MAE LA REFUGEE CAMP, Thailand (AP) — Aung San Suu Kyi turned her attention to Myanmar's long-standing refugee crisis Saturday, telling thousands of people at a sprawling camp on Thailand's border that their plight has not been forgotten.
Inside the Mae La refugee camp, home to about 45,000 people who have fled war at home, crowds thronged Suu Kyi's convoy, shouting, "Long live Mother Suu!" The beating of traditional drums heralded her arrival and departure.
Her six-day journey this week is the first trip abroad in 24 years for Suu Kyi, who this year made the transition from former political prisoner to opposition parliamentarian. The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner has used her tour of Thailand primarily to draw attention to the plight of her compatriots abroad.
"I have not forgotten you while you are living in another country," Suu Kyi told the cheering crowd inside the camp of bamboo and thatched huts, which sits at the base of mist-shrouded mountains. She visited a health clinic at the camp and listened to a presentation by camp leaders.
Asked to comment on her visit to the camp, Suu Kyi told The Associated Press: "It's not a problem to be solved with emotions. We have to solve it practically."
The part of the Thai border where the camp is located is home to up to 140,000 ethnic Karen refugees.
The Karen have been waging a guerrilla war for greater autonomy since Burma, as Myanmar used to be known, obtained independence from Britain in 1948 — one of the longest-running insurgencies in the world.
In recent weeks, however, the group has been in negotiations with the government to end the fighting. Last month, leaders from the Karen National Union met with President Thein Sein's military-backed government as well as Suu Kyi to firm up a cease-fire they agreed to in January.
Refugees were not Suu Kyi's only focus in Thailand. She also visited the town of Mahachai, outside Bangkok, home to Thailand's largest population of Burmese migrants. Many of the 2.5 million Burmese migrants crossed the borders illegally to work low-skilled jobs for long hours at pay below their Thai counterparts. They typically lack health and social security benefits.
Myanmar's sputtering economy, in ruins after half a century of military rule and years of harsh Western sanctions, has led to huge unemployment and has forced millions of people to seek jobs abroad.
The trip marks a dramatic vote of confidence by Suu Kyi in Myanmar's new reform-minded government, whose rule contrasts starkly with that of the former military junta. Even when she was not under house arrest or imprisoned under the former regime, Suu Kyi had always refused to leave the country, fearing the ruling generals would not let her return.
Suu Kyi has repeatedly said she believes Thein Sein is truly committed to democratic reform, but this week she warned the international community to exercise caution and a "healthy skepticism," saying the nation's all-powerful military was still a force "to be reckoned with."
Western nations have begun suspending harsh economic sanctions that once helped isolate the now-defunct military regime, but critics say much more needs to be done. Hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars, fighting with ethnic Kachin rebels is continuing in the north, and according to the United Nations, at least 417,000 refugees are still afraid to return to Myanmar.
The vast majority of those refugees live in Thailand, Malaysia, India and Bangladesh.
Suu Kyi spent 15 out of 22 years locked under house arrest by the former military regime, during which time she occasionally spoke to the outside world through audio and video messages. She was granted freedom after Myanmar held elections in 2010 and was elected to parliament in April.
She is due to return to Myanmar on Sunday, but next month, she flies to five countries in Europe, including Norway, where she will formally accept her Nobel Peace Prize, 21 years after winning it.
Associated Press writer Jocelyn Gecker contributed to this report.