NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar: Peace talks got underway in Myanmar on Wednesday, with de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi defending her government’s stuttering attempts to end decades of fighting between the military and ethnic rebel groups.
A sea of color filled the vast conference hall in the capital Naypyidaw as ethnic delegates in traditional costumes mingled with stony-faced military officers in full regalia.
The country has been scarred by some of the world’s longest-running civil wars as various ethnic groups have fought Myanmar’s military for greater autonomy.
Suu Kyi sought to dismiss criticism that little progress has been made on her flagship peace policy, more than a year after her party took power.
“Our collective efforts have started to bear fruit,” she told the conference, according to an official translation of the speech.
“We have now reached the stage where we are able to discuss the basic federal principles that are so important for our country and our people.”
Hopes had been high that Myanmar’s first freely elected government for generations would end the running conflicts that have claimed thousands of lives and kept the country mired in poverty.
But many ethnic groups say Suu Kyi has not listened to their concerns and is working too closely with the military, which ruled the country with an iron fist for almost half a century.
This week’s gathering is the second round of peace talks since Suu Kyi’s civilian government came to power.
No rebels are expected to sign up to the National Ceasefire Agreement which she is pushing during the conference—a controversial deal first touted by the previous military-backed government.
But the agenda will cover what shape a federal union might take, and is expected to include the first discussions on whether states will be able to draft their own constitutions.
Allowing states to write their own charters would be an “historic milestone in the post-colonial history of Myanmar,” said Angshuman Choudhury from the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, adding it could “appease powerful ethnic constituencies and… prevent outright secessionism.”
Violence in Myanmar’s northeast has reached its worst point since the conflict-ridden 1980s.
Tens of thousands of people have been forced to flee months of heavy fighting between the army and insurgent groups, many of them crossing into neighbouring China, which has sent delegates to the talks.
“We are hoping to be able to hold political discussions and talk directly about stopping the fighting and offensives by the Myanmar military,” Major Tar Pan La from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army told Agence France-Presse.
The violence has destroyed much of the fragile trust that minority voters placed in Suu Kyi in the 2015 vote, and her National League for Democracy suffered several losses in recent by-elections.
It has also strengthened the hand of the China-backed United Wa States Army (UWSA), Myanmar’s biggest ethnic armed group and one of the world’s top drug traffickers.
The 25,000-strong militia has brought together several groups still locked in combat with the military into a new negotiating bloc that is refusing to sign up to the government-backed ceasefire.
Representatives from all seven, including the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Arakan Army (AA), touched down in Naypyidaw on Tuesday after weeks of fraught politicking.