RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has made her debut on the international stage after being released from house arrest. On her first journey abroad in 24 years, Suu Kyi attended an international economic forum in Thailand, dazzling world leaders with her statesmanship and charisma. Then yesterday, she visited a camp on the Thai-Myanmar border where refugees have fled to escape oppression and civil war in her homeland. But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, the visit to the camp showed that despite becoming one of the most prominent politicians in Asia, her political situation at home remains precarious.
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ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Ethnic Karen musicians warm up for Aung San Suu Kyi's arrival at the Mae La refugee camp. Unable to work legally in Thailand or return home to Myanmar - also known as Burma - the camp's roughly 50,000 refugees live in a stateless limbo, dwelling in thatched bamboo huts in the jungle, and surviving with help from international aid groups. U Htwe, a refugee in a cone-shaped bamboo hat, wears the flag of the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi's party.
U HTWE: (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: The Burmese military regime denies that we refugees even exist, he complains. Our life here is very difficult, and Suu Kyi comes here to visit us just like our own mother. We're very happy to see her and we warmly welcome her.
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KUHN: Suu Kyi's arrival unleashes a melee of jostling journalists, police and supporters, just the way it does in Myanmar. The refugees are perhaps the thorniest issue in the diplomatic relationship between the two neighbors, Thailand and Myanmar. Thai authorities canceled Suu Kyi's planned speech to the refugees, and meetings with ethnic Karen leaders. Experts warn that just as Myanmar's military could roll back the current political reforms, they could also take away Suu Kyi's political space to maneuver. Former Australian ambassador to Myanmar, Trevor Wilson, says that on her trip to Thailand as well as to Europe later this month, Suu Kyi has to avoid any missteps that could get her in trouble back home.
AMBASSADOR TREVOR WILSON: She doesn't want to get a situation where the freedoms that she now has are withdrawn. I mean, I'm not suggesting she won't be allowed to go back, but there may be some kind of restrictions imposed on the meetings that she has with people.
KUHN: The reforms may be fragile, but they have raised the prospect that one day, one of the world's longest-suffering groups of refugees may eventually go home. Michael Albert is the Thailand-based country manager for Right to Play, an aid group that provides refugee youth with sports and recreation. He says aid groups are now shifting their strategies away from integrating the refugees into Thai society...
MICHAEL ALBERT: To preparing refugees for the eventuality of returning to Myanmar. I mean, this is something that has not really been possible in past, so in that sense it is quite an exciting time. The main issue that still remains is at what time will that be? And everyone agrees it is not right now.
KUHN: For now, fighting still rages in Myanmar's northern Kachin state between ethnic rebels seeking autonomy and government troops. In the east, a tenuous cease-fire is in effect with ethnic Karen rebels. Saw David Tharkabaw is chairman of the Karen National Union. He says that instead of withdrawing, the Burmese army has used the cease-fire to stock up and dig in.
SAW DAVID THARKABAW: We stopped shooting and before we talk about the terms and conditions to govern the cease-fire. So, this dry season, they freely resupply their troops and they are improving their bunkers with reinforced concrete.
KUHN: Even if the fighting stops, a generation of refugees has grown up in the camps with no ties to Myanmar. Many of them dream of emigrating to a third country. Nan Le'le fled here from the neighboring Karen state.
NAN LE'LE: (Through Translator) I have no home to go back to. The government confiscated our ancestral lands, then they gave people new land elsewhere, but we had no documents proving we owned our home, so we had no way to claim a new home from the government. We were living in a rice field; life is very difficult.
KUHN: Asked where she wants to live, she holds up her young daughter and replies, anywhere she can get a decent education. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Mae Sot, Thailand.