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Thailand – leaders balance between migrants and the military

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Giles Ji Ungpakorn looks at the visit to Thailand by Burmese pro‑democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi
Issue 2306
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After years of house arrest, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s first foreign visit was to neighbouring Thailand.

Two images stand out.

The first is of her addressing thousands of Burmese migrant workers in the south-western town of Mahachai.

Up to three million Burmese migrants work in Thailand and Suu Kyi pledged to fight for their rights and those of other migrant workers.

Throughout Thailand’s industrial zones they work alongside Thai workers. But they face severe racism and terrible working conditions.

While needing Burmese labour, Thai governments and employers have pursued a policy of forcing most to live and work illegally so that their wages can be held down.

It doesn’t help that many Thai trade union leaders refuse to unite with their Burmese brothers and sisters.

Despite this there have been a number of important strikes by migrant workers, especially in factories along the Thai-Burmese border.


The second image is of Suu Kyi shaking hands with Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. These two women were both elected to office by pro-democracy movements—but they could not be more different.

Suu Kyi spent years in detention. Businesswoman Yingluck never made such a stand and is leaving Thai pro-democracy prisoners to rot in jail.

The elections in Burma in April were important. But they were not a “first step” towards democracy.

The Burmese constitution says that a quarter of the 664 seats in parliament are reserved for appointed military officers.

The military organised dirty elections in 2010 and occupied most seats. This year’s election only covered 45 seats.

The generals can sack the government if there are any “threats to stability”. In addition, the government doesn’t control the military or appoint ministers for the interior, defence or borders.

Unfortunately Suu Kyi is going along with this charade by stressing the need for “reconciliation” with the military.

The Thai government, despite being elected by millions of pro?democracy Red Shirts last year, is also singing the song of “reconciliation with the military”.


This means Thai generals will not be prosecuted for killing unarmed demonstrators in 2010.

It also means political prisoners are to remain in jail. And the government is increasingly using a law that bans criticism of the monarchy to persecute activists.

Suu Kyi’s election victory is to be welcomed. But she has a history of demobilising mass movements.

Her National League for Democracy has refused to use this golden opportunity to mobilise pro-democracy activists outside parliament in order to overthrow the military dictatorship.

The task of organising a real struggle against the military, both in Burma and Thailand, will have to be carried out by activists independent of Aung San Suu Kyi or Yingluck Shinawatra.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a founding member of Turn Left Thailand. He lives in exile in Britain. Read other articles on his website

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