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State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi told villagers at the heart of the country on Monday that talks with ethnic rebels must be a priority, after putting peace negotiations ahead of economic reforms in her first months in power.
Suu Kyi inherited the long-running ethnic conflicts when she came to power last year amid a transition from decades of military rule that wrecked rural economies.
The Nobel laureate has come under criticism for putting the complicated talks with myriad armed groups — expected to last years and unlikely to bring tangible results soon — over the economy, which has suffered from a drop in foreign investment.
She has hosted two rounds of talks with rebel leaders in the capital Naypyidaw, but significant progress has been elusive.
“I want all my citizens to consider that the peace process is a matter for everybody. … We can maintain development only when we get peace,” Suu Kyi told a crowd of hundreds in Myaetinekan village, Mandalay Division.
“We don’t have peace in our country because there is no mutual trust, love and [there is] conflict among our citizens or ethnicities.”
Local and international media were invited by the government to follow Suu Kyi’s visit and watch the event dubbed a “peace talk,” the third such exchange with villagers she has held. The event was simultaneously broadcast on state television.
Suu Kyi declined several opportunities to answer reporters’ questions.
“Our national priority is peace,” Mandalay Division Chief Minister Zaw Myint Maung told Reuters. “It’s a peace talk. … The context is peace, and then development.”
Those who had the opportunity, however, asked Suu Kyi about agricultural concerns like irrigation and the recent electrification of some parts of the village, which had left out some villagers.
Aung Tint, 64, told Reuters he supported Suu Kyi’s decision to prioritise peace, but said life had changed little in the 16 months since Suu Kyi took office.
“To tell frankly, we are farmers,” he said. “She can’t do anything for us so far, because the crop prices are not good.”
Suu Kyi passed off specific questions to senior officials also in attendance.
Zaw Myint Maung said Myaetinekan was chosen for the visit because it lies approximately at the geographical centre of Burma and was a typical Burmese village.
Most residents are rice farmers and belong to the country’s ethnic Bamar-Buddhist majority.
Suu Kyi’s party won handsomely here and elsewhere in the Bamar heartland in the 2015 elections that propelled her to power.
On a short tour of the village, she viewed a Japanese-made transformer that was installed in March to connect the village to the national power grid for the first time.
At weaving factories with machines running off the power, Suu Kyi joked with villagers who offered her homemade snacks and, in one instance, bowed at her feet.