By Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Patpicha Tanakasempipat
MAHACHAI, Thailand (Reuters) – Hundreds of migrants from Myanmar on Thursday gave Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi a thunderous welcome on her first visit to neighboring Thailand since her National League for Democracy swept to election victory in November.
Thailand is home to between two million and three million migrant workers from Myanmar, many of whom do back-breaking jobs most Thais are unwilling to do. Suu Kyi’s visit has prompted renewed calls for better protection for the workers, who are vulnerable to abuse, rights groups say.
“We hope she will pressure the Thai government to have sympathy for us,” said Ma Kout Shwe, a Myanmar steel-factory worker in the crowd at the Talay Thai market in Mahachai, a fishing port just west of Bangkok, the capital.
Suu Kyi and Thai junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha will sign a pact on Friday to help Myanmar migrants work legally in Thailand, according to a Thai government document distributed before the visit. Many of the workers are undocumented.
Their enthusiasm undimmed by the rain, the crowd chanted “Mother Suu” after Suu Kyi, dressed in a traditional blue dress, met workers and responded to questions.
In Mahachai, migrants man the fishing boats and work in seafood processing plants. Thailand is one of the world’s top seafood suppliers, but the industry’s reputation has been tarnished by instances of human trafficking and forced labour.
The three-day visit to Thailand is Suu Kyi’s second official trip abroad since the NLD government took office on March 30.
It will see the first meeting of the democracy icon and members of the Thai military government that seized power in a bloodless May 2014 coup.
She is visiting in her official capacity as state counselor, a position created for her, and as foreign minister.
The Thai junta has been jittery over the visit. A press conference in Bangkok on the plight of Myanmar’s 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya minority ended abruptly on Thursday after the Thai authorities put pressure on the human rights groups that organized it.
Suu Kyi has been criticized overseas, and by some in Myanmar, for saying little about the abuses faced by the Rohingya, who live in apartheid-like conditions and are seen by many Myanmar Buddhists as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
(Additional reporting by Andrew R.C. Marshall and Juarawee Kittisilpa; Editing by Simon Webb and Nick Macfie)