Myanmar marks unity day, but peace with ethnic rebel groups remains elusive

Honour guards attending the 68th Union Day ceremony at City Hall in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, on Feb 12, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
Honour guards attending the 68th Union Day ceremony at City Hall in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, on Feb 12, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar (AFP) - Myanmar's government on Thursday held a sombre ceremony marking the nation's symbolic unification after the colonial era, but a coveted ceasefire with ethnic rebel groups remained out of reach as conflict sweeps across northern borderlands.

The quasi-civilian regime says peace in the ethnically diverse but conflict-prone nation is pivotal to the success of reforms and Myanmar's development.

It had hoped to reach a breakthrough in the complex and protracted negotiations in time for the Union Day celebration.

But officials said talks on Thursday between President Thein Sein and around a dozen ethnic minority armed groups involved in the peace process in the capital Naypyidaw were likely to produce only a pledge to continue negotiations. "We have to sign a commitment with them, rather than an agreement, after our talks," said Information Minister Ye Htut.

The discussions come amid deadly unrest in the northern states of Kachin and Shan.

Talks have also been hampered by distrust between rebel groups and the Myanmar military, as well as issues such as disarmament and the concept of federal armies.

In an ominous development, clashes earlier this week between Myanmar's army and rebels in the largely ethnic Chinese Kokang area of Shan reopened a conflict that had been largely dormant for nearly six years.

Mr Ye Htut said the military was "striving to restore safety and security" in the area, after state-backed media reported that government forces had used airstrikes in their efforts to flush out the rebels.

Beijing said the conflict had caused a flood of people to cross the border, without giving specific numbers.

In 2009, Myanmar's then junta regime earned a rare rebuke from its powerful northern neighbour and ally after a military offensive against Kokang rebels sent more than 30,000 people fleeing across the border.

Union Day marks the signing of a deal in the run up to independence from British colonial that agreed an element of autonomy for major ethnic minority areas, but stipulated the regions would stay within Myanmar.

But civil war sparked soon after independence in 1948 and eruptions of violence have blighted different parts of the nation since.

Myanmar's army, which seized power in 1962, used the unrest as a justification for its iron-fisted rule and has been accused of a litany of humanitarian abuses in border areas, where tussles over abundant resources have also added fuel to the fighting.

Myanmar has more than 130 recognised ethnic groups, but peace talks are with 16 major armed groups, most of whom have put down their guns although several remain engaged in fighting.

Conflict between the army and rebels in northern Kachin State has raged since 2011 when a 17-year ceasefire shattered, driving some 100,000 people from their homes.

The unrest has increasingly spread to various parts of northern Shan state, where last week the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) also accused Myanmar's army of using helicopter gunships to attack its positions.

Observers say Myanmar's hotly anticipated general election, expected for late 2015, adds urgency to the talks, with negotiators eager to forge an agreement before the start of campaigning.

Mr Thein Sein, who did not attend the muted Union Day ceremony Thursday, issued a message in state media vowing the government would continue its "relentless efforts" to agree the national ceasefire and move to political discussions.