MAE SOT -- While thanking Thai authorities for taking care of refugees from Myanmar for decades, Aung San Suu Kyi vowed on Saturday to do all she could to help them leave.
Amid chaotic scenes at the Mae Lah refugee camp, Suu Kyi stood on a plastic chair and without the aid of a microphone shouted her greetings to the jubilant crowd of 5,000.
"I will try as much as I can for you to go back home," she said.
The Nobel laureate made the pledge while visiting the sprawling camp, home to nearly 50,000 refugees, located 10 kilometers from the border with Myanmar and 60 kilometers from Mae Sot in Tak province.
Many of the refugees in the camp are ethnic Karen who have fled fighting that has continued on and off with government forces for more than half a century.
Suu Kyi said the prerequisites for the refugees' return home were not only peace but also economic conditions that would ensure sufficient employment for them.
"I don't think we need to return the refugees overnight. Because if the conditions are right, the refugees will go back of their own free will," she said.
The visit to the camp was one of the final stops of Suu Kyi's eventful visit to Thailand, her first trip outside Myanmar in 24 years. She was flown into the area by a chartered Nok Air plane at 9.30am and left the airport for Bangkok at 3pm.
Hundreds of journalists clamored to get into the refugee camp but authorities were limiting access. Many managed to gradually sneak inside, mingling with residents while filming and interviewing them.
Streams of people including monks and Muslim refugees zig-zagged across the main football field, waiting for hours to get a glimpse of the famous visitor.
About 250 uniformed officers provided security in the camp while another 600 officials covered the route Suu Kyi travelled. About 100 refugee volunteers also helped keep order and communicate with the waiting masses.
Once inside the camp, Suu Kyi met for about an hour with Thai military, interior and foreign ministry officials. They were joined by the camp committee, NGOs in charge of health and education and the field coordinator of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
Suu Kyi asked a number of questions about education, camp management, hygiene and other health issues.
"She asked if shortcomings in the camp were due to the reduced funding so she could help explain and communicate with the donors when she travels to Europe later this month," said Suriyawongkul Prasatbuntitya, the governor of Tak province.
On hearing that 20% of the camp population did not have schooling, Suu Kyi said she would like to see as many refugees getting educated as possible.
Mae Lah is the biggest of the nine refugee camps located along the Thailand-Myanmar border with population of 49,026. Educational coverage is not universal but there are 68 schools and 20,000 students, Mr Suriya said.
The camp, formally called "Temporary Shelter", was set up at Ban Mae Lah on Highway 105 in 1996 by consolidating refugees from six small centers located next to the porous border since 1984.
The refugee population at Mae Lah comprises 2,115 families (17,021 people)under UNHCR protection, and 2,353 families (9,505 people) categorized as displaced people and political exiles.
However, the majority -- 5,896 families or 22,500 people -- make up a "shadow population" not yet "screened" or verified by the camp committee, said the governor.
After the talks, Suu Kyi went to visit the camp emergency ward, meeting patients, and had a brief lunch inside the sealed area. Before she left the camp, she donated a dozen boxes of snacks and books.
Wherever she stopped and whenever she talked and waved to the refugees, adoring crowds swayed around her. The convoy found it difficult to retreat back to the main road. One woman fainted and another woman became distraught, screaming and kicking the person who carried her away.
Kyi Naing Tun, a member of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy and a camp resident, managed to talk to Soe Win, a security staffer sitting in the slow-moving car carrying Suu Kyi.
"We are very emotional about meeting with the NLD people, especially The Lady. We just want them to know that we want to go back but the country needs to quickly develop democracy," said Kyi Naign Tun, who came to the camp five years ago.
Suu Kyi's initial plan for a formal meeting with representatives of ethnic leaders was cancelled. In the end the event became an informal lunch gathering with them and steered clear of political talk.
Her delegation, including nervous Thai security officials, was treading carefully in light of the fact that Myanmar President Thein Sein had twice cancelled his planned trips to Thailand.
Thein Sein postponed a trip last week to Bangkok, where he was to have attended the World Economic Forum, amid concern that Suu Kyi's visit -- she received a rock-star reception -- would overshadow his.
Thein Sein rescheduled his visit to June 5-7 but then cancelled that trip as well without giving an explanation.
Suu Kyi told the WEF on Friday that foreign investors should proceed cautiously in dealing with Myanmar authorities as the country was just opening up after decades of isolation.
Naing Aung, a member of the Forum for Democracy in Myanmar, said the exile community in Thailand had doubted whether the Myanmar and Thai authorities would allow Suu Kyi to meet with dissidents.
"The last-minute cancellation has confirmed our suspicion about the Myanmar government that they did not want to give her a free hand," he said.
On the way back to the airport, Suu Kyi's car stopped for a few minutes to greet people who gathered near the Mae Tao Clinic, where she initially was scheduled to meet Dr Cynthia Maung, the award-winning founder of the health services centre since 1988.
Speaking to reporters later at the airport, Suu Kyi said she visited the camp to see how people were doing and what could be done to make conditions better for the refugees and for the authorities "because our refugees are visitors and we want to make things easy for the host country as possible".
Suu Kyi said Thai authorities had been very cooperative and kind in enabling her to talk with those who were taking care of refugees' needs.
"I'm very satisfied with the visit in the sense that I've been able to learn a lot of things, but of course, there are many things that have to be done for the refugees and basically [we need] to do something about the situation that has resulted in refugees coming over from Myanmar," she said.
Suu Kyi earlier this week brought the conditions of migrant laborers into focus when she visited Samut Sakhon, where an estimated 400,000 Myanmar nationals work in the fishing industry.
She said she was impressed that both the migrants and the refugees wanted to see the situation inside Myanmar changed.
"We have to provide peace and security (for migrants and refugees)," she said.
She also had a message for young migrants and refugees, saying that if they do decide to return home, they should ask themselves what they could contribute to build their country.
"I'm old fashioned. I believe in duty and would like the young people to foster the sense of duty," she said.
She also defended the ongoing peace negotiations between the ethnic groups and the Myanmar government.
"Of course, peace talks have to be conducted because peace or the lack of it is the main reason why there are refugees," she said.
Regarding the camp's reduced budget from international donors, she said she asked those who looked after the welfare of the refugees and learned that donors were cutting back funds.
"I suggested that they communicate with me and let me know which aspects of camp life are going to be hurt by the curtailing of funds, I think we have to confirm with donor countries ... and see what we can do to remedy the situation."
By Achara Ashayagachat
02 June 2012