By SUPALAK GANJANAKHUNDEE
MYANMAR State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi will face the tough issue of Rohingya refugees when she lands today in Bangkok for her first official visit to strengthen ties with Thailand.
While many observers look at her as the leader of the first civilian and elected government in half a century in contrast to her Thai counterparts in the military government, Suu Kyi, also foreign minister, chose to pay more attention to the fate of Myanmar citizens in Thailand.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said yesterday that Suu Kyi’s visit to Thailand was as a guest of the Thai government, not as a democratic icon.
“Previously [in 2012], she visited as a democratic leader, but today she is a representative of Myanmar’s government,” he told reporters.
The visit, which ends on Saturday, will highlight Myanmar migrants and refugees to illustrate the good governance of the new civilian government, said Dulyapak Preecharush, a Thammasat University expert on Southeast Asia.
Bringing with her ministers including the labour minister, as her position is equivalent to a prime minister in her country, would mean solving plenty of leftover problems regarding migrant workers with her Thai counterparts, he said.
The Myanmar delegation will sign pacts of cooperation covering migrant workers, employment and border crossings to improve the working conditions and living standards of millions of Myanmar workers in Thailand.
Suu Kyi’s government took the issue of migrant workers as a national priority and put it into the context of relations with Thailand, Dulyapak said.
More than 1.4 million migrants from Myanmar legally live and work in Thailand, but it is estimated that millions more are illegal and receive poor treatment at the hands of employers and Thai authorities.
Suu Kyi will visit thousands of Myanmar workers in the seafood centre of Mahachai today to show she cares for them as well as to inform them about the latest developments at home after her government assumed office in April. She had gone there once in 2012 when she was in the country for the World Economic Forum.
However, the urgent issue for Suu Kyi is the plight of the hundreds of Rohingya refugees detained in Thailand for illegal entry after taking the dangerous boat trip across the Indian Ocean years ago.
Suu Kyi, who insists on referring to them as “people who believe in Islam” rather than Rohingya, as they wish to be called, is under pressure and there remains no clear solution on how to deal with the Muslim minority at home, Dulyapak said.
A group of social workers in Thailand called upon the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and democracy icon to address the Rohingya issue properly during her visit.
However, authorities forced two groups – the Coalition on the Rights of Refugees, and Stateless Persons and Asylum Access Thailand – to cancel their planned press conference today, citing security reasons. The press conference was aimed at drawing Suu Kyi’s attention to the plight of the Rohingya.
This visit is a great opportunity for people from Myanmar to draw to Suu Kyi’s attention the struggle of the Rohingya, who have for generations considered Myanmar as their homeland, the group said. Access to Myanmar nationality and basic rights have been denied to them, they added.
For decades, thousands of Rohingya have been forced to flee their homeland to become workers or victims of human trafficking in neighbouring countries including Thailand, they said.
A government official said the Rohingya issue would not be on the table during the meeting between Suu Kyi and Prayut.
A plan for her to visit refugees in Ratchaburi’s Ban Tham Hin on Saturday was cancelled due to bad weather, according to Foreign Ministry spokesman Sek Wannamethee.
Thousands of Rohingya fled from difficulties in the western state of Rakhine after poor treatment and communal conflict with majority Buddhists.
Their journey ended up in prison as illegal migrants in many countries in Southeast Asia, including Thailand.