BANGKOK - The World Economic Forum on East Asia has opened for the first time in Thailand, with hundreds of business leaders and heads of state from Southeast Asia. But it is Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi who is taking up much of the spotlight.
More than 600 people are attending the forum and discussing ways to better connect a region that has posted robust economic growth in recent years and hopes to continue the streak.
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra told attendees they are facing challenges and opportunities.
“From problems in the eurozone to climate change on the one hand, to advances in technology, progress in democratic process, and emerging centers of growth on the other,” Yingluck said.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is scheduled to form an economic community, similar to Europe, by 2015.
Forum founder Klaus Schwab noted the global economic slow-down raises questions about the future.
“But when you look at the ASEAN region you feel that here you have a region which is full of dynamism, which has economic growth of over five percent and which becomes more and more a crucial factor in the world economic and world political context,” he said.
The forum, a regional version of the international meeting in Davos, Switzerland, seeks to address improving regional infrastructure and removing barriers to trade.
The Prime Ministers of Bahrain, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam and the President of Indonesia are attending. But much attention this year has been on the participation of Burma’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The opposition leader is on her first trip outside the country in more than two decades. Fifteen of those years were spent under house arrest while a military government trampled human rights, isolated the country, and destroyed the economy.
Helene Gayle of CARE, a U.S.-based international aid organization, and co-chair of the forum said Aung San Suu Kyi’s participation will help improve the region’s communication with Burma.
“What she is doing by being here, is incredibly significant," noted Gayle. "It begins that opportunity for a dialogue that I think will be very important for Burma, but also for the rest of this region.”
Burma’s President Thein Sein was originally scheduled for the forum and to speak on the future of Burma. But shortly after Aung San Suu Kyi’s participation was announced, he cancelled. The president told organizers he had important work to attend to, but his pull-out raised speculation he did not wish to be upstaged.
President Thein Sein is praised for leading Burma’s reform efforts, but he was also part of the military government that ruled the country with an iron fist.
Aung San Suu Kyi attracted thousands of people Wednesday when she visited Burmese migrant workers in a community outside Bangkok. She met Thursday with a Thai Deputy Prime Minister to discuss labor conditions for migrant workers.
An estimated two-million Burmese travel to Thailand for work but many are undocumented and exploited.
The democracy leader is expected to visit refugees from Burma in camps on the Thai border. Thailand hosts about 150,000 men, women, and children who fled decades of fighting and abuses by Burma’s military and ethnic rebel groups.