Thursday, May 31, 2012

Amid Disorganization, ASSK Visits Thailand

ASSK at Bangkok Airport.
BANGKOK — “We’ll have to play it by ear, I guess,” said Thani Thongphakdi, a spokesman for the Thai Foreign Ministry.

He was referring to the visit of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar’s democracy movement and a newly elected member of Parliament who arrived in Thailand on Tuesday. Ignoring a row of photographers awaiting her, she left the airport quickly without commenting.

A trip outside Myanmar is a personal milestone for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi — her first journey abroad in 24 years. But planning it appears to have been an afterthought. For example, no one from her office contacted the Thai Foreign Ministry, which normally coordinates such high-profile visits. “As far as I know, we have not been approached by her team,” Mr. Thani said a few hours before she was to land.

News reports said Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi would visit a Thai refugee camp in Tak Province that is home to ethnic minorities from Myanmar who fled during decades of fighting. But travel to the area is restricted by the Thai government, and the officials who are responsible for granting permission for such visits said they were in the dark.

ASSK in Thailand (Photo-AP).
“We are only learning about her arrival from the media, not from her team,” Suriya Prasatbuntitya, the governor of Tak, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “I guess we’ll have to get details of her schedule on our own — and be prepared.”

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi may meet with Abhisit Vejjajiva, the former Thai prime minister. She may also visit an area outside Bangkok that is home to thousands of migrant workers from Myanmar. Or not.

No one was available to confirm her schedule. The cellphone of U Nyan Win, the spokesman for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, was “power off” on Tuesday, according to an automated message.

It is not uncommon for dignitaries to withhold information about their travel schedules from the public for security reasons. It is unusual, however, for a visiting dignitary not to contact the government of the country he or she is visiting.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s trip to Thailand appears to have been organized by U Khun Tha Myint, who is described as her head of security. (Khun Tha Myint is a RIT-graduate son of the famous writer and former Secretary General of Burmese Communist Party late Thein Phe Myint.) He spent the past four days setting up meetings and events, according to Andy Hall, a researcher who helped organize the meeting with migrant workers. Mr. Khun Tha Myint could not be reached by telephone on Tuesday.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s style might be described as spontaneous.

ASSK Meets President Thein Sein.
In the year and a half since her release from house arrest, those who have had dealings with her have generally been forgiving of the quirks of her operation: her staff is hard to reach and e-mails often go unanswered.

Less forgiving was U Thein Sein, the president of Myanmar. He was scheduled to visit Thailand this week, but he canceled the trip soon after news reports appeared saying that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi would go.

Mr. Thein Sein, who has led the changes in Myanmar since coming to power last year, had been confirmed to speak this week at a conference sponsored by the World Economic Forum, the same group that puts on the annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Organizers of the forum announced last week that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi would also attend, and released a schedule giving her top billing, including a question-and-answer session titled “One-on-One Conversation With a Leader.”

Fon Mathuros, a spokeswoman for the World Economic Forum, said Mr. Thein Sein canceled his appearance with “no further explanation.”

U Nay Zin Latt, an adviser to Mr. Thein Sein, said the president could not make time to go.

“He is extremely busy with his work, and taking great care of transitioning and transformation,” Mr. Nay Zin Latt said in an e-mail. Thai officials said the president’s visit had been rescheduled for next week.

A meeting in August between Mr. Thein Sein and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi helped start the reforms now under way in Myanmar. In the months after that meeting, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi announced that she and her political party, the National League for Democracy, would rejoin the political system. In April, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi won a seat in Parliament.

ASSK's Supporters at Bangkok.
Among the crowd waiting at the Bangkok airport to catch a glimpse of her on Tuesday was a 24-year-old factory worker from Myanmar, Zin Oo Maung, who stitches jeans for 300 baht ($10) a day at a factory on the outskirts of the city. He turned down some overtime work so that he could greet Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi.

“She is hope,” he said. “We hope our country’s economy gets better and we’ll be able to return.”

Though she spent much of the time since 1988 under house arrest, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi could have left Myanmar, but probably would not have been able to return. She stayed, believing that her absence would have made it easier for the military to crush the democracy movement. Her willingness to travel abroad now is a vote of confidence in Myanmar’s moves toward democracy.

Next month, she is scheduled to visit four European nations: Britain, where she will address the two houses of Parliament; Norway, where she will belatedly accept her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize; Switzerland, where she will deliver a speech to the International Labor Organization; and Ireland, where she will meet one of her keenest supporters, Bono, the lead singer of the rock band U2.

Poypiti Amatatham contributed reporting.