Myanmar president meets ethnic rebel groups for peace talks

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 09, 2015 1:43 AM

By Aye Win Myint and Hnin Yadana Zaw

NAYPYITAW/LOIKAW (Reuters) - Myanmar President Thein Sein on Wednesday made his first public appearance since the start of a campaign for Nov. 8 general elections, meeting leaders of ethnic minority guerrilla groups for ceasefire talks in the capital Naypyitaw.

Clinching a deal with rebel groups would be a political victory for Thein Sein, who made it his top priority, boosting the chances of his ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party in the first general elections since the end of military rule.

But an agreement with all ethnic armies is unlikely, experts say, with some groups excluded from the talks. Fighting has continued unabated since February in the restive Kokang region along Myanmar's border with China.

"I'd like to stress the importance of peace in the transition to democracy," Thein Sein said at the opening of the talks. "Without peace, it is not possible. I hope today's summit will pave the way to signing the nationwide ceasefire agreement by the end of September."

During the talks Thein Sein proposed Sept. 29 for the signing, but ethnic groups' leaders said they needed until mid-October to discuss the details between themselves, Aung Naing Oo, director of the Myanmar Peace Center which coordinates the talks told Reuters after the meeting.

The president is not running in the elections, but the Myanmar constitution allows lawmakers, who select the president, to vote for a person from outside parliament, giving Thein Sein a chance of re-election.

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi last week urged the rebels not to rush the deal, but work slowly on a pact to ensure lasting peace and stability. She said all groups should be included in the accord.

In the first showdown of the election campaign, Suu Kyi will meet voters on Thursday in Kayah state, where powerful Minister of the President's Office Soe Thein, the architect of Thein Sein's economic reforms, is running for a seat.

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Suu Kyi is to give two speeches close to Loikaw, the state capital, on Thursday and will tour the area until Saturday, activists said.

"She is coming here just to support our candidates, because it looks like we are weaker than the rivals," Thaung Htay, 56, a member of the Loikaw chapter of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, told Reuters.

The party's headquarters in Loikaw was abuzz with activity as staff readied banners, hoisted the party flag, and polished bronze statues of Suu Kyi and her father, Myanmar national hero General Aung San, ahead of the visit.

(Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun and Timothy Mclaughlin; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Ralph Boulton)