MAHACHAI, Thailand (Reuters) - Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi received a rapturous reception in Thailand on Wednesday from crowds of cheering compatriots who flocked to celebrate her first trip outside Myanmar in nearly a quarter of a century.
More than 1,000 Myanmar migrants lined the streets waving flags and holding aloft pictures of Suu Kyi as she arrived to give a speech from the balcony of a dilapidated building in an industrial zone on the fringes of the Thai capital, Bangkok.
Suu Kyi, who will visit refugees from Myanmar in border camps later on her four-day visit, had refused to leave her country, also known as Burma, for fear of being blocked from returning by the former military junta whose rule she challenged.
Dressed in a floral blouse and red traditional longhi, or sarong, Suu Kyi waved and smiled as the crowd chanting “Mother Suu” jostled for a glimpse of her.
Labour activists estimate there are at least two million Myanmar migrants in Thailand, many sending home part of their wages to help families in a country where a third of the 60 million people live below the poverty line.
Suu Kyi said she would work to improve the rights and working conditions of Myanmar migrants.
“I’ve said this time and again - I don’t want to make promises. It’s not good if you cannot keep your promises after you’ve made them, But I can make you one promise - I will try my very best,” Suu Kyi told the crowd, speaking in Burmese.
”I wish the migrant workers from Burma good health and wealth, that they be free from danger and can come back home as soon as possible.
Suu Kyi meeting fellow citizens in another country would have been unimaginable 18 months ago, when she was released from house arrest days after an election seen as rigged to favour an army-backed party to entrench the military’s grip on power behind a facade of democracy.
“WAITING 25 YEARS”
But the quasi-civilian government which emerged from the vote, although approved by a parliament packed with retired and serving military, has surpassed expectations in introducing a series of reforms to try to rid the country of its pariah status after decades of isolation and decay.
“This is the first time in my life that I got to see her, I’ve been waiting 25 years for this moment,” said one migrant worker.
“I want to ask Mother Suu to help the country to progress and develop. I believe she can bring that change. I want the country to develop faster. I just want to go home.”
Such comments reflect the weight of expectation on the shoulders of the 66-year-old Suu Kyi, who has long been seen as Myanmar’s sole hope for democracy due to her steely defiance during years of dictatorship.
She became a member of parliament this month following her triumph in a parliamentary by-election that reformist president and former junta general Thein Sein had convinced her to take part in after winning her trust.
Suu Kyi made a low-key arrival in Bangkok late on Tuesday. She is due to attend a World Economic Forum on East Asia and will address the conference on Friday.
On Wednesday, she urged the workers to learn their rights to avoid exploitation. She said she hoped economic conditions would improve in Myanmar so they could eventually return.
Economic sanctions and gross mismanagement by military juntas have squeezed Myanmar’s economy, but the recent suspension of many of the U.S. and European embargoes once backed by Suu Kyi is expected to bring a deluge of investment in the resource-rich and strategically located country.
Suu Kyi is due to have talks with Thai opposition leader and former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva later on Wednesday but will not get to meet Thein Sein in Thailand. He had been due to attend the economic forum but postponed his visit to next week, without explanation.
Next month, Suu Kyi is due to visit Switzerland, Norway and Britain. She will address an international labour conference in Geneva on June 14 and give a speech to Britain’s parliament.
Thailand is the first country Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero, Aung San, has seen she left her home in Britain in 1988 temporarily - she thought - to return to Myanmar and take care of her dying mother. She arrived just as a student-led democracy uprising was erupting.
Suu Kyi was persuaded to lead the movement against dictatorship and was first placed under house arrest in 1989. She spent 15 of the next 21 years in detention and declined opportunities to leave, even when her British husband, Michael Aris, was diagnosed with cancer. He died in 1999.
Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel