Myanmar ethnic rebels meet to discuss nationwide ceasefire

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YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Ethnic rebel group leaders began meeting Friday in northeastern Myanmar to discuss how to end the current fighting in the region and finalize a nationwide ceasefire agreement with the government.

The meeting which was taking place in Panghsang, the stronghold of the militarily powerful ethnic Wa group is attended by about 50 representatives from 12 ethnic armed groups including the Wa group. Meanwhile in a nearby region, fierce clashes between Kokang guerrillas and government troops have left hundreds killed.

At the same time, an alliance of more than a dozen ethnic minority groups has been holding talks with the government to end decades of fighting for autonomy.

The government's continued clashes with the Kokang have caused the ethnic alliance to distrust the sincerity of President Thein Sein's regime. Neither the Kokang nor their Wa hosts have been part of the government's talks but both were taking part in Friday's consultations.

The government strongly opposed the participation of the Kokang but leaders of the United Wa State Army invited them "so that we can help discuss and negotiate a speedy cessation of fighting in Kokang region," Wa spokesman Aung Myint told The Associated Press by phone.

In his opening speech, Wa chairman Pau Yu Chan said, "Nationwide ceasefire agreements are merely words on papers as long as ethnic conflicts continue." He said all ethnic minorities want to live in peace and build a prosperous and developed nation but ethnic minorities suffer due to more than half a century of ethnic conflict.

The issues discussed would relate to peace and stability in ethnic regions, the Wa spokesman said. "We want peace in the ethnic regions because development cannot be achieved without stability," Aung Myint added.

His viewpoint was endorsed by government peace negotiator Hla Maung Shwe, who said, "I believe that the Wa leaders will help find a way to end the conflict in its region — especially the ongoing conflict between the government and Kokang rebels."

He was referring to the fighting between Kokang rebels and government troops in Laukkai region near Chinese border, which broke out in early February.

"If the ethnic leaders summit can find a practical solution to end armed conflict, it could help bring about a more meaningful and inclusive ceasefire agreement," noted Yan Myo Thein, a writer and political analyst.

The Wa and the Kokang were the fighting force of the now-defunct Burma Communist Party about four decades ago and along with four other ethnic groups have their own designated self-administered areas stipulated in constitution.

It is the first time the Wa have hosted such a meeting in their capital as the government and 16 other ethnic armed groups inch toward signing a historic ceasefire accord.

"The conference will not have an adverse impact on the ceasefire agreement talks but it is likely to cause slight delay," said Aung Naing Oo, a program director for the non-partisan Myanmar Peace Center.

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