MAHACHAI, Thailand – Long a fighter against oppression inside Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi has used her first foreign trip in 24 years to fight for her countrymen suffering abroad — millions of economic migrants unable to work at home but vulnerable to exploitation elsewhere.
On Thursday, she pressed her concerns about the millions of Myanmar migrants living in Thailand in a meeting with the country's deputy prime minister. And for a second straight day, she addressed throngs of migrants in Mahachai, a town southwest of Bangkok that hosts more migrants from Myanmar than any other place in Thailand.
"She can't force the Thai government to do anything, but she can speak on our behalf better than anybody else," said Win Aung, who lost his hand in an accident at a Thai-run shoe factory and is still fighting to obtain employer compensation for it a year and a half later.
"She's the best hope we have for things to change," the 31-year-old said.
Myanmar's sputtering economy, in ruins after half a century of military rule and years of harsh Western sanctions, has forced millions of people to seek jobs abroad. Many crossed the borders illegally to work low-skilled jobs for long hours at pay below their Thai counterparts. They typically lack health and social security benefits, too, and complain of not being paid on public holidays.
Still, many make more than they would back home, and despite the hardships are keen to be employed. Jobs are severely lacking in Myanmar, which lags far behind the rest of bustling Asia.
Thailand alone hosts around 2.5 million migrant workers from Myanmar, and they are believed to make up between 5 and 10 percent of the Thai work force. Most of whom work in industries like fisheries or construction, or in garment factories or as domestic servants. Up to a million of them lack work permits.
Win Aung said he came to Thailand illegally, hoping he'd earn enough money to send proceeds to his family. But after six years, part of it spent at a shrimp processing plant, he has sent barely any.
And now, after his hand got crushed in a machine that molds rubber shoes, his prospects are exceptionally bleak.
"Nobody will hire you if you are disabled," he said, adding that he had no idea what he'd do next. "It isn't much better back home."
A local migrant workers rights group is now helping Win Aung win financial compensation from his Thai employer — $3,300 dollars. The employer has paid half and promised the rest in six months.
On Thursday, Suu Kyi called on Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubumrung to ensure that Thai businessmen do not exploit her countrymen. She recounted familiar stories of abuse, saying employers confiscate passports and other documents illegally to prevent workers from quitting for better-paid jobs. She also complained of the inadequate treatment they receive when injured at work.
Chalerm acknowledged those problems exist, but said "those who are registered to work legally will receive good welfare, like the universal health care scheme, and taken care of."
Andy Hall, a staunch migrant advocate and researcher at the Institute for Population and Social Research at Thailand's Mahidol University, said far more needed to be done to stop exploitation.
"Policy is one thing, but reality is different," he said. "The reality is that migrants are discriminated against and exploited. They're treated as second-class citizens with no status. It needs to change."
In theory, every child has the right to go to school in Thailand — even the children of migrants, Hall said. But there is little or no budget for them, the schools are full, and "the law is not enforced."
Those without proper Thai papers faced shakedowns from Thai authorities, and even the legal process of obtaining a Myanmar passport in Thailand is clouded by mass corruption.
Thailand used to have an almost ad hoc system of registration which allowed abuses but also a certain amount of flexibility. But two years ago, it implemented a new policy to formalize the legal status of migrant workers, forcing them to have their identities verified by their home countries and be issued temporary passports under a so-called Nationality Verification process.
Migrant advocates contend the elaborate registration system does not give Myanmar workers promised benefits but instead forces them to turn to labor middlemen to complete the complicated process, at highly inflated prices.
Speaking in Mahachai on Thursday, Suu Kyi told thousands of cheering migrants she officially came to attend the World Economic Forum for East Asia.
"But the truth is, the most important thing I am doing here is studying the situation of migrants and refugees, to find out how I can help," Suu Kyi said, to resounding applause.
"I want to tell everyone who wants to go back home that I am trying as soon as possible to make our home a place worth living in that nobody should have to leave."
Associated Press writer Grant Peck contributed to this report.