Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s opposition leader, has visited an ethnic Karen refugee camp on the Thai border, telling thousands of people that their plight has not been forgotten.
Inside the Mae La refugee camp, home to about 45,000 people who have fled war at home, she stood on a plastic chair and addressed the cheering crowds without the aid of a microphone.
“I will try as much as I can for you to go back home.” she shouted. “I will not forget you all.”
Refugees waved flags and chanted: “Long live Mother Suu.”
The part of the Thai border where the Mae La camp is located is home to up to 140,000 Karen refugees.
The Karen have been waging a war for greater autonomy since Burma, as Myanmar used to be known, obtained independence from Britain in 1948, one of the longest-running such conflicts in the world.
Her six-day journey to Thailand is the first trip abroad in 24 years for Suu Kyi, who this year made the transition from former political prisoner to opposition parliamentarian.
In recent weeks, the group has been in negotiations with the government to end the fighting.
Last month, leaders from the Karen National Union met President Thein Sein’s military-backed government as well as Suu Kyi to firm up a ceasefire they agreed to in January.
Millions of migrants
Suu Kyi also visited the town of Mahachai, outside Bangkok, home to Thailand’s largest population of Myanmar migrants.
Many of the 2.5 million migrants crossed the borders illegally to work in low-skilled jobs for long hours at pay below their Thai counterparts. They typically lack health and social security benefits.
Myanmar’s economy, in ruins after half a century of military rule and years of harsh Western sanctions, has led to huge unemployment and has forced millions of people to seek jobs abroad.
Suu Kyi has repeatedly said she believes Sein is truly committed to democratic reform, but this week she warned the international community to exercise caution and a “healthy scepticism,” saying the nation’s all-powerful military was still a force “to be reckoned with”.
Suu Kyi spent 15 out of 22 years locked under house arrest by the former military regime.
Even when she was not under house arrest, she refused to leave the country because she feared the former ruling generals would not let her return.
She was granted freedom after Myanmar held elections in 2010 and was elected to parliament in April.
Suu Kyi is due to return to Myanmar on Sunday, but next month she flies to five countries in Europe, including Norway, where she will formally accept her Nobel Peace Prize, 21 years after winning it.