Only now does Aung San Suu Kyi really seem to feel free. After more than two decades keeping herself “prisoner” inside Burma, the Noble Peace Prize winner will leave her homeland to visit neighboring Thailand.
Although Suu Kyi was under house arrest for 15 out of the last 24 years, her captors always indicated she was free to leave the country. The ruling generals of the former junta were desperate to be finally rid of The Lady and so weaken the “troublemakers” she led.
Suu Kyi’s fear was that she would not be allowed to return to Burma. The military leaders of the time thought that if she was outside the country the democracy movement she joined in 1988 would die down. That is why Suu Kyi chose not even to visit England for the funeral of her late husband, British scholar Michael Eris, who died of prostate cancer in early 1999.
The political reforms initiated by President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government since last year seemed to have convinced Suu Kyi that she can now travel freely both inside Burma and abroad.
Even before the 66-year-old actually arrives in Bangkok late on Tuesday, she has already stirred enormous excitement within the Burmese community in Thailand as well as other people such as diplomats due to hear her address the World Economic Forum (WEF) on East Asia later this week.
And personally the trip will surely be exciting—it will be a vastly different world Suu Kyi encounters today than when she left England in 1988 to take care of her ailing mother at their family home by Rangoon’s Inya Lake.
In the middle of June, Suu Kyi will also visit Switzerland, Norway, the UK and Ireland. She will give a speech at the International Labor Organization conference in Geneva and later address the British Parliament—a rare honor only reserved for distinguished figures such as South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela and US President Barack Obama.
These meetings will present Suu Kyi with a good opportunity to learn first-hand the different perspectives of world leaders and scholars, while also lecturing them on the true political situation in Burma.
Tuesday’s trip to Thailand will resemble a fact-finding visit should she decide to visit her many countrymen living in the Kingdom. From exiled Burmese dissidents and migrant workers to refugees dwelling in temporary camps by the border, practically everyone is hoping to see the democracy icon.
Since her release in late 2010, Suu Kyi has been busy meeting diplomats, international dignitaries and assorted world leaders. But she has never had a chance to meet exiled dissidents—most of whom have decided not to return home without an official amnesty and formal procedures despite the president’s repeated invitations. And Suu Kyi has likewise never seen any of the refugee camps or harsh working conditions of economic migrants.
There are crucial lessons she can learn by experiencing these places. On Wednesday, Suu Kyi is likely to visit Samut Sakhon where hundreds of thousands of Burmese migrant workers toil in unforgiving circumstances.
Unconfirmed reports suggest that she will also visit Mae Sot, a stronghold of political dissent, as well as nearby Mae La refugee camp—the biggest of nine border camps in which around 140,000 Burmese nationals have taken refuge for years due to political persecution and ongoing conflicts between government troops and ethnic armies.
Many want to go home, but do not think that the political or economic situation on the ground in Burma has improved sufficiently to herald their return.
“We all want her to visit here. If she visits our camp, we want to tell her to create a political climate for us to be able to return home. We want to go home,” Saw Tun Tun, the ethnic Karen leader of Mae La Refugee Camp, told The Irrawaddy. “We want her to hear our voices from our heart and see how difficult life is here.”
Saw Tun Tun and his family have lived in the camp for two decades after he fled his home in Karen State to avoid possible arrest for his involvement in the nationwide democracy uprising of 1988 during which he was a medical student.
“In short, there is no safety for us back in our homes over there,” said the camp leader, in his early 40s. “Maybe we might all go home if the 2015 election produces a genuine democratic government.”
He added that for refugees to return home must entail three stages—preparations in the camps, returning to Burma and reintegration back into their old communities. Saw Tun Tun desperately wants Suu Kyi to hear these views from his camp.
Htoo Chit, the director of the Grassroots Human Rights Education and Development project based in southern Thailand, also wants Suu Kyi to meet Thai labor associations, academics, activists and politicians who can help improve conditions for the couple of million Burmese migrant workers who often face exploitation and abuses by their employees.
Suu Kyi is due to meet Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra as well as opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva and it is hoped she will bring up this thorny issue.
Some exiles say they feel left out of the reform process as they are unable to return home yet. They have many things to discuss with Suu Kyi, but it is not certain if she will be able to have separate meetings with all exiled and ethnic leaders.
Moe Zaw Oo, a leading member of the National League for Democracy (Liberated Area) based in exile, sees Suu Kyi’s trip as a multipurpose—to attend the WEF and meet the Burmese diaspora in Thailand.
“If she can manage to visit migrant workers’ sites and refugee camps, she can observe the two biggest issues among the Burmese community in Thailand,” said Moe Zaw Oo, who used to work with Suu Kyi as a youth leader at her Rangoon party headquarters after 1988.
The hope is that if Suu Kyi meets Saw Tun Tun in Mae La Camp and hears his views as well as other representatives of migrant worker groups and exiled dissents then she might come up with concrete ideas regarding how to help solve these urgent issues and urge Thein Sein’s government to speed up its reform.
“I believe that Amay [mother] Suu will take our voices and feeling to President U Thein Sein and the Parliament,” said Saw Tun Tun. “To date, things are not ready for us to return home.”