YANGON • Myanmar President Thein Sein has met ethnic rebel peace negotiators for the first time in an effort to secure a long-awaited nationwide ceasefire before the Nov 8 general election.
Clinching a deal with rebel groups would be a political win for Mr Thein Sein, who has made it his top priority, boosting the chances of his ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party in the first polls since military rule ended.
Nine representatives of five main groups, from about 16 participating in talks, met him yesterday in the capital Naypyitaw. The groups included the Karen National Union, the Karenni National Progressive Party and the Kachin Independence Organisation - one of the country's largest rebel armies.
Conflict in Kachin state has left some 100,000 people displaced since a ceasefire collapsed soon after the end of military rule in 2011.
"I'd like to stress the importance of peace in the transition to democracy," Mr Thein Sein said at the start of the talks. "Without peace, it is not possible. I hope (the) summit will pave the way to signing the nationwide ceasefire agreement by the end of September."
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 over whether a deal should include all rebel groups.
A deal with all ethnic armies is unlikely, experts say, with some groups excluded from the talks, as fighting in the restive Kokang region along Myanmar's border with China has continued unabated since February. The fighting between government troops and Kokang's ethnic Chinese rebels caused tens of thousands of people to flee, 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 - has proved controversial for the military.
Mr Thein Sein has proposed Sept 29 for the signing, said a source who declined to be identified.
"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 a member of the negotiating team.
Observers say Mr Thein Sein is eager to sign the ceasefire deal and cement his legacy as a peacemaker before the polls, which are set to redraw the political landscape with expectations of huge gains by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition.
The President is not running in the elections, but the Constitution allows lawmakers, who select the president, to vote for a person from outside Parliament, giving Mr Thein Sein a chance of re-election.
The draft of the ceasefire was hammered out during almost two years of negotiations, but ethnic armed groups had refused to sign it, urging the government to grant ethnic minorities more autonomy.
Another stumbling block is the inclusion of three armed groups fighting the government as signatories. Many members of the ethnic armed groups want the three to sign at the same time as the others, but the government has pushed for an agreement that excludes them.
Ms Suu Kyi has urged the rebels not to rush the deal, but work slowly on a pact to ensure lasting peace and stability. She said all groups should be included in the accord.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE