Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi called for perseverance and unity as her government opened the 21st Century Panglong Conference yesterday, aimed at ending seven decades of conflict between the military and armed ethnic groups.
"We are embarking on this journey towards peace with full confidence in the peoples of our Union," she told more than 1,000 people gathered in the capital Naypyitaw, among whom were representatives of the military, ethnic armed groups as well as foreign observers.
"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 said.
At least 21 ethnic armed groups exist in Myanmar today, and clashes between them and the military continue. The previous government signed a ceasefire deal with eight of these organisations. Yesterday, representatives from 17 groups turned up.
"We do not know yet what we will get from this peace conference," Mr Nai Hong Sar, vice-chairman of the New Mon State Party and the United Nationalities Federal Council, a coalition of ethnic groups, told The Straits Times.
The vice-chairman of the Kachin Independence Organisation, Mr N'Ban La, said: "We wanted to show we support the National League for Democracy government and state counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. We wanted to show that we really wanted to have a federal and democratic system."
Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, which swept last year's nationwide elections, has inherited a nation grappling with communal tensions, poor education, and conflict over natural resources racked up from half a century of direct military rule. The military retains considerable power through a specially crafted Constitution which gives it a quarter of seats in parliament, as well as control over key ministries such as border affairs, home affairs and defence.
Observers stress that yesterday's event, which kicked off a series of regular talks, would likely not yield anything substantive in the short term. Key parties will need time to hammer out a framework agreeable to a complex mix of stakeholders that include foreign governments including China, which maintains ties with ethnic armed groups on its border. Other issues include how profits from natural resources in conflict areas will be distributed.
The Tatmadaw, as Myanmar's military is known, is a key factor in the success of the negotiations.
Mr Jens Wardenaer, a research analyst for armed conflict at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told The Straits Times: "The peace process could not have reached this advanced stage without the Tatmadaw's approval and indeed active role.
"If it wanted to sabotage the process it could do so easily. It is clear that the military leadership wants an end to the conflict - though on terms that it finds acceptable."
Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, who also addressed participants yesterday, said last year's ceasefire agreement would be kept as a "baseline principle" for the new peace process and warned that armed struggle and "localism" went against the spirit of democracy.
"We need to end this tragic drift at the present in our tenure."