. Reports have been
circulating of Myanmar's armed forces
confiscating land in Karen state while
negotiations are taking place.
north in Myanmar, in Kachin state, there has been
daily fighting between the Kachin Independence
Army (KIA) and government troops, since a
ceasefire unraveled nearly one year ago. Human
Rights Watch estimates that approximately 75,000
have been displaced by the Kachin conflict.
La residents cheer.
La residents wait to see Suu Kyi.
In Mae La, after a short tour of the
camp's hospital, Suu Kyi was only able to briefly
address the crowd of about 2,000 people, who had
eagerly waited for her arrival. Leaning from her
exiting vehicle, without the aid of a microphone,
Suu Kyi said, "I won't forget you. I will try my
best for you."
her convoy left the camp, hundreds of Mae La
residents pushed past the lines of
police and soldiers to follow her.
Aung San Suu Kyi leaves Mae La refugee
Suu Kyi addresses
the crowd at Mae La refugee camp.
soldiers are reflected on the window of Aung San
Suu Kyi's vehicle as she departs Mae La camp.
O'Connor is a Canadian photographer/writer
based on the Thai-Burma border. His forthcoming
book Beyond Borders will document
minorities from Burma who have been pushed off
their land by the government.
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