Thailand's largest refugee camp welcomes Aung San Suu Kyi

Refugees flock to see Aung San Suu Kyi
Refugees flock to see Aung San Suu Kyi

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Refugees flock to see Aung San Suu Kyi 02:19

Story highlights

  • Aung San Suu Kyi rounds of historic Thai trip with visit to largest refugee camp in the country
  • Many of the 30,000 inhabitants fled persecution from Myanmar's military regime
  • Some wish to return to Myanmar, but prefer to wait for reforms in Myanmar to continue
  • Pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi recently elected to Myanmar's parliament
In a valley in the misty hills of Mae Sot sits Thailand's largest refugee camp -- a maze of mud alleyways stuffed with bamboo and wood huts.
The camp is filled with people who fled Myanmar before the country's regime signaled its intent to come in from the diplomatic cold.
For the majority of the 30,000 people living there, the camp is their entire world. Their daily routine changes little because they can't go into the rest of Thailand or they will be arrested, and they won't go back to Myanmar because they are still afraid or have nothing to go back to.
But on this day there was something exciting happening inside the camp, something that has never happened before.
Hundreds of people streamed onto a football field inside the camp to see a woman many consider a hero. They were waving the Burmese flag and chanting: "Mae Suu, Mae Suu," which in English means Mother Suu.
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Workers welcome Suu Kyi as 'savior'
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Workers welcome Suu Kyi as 'savior' 02:59
Mother Suu is how they refer to Aung San Suu Kyi -- a hero to many in the camp.
Suu Kyi fought for democracy in Myanmar for decades, spending 15 years under house arrest because of it, before being elected to parliament -- though the military regime that has ruled Myanmar for decades still holds a great deal of power.
She ended her first international trip since being released from house arrest by visiting the camp in western Thailand to see her people.
"Today we are very happy you know. Our people, we like to see our leader," one spectator said.
Another chimed in: "We need democracy, so we need our lady. She can do democracy. We trust her so much. We couldn't see her in Burma (Myanmar's former name) because she was always in her house. So we come here and now we see her."
Bouquets of flowers were thrown at her while she waved from her car. She even grabbed a sign that someone had hand written in her honor.
Unfortunately the pro-democracy leader wasn't able to make any rousing speeches because her actions in the camp were restricted by Thai Authorities. No megaphones were to be used, so even when she did try to speak to the cheering crowd while holding on to the open door of her SUV, she was drowned out by the sheer number of well-wishers.
But not everyone in the camp decided to go. There were plenty of people going about their daily routine.
For them Suu Kyi is a name they recognize but a person they know little about.
"I don't care because I am busy with my work," Ima said.
Then she held up the thing that was on her mind: a small plastic bag of live frogs. That was the family lunch and she was on her way to prepare the feast at the same time Suu Kyi was due to arrive at the camp.
Deeper into the bamboo maze, 34-year-old Mic is sitting outside his hut. He isn't going either.
"I only know her name but don't know who she is. I have never seen her, " he said.
He recalled his journey over the border at the age of nine. "I couldn't live there. The Burmese attacked us. They were destroying things; they came and took our houses. We had to come here to live," he said.
Mic couldn't escape misfortune for long. At 18, while gathering wood at the Myanmar-Thailand border, he stepped on a mine and lost a leg.
But today daily life in the camp with his family, including his two children, is keeps him occupied.
With Suu Kyi now a member of Parliament and Myanmar moving towards democracy, should the refugees start considering going back?
Suu Kyi herself warned against expecting things to change quickly in her country.
The refugees are doing just that. Not one said they would go back. Those who remember their homeland said it would be good to go home, but first they needed guarantees that they had something to go back to, plus they simply didn't trust the government -- not yet anyway.
"There is nothing left for me there," Mic said.
And then there is a large section of the refugee community that has never known Myanmar. The camp is their home because they were born and raised there.