Hundreds of representatives from Myanmar’s ethnic insurgent groups gathered in the capital on Wednesday for talks aimed at reviving Aung San Suu Kyi’s stuttering peace process after months of heavy fighting.
The discussions are her second attempt to end conflict in the country’s troubled frontier regions, where various ethnic groups have been waging war against the state for almost seven decades. But more than a year after the Nobel laureate became the head of Myanmar’s first freely elected government in generations, little progress has been made on her flagship policy. “The most important thing in the current situation is to be able to hold a meaningful conference,” said ethnic affairs analyst Mg Mg Soe. “We cannot say it is a successful meeting if we do not get any agreement.”
Many armed groups have complained that Suu Kyi has not listened to their concerns and is working too closely with the military, which ran the country with an iron fist for almost half a century and widely loathed by rebel groups. None of them are expected to sign up to the National Ceasefire Agreement she is pushing, a controversial deal first touted by the previous military-backed government. But they are due to discuss for the first time whether states will be able to draft their own constitutions, something observers say is an important and symbolic step forward.
“In a way, it is a historic milestone in the post-colonial history of Myanmar and represents a new level of federalism,” said Angshuman Choudhury from the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
“It is a strategic move by the union government to appease powerful ethnic constituencies and… prevent outright secessionism.”
The talks come as violence in the 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.
The violence has destroyed much of the fragile trust minority voters placed in Suu Kyi in the 2015 vote, and her National League for Democracy (NLD) suffered several embarrassing 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, which is widely considered to be 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.
But in an early blow to the talks another powerful group, the UNFC (United Nationalities Federation Council), has refused to attend saying it had not been granted an “equal” place at the table.