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Suu Kyi gets top marks in Thailand

Thai Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, right, looks on as Burma's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi speaks to reporters in Bangkok on 24 June 2016. (Photo: MOFA)

The visit by Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi last week was useful, instructive and certainly a success. Clearly, she considers Thailand a key to her own country’s future. She took positive steps and proposed clear advice and policy regarding migrant workers and refugees. At the same time, she was extremely forthright in dealing with the military regime under Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. Suu Kyi, for the three days she was in Thailand, was business-like and repeatedly got to the point.

The trip last Thursday to Samut Sakhon was an emotional moment, but also much more than that. Suu Kyi visited the migrant workers who make the fish-packing industries thrive, fulfilling her promise from 2012 to return as the leader of a democratic Burma. She also had an important message for both the workers and their host. Workers must respect Thailand, even love it, and behave properly. Those wise words were followed by serious discussions.

Suu Kyi was unsatisfied with the state of migrant workers in Thailand where the Burmese embassy is concerned. She learned from NGO leaders including Sein Htey, president of the Migrant Worker Rights Network, that workers have little trust in the embassy. She subsequently told the embassy staff they must improve relations with migrant workers by being more efficient and dealing with problems faster. Suu Kyi has taken on the role and duties of foreign minister. She clearly intends to try to fix that problem, probably behind closed doors.

With Gen Prayut, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai and others, Suu Kyi had frank discussions, which seemed cordial and agreeable. She said that she hoped for better accounting of Burmese citizens migrating to Thailand. She also criticised the slow and expensive red tape and travel they encountered. With Thai officials already moving on some of those problems, there was plenty of agreement between the two sides.

These and other events made Suu Kyi’s visit to Thailand a success. She showed the importance she places on Thai relations by putting this country second on her visit list, after Laos, the current president of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Neighbours may have disputes from time to time, and disagree on priorities. But Suu Kyi has got Thai-Burmese relations off to an excellent start.

Her visit will, however, add fuel to the complaints of her critics. Since coming to power in last November’s overwhelming election victory by her National League for Democracy party, Suu Kyi has disappointed some people, both in her country and abroad. She rose to power because of her unflinching demands for democracy in Burma. She won a Nobel Peace Prize and underwent punishment and humiliation that few people could have endured. However, some of the democratic sheen has worn off.

The main criticism of Suu Kyi is her refusal to address serious human rights abuses inside Burma. The best known of these is her rather imperious orders to guests and hosts — including the Thai government — not to raise the question of Rohingya abuses, and indeed not to use the word “Rohingya” in her presence. She also has turned her eyes from the call for “Buddhist violence”, particularly against Muslims, in particular by the so-called 969 Movement of the pro-violence monk Ashin Wirathu.

Last week, in central Burma, there was yet another riot, yet another mosque burnt, yet more Muslims forced from their homes by mob attacks. Instigators turned a dispute between a Muslim man and a Buddhist woman into a religious riot. There were no deaths this time, but recurring incidents and almost non-stop hate speeches are making for a dangerous situation. Suu Kyi must step in. More than her reputation is at stake regarding escalating violence.

This editorial originally appeared in The Bangkok Post. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.