Suu Kyi pledges to foster peace as ethnic rebels join talks

NAYPYIDAW • Ms Aung San Suu Kyi promised yesterday to use her party's popular mandate to drive Myanmar's peace process as she outlined a vision of a federal future to ethnic rebels who have battled for decades for more autonomy.

She was speaking at a fresh round of talks between the government, army and ethnic minority armed groups, at which crucial economic and social issues that spurred the violence were to be discussed.

Those include the ownership of natural resources, seen as a major factor in conflicts that have displaced tens of thousands of people and cost countless lives.

Representatives of guerilla groups, the military and Members of Parliament gathered in the capital Naypyidaw for the second stage of talks aimed at ending insurgencies that have plagued Myanmar for decades. The government in October signed a ceasefire agreement with eight ethnic armed groups, while nine others stayed out.

Ms Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) won the November elections, said she was optimistic the "fighting will be finished soon" if the nation's political standards are improved and all groups work together.

"We cannot build lasting peace without national reconciliation," she said. "Now we are ready to lead the peace process, because we have the power invested in the mandate given to us by the people and ethnic minorities."

It is the first time she is taking a leading role in years-long official peace efforts. The painstaking negotiations have till now been steered by reformist President Thein Sein, who was also at the talks.

But some major armed groups have shunned the talks altogether, and clashes between rebels and soldiers continue. Powerful army chief Min Aung Hlaing, speaking at the opening of the five-day talks, called the meeting a "historic event" which could help bring "lasting peace, stability and security".

Political dialogue is a central demand of the ethnic minority armies who, for generations, have fought for greater autonomy in the resource-rich borderlands.

Ahead of the elections, analysts predicted Ms Suu Kyi would struggle to win support among ethnic voters because of her majority ethnic Bamar heritage. But her NLD swept to a thumping majority, including in the frontier regions.

Observers say major hurdles remain, including negotiating the thorny issue of ownership of resources. But they see the most critical challenge to be Ms Suu Kyi's uneasy relationship with the still hugely powerful military, which holds the key to securing a lasting peace.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE., REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2016, with the headline 'Suu Kyi pledges to foster peace as ethnic rebels join talks'. Print Edition | Subscribe