Myanmar’s president held his first meeting with Karen rebels on Saturday, officials said, as the government intensifies efforts to bolster peace with the country’s oldest insurgent group.
The meeting is the latest sign that Myanmar is keen to cement a ceasefire in the war-torn eastern state, amid pressure from the international community to end ethnic conflict as it considers lifting sanctions to reward recent reforms.
Delegates from the Karen National Union (KNU) met President Thein Sein in the capital Naypyidaw, according to unnamed officials, following negotiations with ministers in Yangon on Friday.
An independent member of the peace negotiation group present at the talks, who asked not to be named, described the encounter as “warm and open”.
He said the KNU leaders were “surprised and satisfied because it was the first time they had met the president”.
“The KNU said they will continue peace talks with the government until the end. They said they would urge other ethnic groups to work for peace,” he said.
Six delegates, including members of the armed wing of the group, were taken “by special flight” for the landmark meeting, which lasted about 90 minutes, officials said.
Thailand-based Aung Naing Oo, of the Vahu Development Institute think-tank, said the talks were “very significant”.
“The group that the president is meeting is people who are really critical of the military regime and even the current government,” he said.
“It is a huge confidence-building measure and it shows the government is really willing to reach out to many of the ethnic groups.”
The KNU members later returned to Yangon and are due to meet opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Sunday, a week after she swept to victory in historic by-elections with her party – seen as the culmination of burgeoning reforms by the government.
Those changes, brought about since direct military rule ended last year, also saw the regime sign January’s ceasefire with the KNU, whose armed wing has been battling the government since 1949.
Myanmar has also signed a number of similar deals with other rebels.
But ongoing fighting in northern Kachin state has cast a shadow over the peace efforts, displacing tens of thousands of people since it sparked last year.
Authorities postponed the by-elections in three constituencies in the state, citing security concerns, and rights groups have claimed serious abuses continue in the area.
Myanmar has been gripped by civil war in parts of the country since independence from colonial rule in 1948 and the military used the conflict to justify an iron-fisted dictatorship that lasted for nearly half a century.
A commitment to end ethnic conflict across Myanmar was included in the 13-point peace plan negotiated by the group and government officials on Friday as part of efforts to find a political settlement to the fighting.
The KNU has long been considered an illegal organisation and much of its leadership is based in Thailand.
A government official told AFP that four ministers accompanied the KNU delegates to Naypyidaw.
“I think the president organised the meeting so that it was before they held talks with Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said.
The KNU said on Thursday it was keen to assess Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party and its commitment to reconciliation efforts during Sunday’s talks, which will be the democracy icon’s first important discussions as an elected politician.
The Nobel peace laureate is largely well-regarded in minority areas, but she is also seen as a member of an ethnic Burman elite.
The Karen, one of at least 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar, make up about seven percent of Myanmar’s population.
Fighting in Karen state forced huge numbers of villagers to flee their homes and tens of thousands of these refugees live in camps across the border in Thailand.-By Hla Hla Htay