Myanmar president meets ethnic rebel leader in peace push

Bao Youxiang, leader of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), is seen during a meeting of leaders of Myanmar's ethnic armed groups at the UWSA headquarters in Pansang in Myanmar's northern Shan State, May 6, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS. 
Bao Youxiang, leader of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), is seen during a meeting of leaders of Myanmar's ethnic armed groups at the UWSA headquarters in Pansang in Myanmar's northern Shan State, May 6, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS. 

YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar President Thein Sein held a surprise meeting with a powerful armed group representing the ethnic Wa minority on Friday as the government tries to convince an array of rebel groups to sign a ceasefire, a group spokesman said on Friday.

The meeting between Thein Sein and a United Wa State Army (UWSA) leader, Bao Youyxi, took place in Keng Tong, in eastern Shan state near the Wa enclave on the border with China, UWSA spokesman Aung Myint told Reuters.

"The president urged the UWSA to support the government's attempts on political dialogue with ethnic armed groups and signing the NCA (national ceasefire agreement)," he said.

Government spokesman Ye Htut could not be reached for comment, but he posted photos on his Facebook page of the meeting.

It took place two days after a summit of 12 ethnic armies hosted by the UWSA to discuss a draft of the nationwide ceasefire agreement, which was hammered out during almost two years of negotiations.

The groups released a statement at the end of the six-day summit on Wednesday urging the government to amend the military-drafted constitution to grant more autonomy to ethnic minorities, which they said would pave the way to signing the peace accord.

Myanmar's semi-civilian government, which took power in 2011 after 49 years of military rule, has said it wants to sign a nationwide ceasefire before elections later this year to end conflicts with the many groups that have taken up arms since independence in 1948.

But brutal fighting between government forces and rebels has flared in the northeastern Kokang region since February, spilling over the border into China, where five people were killed by stray bombs last month.

The USWA is considered the most powerful of the ethnic armies, with sophisticated weapons and as many as 30,000 soldiers.

The decision by the UWSA to host the summit was a surprise to many. It has a separate ceasefire agreement with the government and has thus far sat on the sidelines of talks between the government and ethnic armed groups.