Myanmar asks for Thai help with ethnic rebels

Mar 24, 2009 (AFP), Myanmar’s military government has asked Thailand to help negotiate with ethnic minority groups still battling junta rule ahead of elections promised for next year, a Thai minister said Monday.

Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, who has been visiting Myanmar since Sunday, said that his counterpart Nyan Win and Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein asked for Thai assistance.

"Myanmar has confirmed that the election will be held next year and Myanmar has asked Thailand to help talk with minority groups to join in the reconciliation process," Kasit told reporters by telephone from Myanmar.

"Thailand is willing to help," he said.

Myanmar has been ruled by the military since 1962 and ignored the results of the last election in 1990, instead keeping the victorious opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of the last two decades.

The generals have promised multi-party elections in 2010, but democracy activists say the polls are simply a ruse to entrench military rule because Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from participating.

Kasit said that Myanmar government officials told him "they are listening for Aung San Suu Kyi’s position", but gave no further details.

Myanmar’s junta partly justifies its firm grip on power by claiming the need to fend off ethnic rebellions which have plagued remote border areas for decades.

The impoverished nation formerly known as Burma is home to at least 135 different ethnic groups, but over the years most rebel groups fighting central rule have reached ceasefire agreements with the junta.

Kasit singled out the Karen National Union for possible talks, a group which has been fighting for independence since 1949.

Tens of thousands of Karen civilians have fled fighting in the past two decades and crossed the border to refugee camps in Thailand.

"If Thailand helps talking with minority groups, maybe the problems on the border will be resolved too," said Kasit, who returns to Thailand later Monday.

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