Myanmar president pushes peace plan in ethnic rebel talks

Myanmar's President Thein Sein gives an opening speech at a meeting with ethnic rebel groups to discuss a nationwide ceasefire agreement in Naypyitaw on Sept 9, 2015.
Myanmar's President Thein Sein gives an opening speech at a meeting with ethnic rebel groups to discuss a nationwide ceasefire agreement in Naypyitaw on Sept 9, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS
Myanmar president Thein Sein (right) shakes hand with a military representative (left) before a meeting with ethnic armed groups leaders to discuss the signing of a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) at the MICC in the capital Naypyitaw, Myanmar on
Myanmar president Thein Sein (right) shakes hand with a military representative (left) before a meeting with ethnic armed groups leaders to discuss the signing of a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) at the MICC in the capital Naypyitaw, Myanmar on Sept 9, 2015. PHOTO: EPA

YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar's President Thein Sein met ethnic rebel peace negotiators for the first time in the capital Naypyidaw on Wednesday in an effort to secure a long-awaited nationwide ceasefire before looming November elections.

More than two years of negotiations aimed at bringing an end to decades of civil wars in Myanmar's rugged borderlands have seen the government bring together ethnic minority rebels and the feared army to thrash out a peace process framework.

But while the talks have produced a ceasefire document - seen as a historic first step in the peace process - they have stuttered on lingering mistrust and disagreements on whether a deal should include all rebel groups.

Observers say Mr Thein Sein is eager to sign the ceasefire deal and cement his legacy as a peacemaker before the Nov 8 polls, which are set to redraw the political landscape with expectations of huge gains by Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition.

"Whether the groups sign or not, the president will meet them and the military will talk to them again. I think the government is just hoping to build confidence," said Mr Hla Maung Shwe, a senior member of negotiating team at the Myanmar Peace Centre.

Myanmar's government has agreed to allow 15 ethnic armed groups to sign the deal.

But a consortium of rebels has insisted that the agreement should include half a dozen groups which the government has rejected. Some of those rebel groups are still actively fighting the military.

Nine leaders from top ethnic rebel groups were present at the Naypyidaw talks, including from the political wing of the Kachin Independence Army - one of the country's largest rebel armies.

But Myanmar's powerful military has sent only lower ranking representatives to the Naypyidaw talks.

Conflict in Kachin state has left some 100,000 people displaced since a ceasefire deal collapsed soon after the end of junta rule in 2011.

Fighting between government troops and ethnic Chinese rebels also erupted this year in the Kokang region of northern Shan state, causing tens of thousands of people to flee their homes, many into China.

The inclusion of the Kokang rebels in the peace deal - along with combat allies the Arakan Army and Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) - has proved controversial for the military.

"All inclusiveness is the best policy. It is better if everyone is involved in the country's peace," Padoh Saw Kwe Htoo Win, a senior ethnic armed group representative, told AFP, adding that it was the first time the negotiators had met Thein Sein together.

Mr Thein Sein's quasi-civilian government, which took power four years ago, sees a nationwide ceasefire as opening the way to more complex political dialogue and questions of federalism in a country where the army has for decades hung its legitimacy on enforcing its own concept of unity.