By Hnin Yadana Zaw
YANGON (Reuters - Rebel leaders in Myanmar on Wednesday urged the government to amend the military-drafted constitution to give more autonomy to ethnic minorities, a step they said would make it easier to sign a national ceasefire agreement.
In a statement released at the end of a six-day summit in Pansang on the border with China, the heads of a dozen rebel armies risen from various ethnic groups in Myanmar also called on the government to cease its military offensives against them and to create a federal system.
The rebel leaders had gathered at the headquarters of the powerful United Wa State Army to discuss a draft ceasefire agreement finalised in March after almost two years of talks by negotiators.
The peace talks have been undermined by heavy fighting that broke out in February on the eastern frontier with China, sending tens of thousands of refugees over the border.
Myanmar's semi-civilian government, which took power in 2011 after 49 years of military rule, has said it wants to sign a nationwide accord before elections later this year to end conflicts with the many groups that have taken up arms since independence in 1948.
But federalism has emerged as a sticking point in negotiations. Rebel groups want greater autonomy, while the military has long stressed the need for a strong, centralized government, as set down in a 2008 military-drafted constitution.
"Only if the government agrees to our claim to amend the 2008 constitution, (bringing) democratization, racial equality and the right to self administration, can we stay together in a federal union," the rebel leaders said in the statement.
Mai Phong Kyaw, general secretary of the Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), told Reuters: "If the government does not consider our demands in the upcoming meetings, the NCA (national ceasefire agreement) will be delayed for sure."
Information Minister Ye Htut said he could not comment on the demands because he had not yet read the statement.
Tensions between Myanmar's ethnic minorities and the majority Bama, who dominate the government, have led to many groups taking up arms and fighting the military on the fringes of the country.
The recent fighting on the eastern border with China has pitted government troops against a group called the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), which is made up of ethnic Han Chinese.
The TNLA and the Arakan Army are fighting alongside the MNDAA.
The government has refused to recognize those three groups as legitimate parties in the peace talks, and the military on May 3 issued a warning to media outlets that they could be sued if they reported MNDAA statements.
In their statement at the end of the summit on Wednesday, ethnic leaders called on the government to include the MNDAA, TNLA and Arakan Army in future negotiations.
(Writing by Jared Ferrie; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)