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Suu Kyi receives ecstatic Thailand welcome

For the first time in nearly a quarter century, Myanmar's opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has left her country for a journey overseas, first to Bangkok and later to Europe. NBC's Ian Williams reports.

MAHACHAI, Thailand – They packed onto the steps of a local shrimp market straining for a glimpse of the woman they call “Mother Suu.” Some stood precariously on top of piles of shrimp baskets, waving photographs of Myanmar's opposition leader.

Her arrival was announced by the flashing lights and wailing sirens of her police escort. As her car entered the narrow lanes around the market it was mobbed by photographers and ecstatic supporters, soon slowing to a crawl. 

Others crowded onto rooftops and balconies of the surrounding, rundown buildings, which were mostly migrant workers' dormitories.

This was the beginning of Aung San Suu Kyi's first full day in Thailand, her first overseas trip in 24 years.  And she had chosen to visit Mahachai, south of Bangkok, which has the largest population of Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand.

Ian Williams / NBC News

Crowds of cheering migrant workers from Myanmar greet Aung San Suu Kyi at a Mahachai shrimp market on Wednesday.

Here they mostly work in fisheries, but across Thailand, Myanmar migrant workers – some 2 to 3 million of them, legal and illegal – dominate the low-paid dirty jobs that Thais prefer not to do.

Together with a large refugee and exile community, they are a symbol of the impoverishment and repression of their homeland. 

Message: hope
Thousands turned out to see Suu Kyi today, and she offered them hope. 

"Don't feel down or weak. History is always changing," she said in a brief speech from a balcony during a second stop.  Several people we spoke to said they hoped Suu Kyi could improve life in Myanmar so they could return home. 

Ian Williams / NBC News

Yin Noi, a migrant from Myanmar who works as a domestic helper, holds a drawing she made of Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday.

We met Yin Noi, a domestic worker, waving a sketch she had made of Suu Kyi. She had been waiting to catch a glimpse of her since 5 a.m. "I am so excited," she said.

Suu Kyi arrived in Thailand Tuesday evening. Even during her brief periods of freedom in Myanmar she's been reluctant to leave the country, fearing the ruling generals would not let her back in again, even when her husband was dying in the U.K. 

She will be attending a regional economic summit in the Thai capital, giving a speech there Friday and meeting several heads of state. She seems certain to steal the show, much to the discomfort of Myanmar's President Thein Sein, who started the reforms that led to Suu Kyi’s new found freedom. He was invited too, but cancelled, not wanting to be upstaged.

Still, her decision to travel now is a mark of confidence in the reform process, which has not only seen her release from house arrest, but also the release of political prisoners, media reforms and open elections, in which Suu Kyi herself won a seat in parliament.

Ian Williams / NBC News

Migrant workers packed onto the steps of Mahachai shrimp market for a better view of Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday.

Thai officials are pleased that Suu Kyi has chosen their country for her first overseas visit, but say they've been kept in the dark about her plans, which include a weekend visit to a refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmar border.

"We'll have to play it play it by ear, I guess," one Thai official told the New York Times. 

Mega political celebrity
Next month Suu Kyi heads to Europe. She'll visit Norway for some unfinished business – picking up her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, and will address the British parliament. 

She's also considering visiting Ireland to meet Bono, the Irish rock musician who campaigned for her release.

That will certainly seal her status as a mega political celebrity. It may also irritate some of the still powerful conservative generals at home, and even some of her supporters, who will hope she doesn't lose sight of desperate plight of so many of her compatriots – so starkly on display amid the shabby fish markets of Mahachai.

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