Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has called for better rights and protection of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand at a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung in Bangkok yesterday.
In an hour long meeting, she pressed Thailand to allow Burmese migrant children to enrol in Thai schools in a bid to improve relations between the two countries.
Yubamrung insisted that Burmese migrant labour is crucial to Thailand’s economy, but asked that the Burmese government provide assistance with the National Verification Process (NVP) – a step required by Thai law to grant migrants legal status to stay and work in Thailand. Around 800,000 Burmese migrants have already passed the NVP, he said, adding that a 300 baht (USD 9.41) daily minimum wage for all registered workers will take effect in June.
The scheme has however courted criticism from human rights groups, who warn that it could make Burmese migrants, especially the stateless Rohingya, even more vulnerable to abuse. A deportation threat currently looms for migrants who fail to register by 14 June.
Migrants in Thailand make up about five percent of the county’s workforce, and provide a crucial pool of labour for low-skilled, often dangerous, industries such as fishing and construction. Up to three million people, or about 80 percent of the migrant population, are estimated to come from Burma. Many occupy a quasi-legal existence in the Kingdom that creates problems when attempting to access healthcare, accident compensation and legal assistance.
Migrant’s rights have been high on Suu Kyi’s agenda during her first trip abroad in 24 years. The democracy icon spent her first day addressing a crowd of migrants in Mahachai, home to some 300,000 Burmese. “We have to protect, not only the Burmese migrants’ rights but also every worker’s rights, at our best within the boundaries of the law,” Suu Kyi said. ”Let me tell you that we will never forget you. We will address your concerns.”
As promised Suu Kyi presented many of the complaints raised by the Burmese migrant community, including work place abuse, marginalisation and employer exploitation, to Yubamrung, who insisted that many of these issues had already been addressed.
Suu Kyi also urged the Thai government to help facilitate third country resettlement for some of the 150,000 Burmese refugees living on the border region, though insisting it must be on a strictly voluntary basis.
A number of groups along the border have expressed concern about the possibility of forced eviction or repatriation ahead of Suu Kyi’s scheduled visit to Mae La refugee camp on Saturday.
The camp’s chairman, Saw Htun Htun, told DVB that it was not yet safe for them to return home. “We do want to go home of course but we don’t think the reforms taking place in Burma can provide a safe enough environment for us yet. So we will raise this with Daw Suu.”
This view was supported by the Karen National Union (KNU). General Secretary Naw Zipporah Sein said: “We would like to address [Suu Kyi] about the refugee situation. The KNU does not think it now is time yet to repatriate the refugees since we are still engaged in the talks and the political issues have not been address yet.”