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 Burma.
Her visit came on the last full day of her first overseas foray for 24 years, during which she has charmed global business leaders gathered in Bangkok for a forum and visited the kingdom’s Burma communities.
Suu Kyi met camp leaders for 90 minutes and then delivered her brief message as refugees, many waving flags and wearing traditional dress, chanted “Mother Suu” in Burmese.
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 this year 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.
Driven from their homes
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 Burma 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 gave her hope of a return to her village.
“We want to go back to our village to be reunited with our parents, brothers and sisters. We can if we get democracy.”
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. – Sapa-AFP