NAYPYIDAW – The third peace conference between Myanmar’s ethnic minority rebel groups and the government began on Wednesday in Naypyidaw, with 17 of the 21 active ethnic rebel groups in the country participating.
Most of the ethnic minorities of Myanmar, including Chin, Kachin, Karen, Kokang, Kayah, Mon, Rakhine and Shan, which together represent more than 30 percent of Myanmar’s 53-million strong population, are demanding greater autonomy from the country’s central government.
Guan Maw, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Kachin Independence Army, told local media that he had come to the conference hoping to open channels of dialogue and stop the military offensive in northern Kachin state.
The KIA is one of the seven guerilla organizations which have not signed the National Ceasefire Agreement and are attending the peace conference for the first team as an observer.
The other six non-signatory groups participating in the conference are the United Wa State Army, Shan State Progressive Party, Mongla’s National Democratic Alliance Army, Kokang ethnic group’s Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army and Arakan Army.
The armed forces of Myanmar, who are in control of the portfolios of defense, interior and border affairs, had opposed the presence of armed groups which have not signed the ceasefire at the conference.
Ethnic minority groups have argued that true peace and reconciliation is impossible without the participation of all sides and urged the government to change its peace dialogue framework.
The de-facto leader of Myanmar, Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, attended the conference’s opening ceremony at the Naypyidaw convention center, which featured traditional Burmese dance performances and was attended by hundreds of people.
After being governed by successive military regimes from 1962 to 2011, Myanmar witnessed a transition phase and an elected government led by Suu Kyi came to power in 2016.
The new government had initiated peace and reconciliation efforts after coming to power, but clashes with rebel groups and the crisis surrounding the Rohingyas, a mostly Muslim minority which is absent at the conference, have raised questions on the process.
Around 700,000 Rohingyas have fled to neighboring Bangladesh since August 2017 after a military offensive against them in the Rakhine state.