Myanmar opens peace conference with ethnic rebels

Myanmar's Army Commander Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing speaks during the opening ceremony of the third session of the 21st Century Panglong Conference at the Myanmar International Convention Centre in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Wednesday, July 11, 2018. Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the country's military commander have opened the major conference with representatives of ethnic minority groups to try to reach a lasting peace after seven decades of strained relations and armed conflict. (AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo)

Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the country's military commander have opened a major conference with representatives of ethnic minority groups to try to reach a lasting peace after seven decades of strained relations and armed conflict

NAYPYITAW, Myanmar — Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the country's military commander on Wednesday opened a major conference with representatives of ethnic minority groups to try to move toward a lasting peace after seven decades of strained relations and armed conflict.

"I am worried that any delay in the peace conference could affect our people's chance to get peace," said Suu Kyi in a speech to the attendees. "That is the reason we are trying today to solve the problems politically by this peace conference."

The third session of the 21st Century Panglong Conference is scheduled to last five days and follows meetings held in August 2016 and May 2017. Those sessions failed to make much headway in resolving differences between the government, the military and ethnic rebel groups seeking greater autonomy.

In his speech on the conference's opening day, military commander Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing urged all stakeholders in the peace process to swiftly reach an agreement, citing the delay in the peace process as contributing to the lagging development of the country.

"Bold steps must be taken without delay in implementing the peace process," he said, urging groups to prioritize peace over political demands. "The sound of guns will become silent if all the groups with the true wish for peace observe the agreement."

Since 2015, the government has promoted a cease-fire agreement that several ethnic minority groups have signed. However, some other major rebel groups, especially in the country's north, are wary of committing to the deal until political terms are made clearer. They also have accused the government of provocative armed aggression.

"If we are expecting peace in the whole union, we need to work on the cease-fire process first," said Doi Bu, a member of the Unity and Democracy Party of Kachin State, where clashes between Myanmar's military and armed ethnic groups have displaced thousands. "(Peace) is urgently needed to solve the problems. If not, there will be no development. War needs to stop immediately back in our states."

The event is named after the original 1947 conference convened by Suu Kyi's father, Gen. Aung San, who was head of an interim government while his country — then called Burma — prepared for independence from Britain. An agreement brokered by Aung San and signed by several major ethnic minority groups granted minorities significant autonomy and the right to secede if they joined a post-independence federal union. But Aung San was assassinated shortly after and the deal fell apart.

Since then, ethnic groups have accused successive, mostly military governments of failing to honor the 1947 pact.

Despite the framework of the conference allowing only the cease-fire signatories to attend, Myanmar's government invited a political alliance of non-signatory armed ethnic groups from the north of the country, often referred to as the Northern Alliance, to attend the conference.

The non-signatories will be allowed to attend the group discussions, but will not be permitted to speak, said government spokesman Zaw Htay.

Suu Kyi has previously called on all armed ethnic groups to sign the cease-fire. Her National League for Democracy-led government promised that peace would be the top priority when it came to power in 2016, but has since come under fire the brutal military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, as well as for failing to stop atrocities against other ethnic minorities.

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Milko reported from Yangon, Myanmar.

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