Suu Kyi’s Message to Migrants Resonates in Cambodia

Almost eight months after her election victory, Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi last week made an emotional journey to Bangkok, meeting with some of the more than 2 million migrants who have fled to Thailand to work as low-paid laborers.

Ms. Suu Kyi said she told the workers she hoped the situation in Burma was improving fast enough that they could soon return home and find work there—a message of optimism that elicited dramatic scenes of huddled Burmese workers crying in the rain as she spoke.

Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during a meeting with migrant workers outside Bangkok on Friday. (Reuters)
Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during a meeting with migrant workers outside Bangkok on Friday. (Reuters)

The speech also resonated with a more unlikely audience: those active on Cambodia’s thriving Facebook scene, where Ms. Suu Kyi’s message—translated and distilled to the simple “Come, let’s go back home” and superimposed on images of her talking—has spread rapidly since Saturday.

With some 600,000 Cambodians having left their families for higher wages in Thailand, despite frequent reports of abuse and poor working conditions across the border, Ms. Suu Kyi’s message hit a raw nerve.

“It is not only the language of a leader, but the language of a mother who has a bit of compassion for her children. There are not many of this type of leader. I’d like to see Aung San Suu Kyi visit Cambodia soon,” wrote Preap Kol, director of Transparency International Cambodia.

Mr. Kol’s message, posted on Saturday next to images of crying Burmese workers at Ms. Suu Kyi’s speech, drew 5,000 “likes” and 2,000 shares. It spurred a deluge of other posts, most borrowing the trope of Ms. Suu Kyi as a mother figure who, in contrast to Cambodia’s leaders, cares deeply about the plight of migrant workers.

“When I think about how Aung San Suu Kyi…came to ask her children in Thailand to go back to their home, my heart was in great pain and wondering when our children will have the opportunity to go back home,” wrote CNRP lawmaker Ou Chanrith.

“These are the words of Burma’s leader Aung San Su Kyi,” he said. “So what about Cambodia?”

The necessity for young people to leave their families and communities to find a living wage overseas has become a pressing political issue, one that has not been helped by the often slow response from Cambodian officials when the workers end up being abused.

Such complaints about government inactivity have only been made worse by revelations that relatives of top government officials own some of the firms that recruited Cambodians to work as maids in Malaysia, where some of the worst cases of abuse has reportedly occurred.

“We haven’t seen our current leaders having the same philosophy or having the same mindset as Aung San Suu Kyi,” Mr. Kol said by telephone on Tuesday, explaining the wide appeal of her message.

“Our current leaders encourage people to migrate and are very proud to boast that Cambodians migrating overseas have lifted economic growth.”

Mr. Kol said he had no doubt the remittances were helping impoverished families in Cambodia but added that the potential pain of such jobs—being physically or sexually abused, underpaid, overworked or imprisoned—remained with workers.

“Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians have migrated abroad, and many have faced serious consequences. Some of them, especially in Thailand, are abused or exploited, and that’s why Aung San Suu Kyi’s language touched the hearts of Cambodians,” Mr. Kol said.

“Her message was very touching…because everyone understands that as a migrant worker you are not protected and suffer from abuses,” said Moeun Tola, head of the labor rights group Central, from Malaysia, where he was working on the maid issue.

Mr. Tola said the reaction of many Cambodians was not about Ms. Suu Kyi literally inviting workers home but the idea that growing opportunities in Burma allowed her to essentially threaten Thailand over its poor treatment of Burmese migrants, a pillar of the country’s workforce.

That contrasts with Cambodia’s government, he said, which in December signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Malaysia to restart the export of Cambodian maids to the country despite ongoing claims of abuse at the hands of their employers.

“It’s completely different from when Aung San Suu Kui goes to Thailand and says: ‘OK, let’s go back home.’ It pressures the Thai government to give more protections for the workers’ rights, because the Thai businesses mostly rely on these migrant workers,” he added.

“If they left, and the Cambodians left, the business would face a lot of issues,” he said. “Even I am not from Myanmar, but it was very touching and I almost cried, as it showed a responsible leader.”

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said he could not support any appeal to bring migrant workers home, adding that many of the Burmese in Thailand had in fact fled violence in their home country and were not simply looking for better jobs.

“We do not take as an example Aung San Suu Kyi,” Mr. Eysan said, explaining that the government was actively searching foreign labor markets to make up for the lack of opportunities in Cambodia.

“Every country has migrant workers, the same as each other,” the spokesman said. “We find labor markets abroad for our people, but we ask that our people go to work there in a legal manner.”

La Matin, an adviser in the labor department at the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok, said Ms. Suu Kyi’s appeal for returns was intended to please her many supporters among the Burmese workers in Thailand and should be taken with a grain of salt.

“This was a political message of Aung San Suu Kyi because she did this in connection with her political interests,” he said. “Migration is a natural current. It’s not a bad thing. What’s bad is if they come illegally.”

Mr. Matin said Cambodian officials had been working with Thai authorities to help stamp out abuse of migrant workers by Thai businesses and that he could not discourage Cambodians from going to work there.

“The salary in Thailand is higher than in Cambodia. That’s the reason people want to work here,” he said.

Ros Sarath, a 36-year-old who left his home in Kompong Thom province for a job ironing clothes in Bangkok in 2011, said he envied Burmese workers living in Thailand for having such a compassionate leader visit them.

“I think Aung San Suu Kyi wants to collect her citizens to go back and work in their country because she does not want her citizens to meet difficulties here,” Mr. Sarath said, adding that he would eagerly return to Cambodia if opportunities were available.

“I also want our Cambodian prime minister to do what she has done, but I do not think that the leaders of our government would have the ability to help our people find good jobs and to help our families.”

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