Mahachai, Thailand. When word got out that Aung San Suu Kyi, the long-imprisoned democracy campaigner, would visit this gritty town on the Gulf of Thailand, the mood became electric in the massive fish and shrimp processing plants where some Burmese workers eke out a living and where she is a heroine to many.
For Wai Wai Khaing, who has spent the past 12 years working long hours gutting fish, the news was almost too much too handle. “I cried at work, and then I cried at home,” she said. “I cried when I made rice. I cried when I washed clothes. Tears came every time I thought about her coming.”
Wednesday was Suu Kyi’s first full day outside Burma in 24 years, and for a woman who has sacrificed her family life to bring democracy to her people, it seemed fitting that she began the day among the downtrodden.
Her visit to this obscure corner of Thailand offered an escape from the drudgery of long days of repetitive work and stingy bosses.
Many in the crowd repeated the word used so often in the context of Suu Kyi’s years of campaigning for democracy: hope.
If her mission was to lift their spirits, it seems to have succeeded.
“Being here is the best thing that has ever happened to me in my life — including passing my exams in school,” said Pyae Sone Nyein, a 23-year-old woman who works in the family business, importing squid from Burma, also known as Myanmar. “I never dreamed I would see Mother Suu.”
Unbothered by the searing sun, the crowd welcomed her with loud cheers, chants and song. Some carried bouquets; others clutched single roses. Some carried signs that said, “We want to be cradled in your arms, Mother Suu.”
“There is no need to feel sad or depressed living in a country that is not yours,” she told the crowd from a third-floor balcony of a building above the crowded streets.
More than 2 million Burmese workers are estimated to live in Thailand, and many occupy the bottom rungs of society.
In Mahachai, workers gut fish and peel shrimp for 300 baht, or about $10, a day. Much of the nearly 580 tons of shrimp exported from Thailand every day passes through their hands and ends up in supermarkets in the United States, Europe and Japan.
Workers live in mold-stained tenements, and the smell of fish wafts through the town with every breeze.
Suu Kyi told the crowd that one day their status would be raised, that their country would rejoin the ranks of Asia’s up-and-coming economies.
“History is fluid, and it is always changing,” she said. “Please believe that as our country’s situation gets better and develops more, our value as workers will increase, and people’s perspectives on us will also change for the better.”
She advised the crowd to know their rights and encouraged them to speak out about abuses.
“I would like to let you know that you are not forgotten,” she said.
The words resonated with women like Wai Wai Khaing, whose hands were shaking when she talked about her life in the cannery. “I’m very angry about how we are being treated,” she said. “I hope Daw Suu can help address this.”
Suu Kyi arrived in Thailand on Tuesday night, her first foreign trip since beginning her campaign against military rule in Burma in 1988. Her trip to Thailand, hastily planned, includes attending a conference sponsored by the World Economic Forum and a trip to a refugee camp along the border with Burma.
She will return on Sunday to Burma, where she was recently elected a member of Parliament, a new phase after her long years under house arrest under the former military junta.
Wai Wai Khaing and her colleagues have cellphones, email accounts and the other trappings of modern communication. But when the first rumors surfaced this week that Suu Kyi might visit, word spread quickest the old-fashioned way: by word of mouth.
Suwannee Rujanisarakul, a Thai marketing manager for King Fisher, a company with three factories and 5,000 workers here, said her Burmese employees breathlessly asked for Wednesday off.
‘’I asked them why,” she recounted. “They said, ‘My mother is coming from Burma! My mother is Aung San Suu Kyi!’”
Burmese workers in the factory have been captivated by the changes in Burma in recent months, Suwannee said.
When Suu Kyi was elected to Parliament in April, workers rejoiced.
“All the migrant workers here were so excited,” she said. “They told me, ‘Now we’ve got democracy.’ ”
Workers at the King Fisher factory peel shrimp in vast quantities. Depending on the size of the shrimp, each worker goes through about 11-33 pounds an hour.
Those who do the work regularly are often injured on the job.
“May you prosper with health, wealth and be free from danger,” Suu Kyi said before leaving on Wednesday. “And may you be able to come home soon.”
The New York Times