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Aung San Suu Kyi launched a major push to end decades of fighting between the military and myriad rebel groups with an appeal on Wednesday to the country’s ethnic minorities to overcome their differences to achieve peace.
Suu Kyi has made the peace process a priority for her administration, which faces sky-high expectations at home and abroad after sweeping to power in an election last November to end more than half a century of military-backed rule.
Delegates in elaborate ethnic costumes, sporting silver necklaces and hats adorned with peacock feathers, mingled and took photographs with military officers, mainstream majority Burman politicians and diplomats at the start of the conference.
“If all those who play a part … in the peace process cultivate the wisdom to reconcile differing views for the good of the people … we will surely be able to build the democratic federal union of our dreams,” said Suu Kyi in her opening remarks.
“Only if we are all united, our country will be at peace. Only if our country is at peace, will we be able to stand on equal footing with other countries in our region and across the world.”
Burma, officially now known as Myanmar, has been torn by fighting between the military, which seized power in a 1962 coup, and ethnic armed groups almost without a break since the end of the Second World War.
The focus on Wednesday was on the symbolic, with few concrete proposals likely to emerge from this week’s talks.
Delegates expect to meet every six months to discuss issues ranging from security, political representation, language and culture to control of Burma’s rich mineral resources.
“It’s the Tatmadaw [Burmese armed forces] members and our brethren members of ethnic armed groups, who have been directly suffering from … the lack of peace in the country, sacrificing their limbs and lives,” said army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.
“I firmly believe that we will be able to accomplish this great process with our unity and efforts.”
Burma is home to more than a hundred ethnic groups with distinct traditions and cultures, and some representative performed a folk dance on the conference stage celebrating the Southeast Asian nation’s ethnic diversity.
Among those absent from the conference, however, were any representatives of Burma’s 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims, who face persecution and human rights abuses at the hands of their Buddhist neighbours in northwestern Rakhine State.
A day before the conference started, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Burma to improve the living conditions of the Rohingya, underscoring the challenges facing Suu Kyi in tackling all the country’s ethnic divisions.
But the fact that Suu Kyi has been able to bring the vast majority of the rebel groups to the negotiating table only five months after taking power is a sign of progress, experts say.
Powerful armed groups from regions bordering China, including the Kachin Independence Organization, who refused to sign a ceasefire last October under the previous military-backed government, are now taking part, partly owing to China’s tacit support for the talks, observers say.
As the Burmese economy opens up, China is vying for influence with the United States. President Xi Jinping pledged his country would play a “constructive role” in the peace process when Suu Kyi visited China this month.
Casting a shadow over the talks is a recent flare-up in fighting in northernmost Kachin State and clashes in northeastern Shan State, which is home to several large groups operating close to borders with China and Thailand.