Burma’s government has held secret peace talks with ethnic groups along the Thai-Burma border in the latest initiative aimed at ending the country’s 50 years of international isolation.
An informal truce is believed to be in place ahead of further talks to formalise a ceasefire.
The United States has said human rights abuses by Burma’s armed forces against ethnic groups must end for economic sanctions to be lifted.
Burma’s military-dominated government is believed to have offered the ethnic groups more economic development, including industrial zones, freedom of travel for unarmed leaders and other incentives prior to further talks, possibly in the country’s new capital, Naypyidaw.
The government has also dropped an unpopular plan initiated several years ago to force ethnic fighters to serve in a military-commanded border guard.
The latest in the series of talks was held near the border last weekend between Aung Min, a special envoy of the President, Thein Sein, and senior figures of the rebel groups the Karen National Union, the Shan State Army, the Karenni National People’s Party and the Chin National Front.
The groups, which control private militias and large swathes of territory along the Thai and Chinese borders, have been fighting for autonomy and independence for decades.
Increased fighting in some areas in recent months has displaced tens of thousands of people and has prompted accusations by human rights groups of abuses including forced labour and rapes.
Aung Min, Burma’s Railways minister, said that the talks were only preliminary but ”they are a serious and sincere effort and a genuine initiative to sustainable and long lasting peace”.
”The government of Thein Sein sincerely wants to find a fair and durable peace which covers all the ethnic group’s concerns,” Aung Min told the Bangkok Post newspaper.
As the talks were held, Western nations including the US were rushing to embrace Burma’s leaders, who appear to have embarked on a path towards economic and political reform in the country of 55 million mostly impoverished people.
The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is due to visit Burma early next month followed by the Secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon.
The pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy last week endorsed the government’s initiatives – which include easing media and union restrictions – by deciding to contest coming byelections and take seats in parliament. Last week, the country was also awarded the chairmanship for 2014 of the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations.
That will require it to open its borders to foreign diplomats, officials, international agencies and to the world’s media.
The government is still under pressure at home and abroad to release an estimated 2000 political prisoners, to rewrite laws to empower ordinary Burmese and to stimulate foreign investment to bring jobs.