Myanmar kicks off ethnic peace talks, seeking to end decades of conflict

NAYPYIDAW (AFP) - Peace talks between Myanmar's government and warring ethnic minorities kicked off on Wednesday (Aug 31) in a bid to end decades of conflict that have claimed thousands of lives and kept the country mired in poverty.

A sea of colour filled the vast conference hall in the capital Naypyidaw as delegations from Myanmar's myriad ethnic groups mingled with stony-faced military officers decked out in full regalia.

The summit is veteran democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi's much-trumpeted effort to reshape Myanmar as a federal democracy following decades of oppressive military rule.

The Nobel laureate has made bridging the ethnic fault lines that have fractured the nation since its mid-century independence a priority of her new government, which took power in March.

"So long as we are unable to achieve national reconciliation and national unity, we will never be able to establish a sustainable and durable peaceful union," she told delegates.

"Only if we are all united will our country be at peace. Only if our country is at peace will we be able to stand on an equal footing with the other countries in our region and across the world."

Few expect a concrete deal to emerge from the five-day talks, which are seen as the start of a peace process that could take years.

Seventeen rebel groups have joined the talks in the capital, but others have not laid down their arms and some remain locked in combat with the military.

Any hope of a nationwide ceasefire has been snuffed out by fresh flare-ups of violence in some northern states ahead of the summit.

Mr Khua Uk Lian, an assistant general secretary with the Chin National Front, one of the rebel groups that has agreed to a ceasefire, said he was optimistic but warned that fighting would be hard to stop on the ground.

"You have local commanders fighting about local problems," he told AFP. "It's been like this since we have been fighting."

Communities in the conflict zones live in stark poverty despite the rich jade, tin and teak wood forests that dot their lands and lie at the heart of many of the battles.

Bringing peace could rejuvenate economies in the war-ravaged regions, and open up investment to foreign powers who are keen to scoop up its vast resources.

But distrust of the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, runs deep among minorities after decades of oppression, marked by torture, rape and mass killings.

Negotiators from Ms Suu Kyi's government have said privately they are hamstrung by working with the army, which still controls borders, defence and a quarter of parliament seats.

Commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing urged ethnic groups to join the ceasefire the previous military-backed government signed with eight groups last year.

"We need to end this tragic drift," he told the conference, according to an English transcript.

But he also warned against drawn out peace talks.

"If the peace process takes longer than the appropriate time, there may be more outside instigations, interferences and manipulations disturbing the process," he said.

Wednesday's meeting comes almost 70 years after Ms Suu Kyi's father, independence hero Aung San, signed a landmark agreement to devolve powers to some ethnic groups after independence.

The deal collapsed after he was assassinated, before Myanmar broke from Britain in 1948, triggering the civil wars that have rumbled across the country's borders ever since.

Ms Suu Kyi has dubbed her summit the "21st Century Panglong" in reference to the agreement brokered by her father, who remains a deeply revered figure.