Suu Kyi holds peace talks with rebel leaders

Ms Suu Kyi (centre) discussing the possibility of a ceasefire agreement with the heads of various ethnic-minority militia groups.
Ms Suu Kyi (centre) discussing the possibility of a ceasefire agreement with the heads of various ethnic-minority militia groups.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

YANGON • Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi held landmark talks with senior rebel leaders yesterday, as she sought to seal a ceasefire with a patchwork of ethnic-minority militias that have battled the national army for decades.

Ms Suu Kyi has made peace a flagship policy of her civilian-led government which replaced decades of strict junta rule earlier this year.

It is a tall order in a country where the military, which is deeply distrusted by many ethnic rebel groups, still retains significant control.

A number of key rebel factions have yet to sign up to a national ceasefire agreement, something Ms Suu Kyi's government hopes yesterday's talks might change.

Mr Zaw Htay, deputy director- general of the president's office, told reporters the veteran democracy campaigner and her close associates met five leaders from the United Nationalities Federal Council.

The body represents both rebel groups that have signed up to the ceasefire agreement and those who have so far refused.

"It will be like meeting family," he told reporters ahead of the meeting.

Among those present was General N'Ban La, from the Kachin Independence Organisation, the political wing of one of Myanmar's most powerful rebel factions, which has yet to sign a ceasefire.

"It's a confidence-building meeting, there can be many questions and answers from both sides," Mr Hla Maung Shwe, a government adviser on the peace process told AFP.

The media was ushered out after filming the initial greetings ahead of the meeting in Yangon.

Myanmar has been scarred by ethnic conflicts ever since its independence in 1948, with minority groups battling for greater autonomy against a central government that they believe has long ignored and abused them.

Ms Suu Kyi has vowed to overturn that painful legacy with plans to hold a major peace conference later this year.

However, conflicts continue to rage in several areas between ethnic-minority armed groups and the army, which operates beyond the reaches of civilian government, particularly in northern Kachin and eastern Shan states.

Some 240,000 people are displaced due to unrest and communal conflict across the country.

More than a dozen rebel factions also plan to hold their own talks later this month in Kachin, with yesterday's meeting seen as a crucial stepping stone towards persuading the hold-out groups to embrace the peace process.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2016, with the headline 'Suu Kyi holds peace talks with rebel leaders'. Print Edition | Subscribe