(AFP) – May 29, 2012
BANGKOK — Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is set to kick off her historic first trip overseas in more than two decades with a visit to meet Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand on Wednesday.
The opposition leader, who has ventured abroad for the first time since 1988, is expected to visit members of the Myanmar community in Samut Sakhon province, south of Bangkok, according to local activists.
Suu Kyi's foray on to the world stage is a significant indication of confidence in dramatic changes that have swept her homeland since a near 50-year military dictatorship was replaced with a quasi-civilian regime last year.
The former political prisoner, who won a seat in parliament in historic April by-elections, is expected to meet the Thai prime minister and attend the World Economic Forum on East Asia during several days in the country.
Her decision to begin the trip by meeting some of the hundreds of thousands of Myanmar migrants, who work in low paid jobs in Thai homes, factories and fishing boats, shines a global spotlight on a group that has long been marginalised and prone to exploitation.
Thailand's workforce is heavily reliant on low-cost foreign workers, both legal and trafficked, with Myanmar nationals accounting for around 80 percent of the two million registered foreign workers in the kingdom.
Migrant rights activist Andy Hall, who is helping to organise the visit, said Myanmar workers had told him they had "dreamed of meeting her their whole lives".
"The chance to meet one of their heroes, it means so much to them," he told AFP.
He said Suu Kyi would meet Myanmar nationals with an array of experiences -- from those who have been trafficked and sold into modern day slavery on Thailand's notorious fishing boats, to those who have been able to make money and settle down with their families.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Japan's Kyoto University, said the veteran activist is looking to "reconnect her lost connection with those who live outside the country", which is also known as Burma.
"There are a lot of Burmese exiles in Thailand, Burmese dissidents and immigrant workers, that is why she chose to go there," he said.
Suu Kyi's ventures overseas, which also include a European tour in June, are seen as the completion of her transformation from iconic prisoner to global politician.
The 66-year-old, who spent 15 of the past 22 years under house arrest, refused to travel abroad in the past even when the former junta denied her dying husband a visa to visit her, because of fears she would never be allowed to return.
She will meet Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra during her trip but the timing has yet to be confirmed, the premier's secretary general Thawat Boonfeung told AFP.
Suu Kyi is also expected to travel to the north of the country to meet some of the roughly 100,000 refugees living in camps who have been displaced by conflict in Myanmar's eastern border areas.
She is scheduled to speak in an open discussion with World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab and appear at a session on the role of Asian women on Friday.
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