Myanmar refugees in Thailand cheer Suu Kyi
06/02/2012 11:18 GMT
by Hla Hla Htay
Mae La Camp, Thailand, June 2, 2012 (AFP) - Aung San Suu Kyi was given a rapturous welcome Saturday by thousands of Myanmar refugees forced by fighting and rights abuses in their homeland to live in a Thai border camp.
Amid chaotic scenes, Suu Kyi stood on a plastic chair and without the aid of a microphone shouted her greetings to the jubilant crowd at the Mae La camp, in northwestern Thailand.
"I will try as much as I can for you to go back home," she said.
"I will try to help as best I can with your healthcare needs," she added, pledging that "I will not forget you all".
It was the first time the Nobel laureate has met any of the estimated 140,000 refugees in Thailand, casting a light on their conditions after years of war and poverty that has driven them from their homes in Myanmar.
Suu Kyi's trip to Thailand has seen her charm global business leaders gathered in Bangkok for a forum and draw thronging crowds on visits to the kingdom's Myanmar communities.
The veteran activist met camp leaders for 90 minutes and then delivered her brief message as refugees, many waving flags and wearing traditional dress, chanted "Mother Suu".
Mae La camp, home to nearly 50,000 refugees, is mainly populated by ethnic Karen people displaced by a vicious war that has rumbled on since 1949.
The Karen National Union signed a pact with Myanmar's reform-minded government in January in a move that raised hopes of a permanent end to one of the world's oldest civil conflicts.
Its armed wing has been waging Myanmar's longest-running insurgency, battling the government in the eastern jungle near the Thai border -- one of several rebellions in the ethnically diverse nation.
The camp, an ordered sprawl of bamboo huts topped with thatched roofs, is ringed by a perimeter fence, and security checkpoints keep residents in and unwanted visitors out.
Vast numbers of people fled the Myanmar government's counter-insurgency campaign, which rights groups said deliberately targeted civilians, driving them from their homes, destroying villages and forcing them to work for the army.
May Phaw Kyi, a 37-year-old Karen refugee who arrived in the camp in 2006, said Suu Kyi's fight for democracy gave displaced people hope of returning home.
"We want to go back to our village to be reunited with our parents, brothers and sisters. We can if we get democracy," she said.
Years of war have left the Karen region littered with landmines while development has been held back, leaving dilapidated infrastructure and threadbare education and health services.
Tin Shwe, a 53-year-old Karen who has lived in the camp for 15 years, said that in addition to conflict, a lack of basic facilities in Karen villages had forced people to flee.
"We cannot even send our children to school. That's why we came here," she said, adding she hopes to return in four or five years "if the situation gets better."
After visiting the camp, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner headed back to Bangkok, where she will stay for the remainder of her trip before flying back to Yangon early Sunday.
After her Thai trip, Suu Kyi will next leave Yangon for Europe, where she will deliver an address in Geneva and head to Oslo to finally accept her Nobel Prize.
She also intends to travel to Britain, where she lived for years with her family, and will address parliament in London.
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