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Suu Kyi Visits Karen Refugees in Thailand

Aung San Suu Kyi waves to people who have gathered to meet her at the Mae La refugee camp, where tens of thousands of her compatriots live, near Mae Sot at the Thai-Burmese border June 2, 2012.
MAE SOT, Thailand - Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's historical trip to Thailand concluded Saturday with a visit to a Karen refugee camp, but the democracy icon was not able to address refugees as planned.

Suu Kyi visited Mae La refugee camp in Thailand's Mae Sot province Saturday morning to conclude her first foreign visit since 1988 when she returned to Burma to care for her ailing mother.

The highly anticipated visit was disappointing for the 50,000 camp residents, most of them ethnic Karen refugees from the 40-year civil war in Burma's Karen State. The camp's football ground was available, but only a small crowd of about 1,000 was allowed to gather at the field itself, and there was a hefty military and security presence.

Suu Kyi's planned speech was canceled, as was a meeting with ethnic leaders. However, she met with camp leaders, and then visited a clinic flanking the field where she spoke with patients. She briefly addressed a small crowd that gathered around the clinic's fence, but few were able to hear her comments as she was not allowed to use a microphone.

"I will never forget about you guys. Don't worry, I'll try my best to make sure you can come home soon," she told onlookers.

Tun Tun, Mae La's ethnic Karen camp leader, met briefly with Suu Kyi at the camp. He said the Burmese opposition leader originally planned to spend more time in the camp and address a large crowd, but Thai authorities did not want her to speak, Tun Tun said, and Suu Kyi told those who could hear her, "It is not our country. We do not have the opportunity to do as we planned."

Tun Tun expressed disappointment on behalf of the crowd that had gathered for several hours in the sun and mud to catch a glimpse of the democracy leader.

"I had the opportunity to speak with [Suu Kyi] but we were a little disappointed with the schedule. Since she visited the camp and, you know, we really wanted her to speak in front of a lot of people and wanted people to ask her a few questions and so especially an encouraging speech for the people who have been living in a refugee camp in Mae La, and they don't have an opportunity to walk outside the camp easily and have been here for a long, long time, if she can give an encouraging speech, people will be very happy," said Tun Tun.

Suu Kyi did not make any comments about whether the peace process between the Karen and the Burmese government had reached a stage at which refugees could begin to return home. But she did meet with representatives from the peace council in charge of negotiating with the Burmese government.

Timothy Laklem, who is helping negotiate on behalf of the Karen, met with Suu Kyi and shared his concerns about forced repatriation ahead of a genuine peace process.

"It is not ready to send [them home]. Our refugees are not animals. When they were kicked out, they were kicked out with gun and bullet and fight and kill, and now they go back with nothing to eat, no proper infrastructure. They are human beings, not animals, so you can't do that."

As Suu Kyi enters the political mainstream, her role in the peace process becomes more critical, and many feel the fate of the refugees fleeing the world's longest-running civil war is in her hands.