YANGON, Myanmar – The Myanmar government and armed ethnic minority groups resumed critical talks on Wednesday to reach a nationwide ceasefire agreement that would end six decades of fighting before an upcoming general election that threatens to upend hard-won progress toward a deal.
More than a dozen ethnic minority groups and government representatives have been in talks for more than 18 months and a key negotiator warned that failure to reach an accord could trigger a fresh round of fighting if the military takes action. The general election, which would usher in a new president, takes place in November.
"If negotiations fail and the military believe that the nationwide ceasefire agreement cannot be signed under the present government, they will have no choice but to launch military operations," said Hla Maung Shwe, of the Myanmar Peace Center.
The center, funded by the European Union, was set up in 2012 to help with ceasefire negotiations and the ethnic peace process.
The prospect of reaching a deal as soon as possible, however, was uncertain.
Key details were still up in the air Wednesday, including which ethnic groups will participate.
Negotiations hit a snag in June when minorities attending a summit asked the government to allow three other groups still at odds with the government to participate in the ceasefire signing.
When President Thein Sein assumed power in 2011, the armed groups operated in 55 townships across the country but that number has grown to 110 townships in 2015, according to research conducted by the European-funded center. Some ethnic armed groups like the Ta'ang National Liberation Army have increased their strength, Hla Maung Shwe said, quoting from the center's work.
He and Aung Min, the vice chairman of the government's Union Peace-making Working Committee, were taking part in the Wednesday talks.
Ethnic rebel group Karen National Union's vice president Naw Zipporah Sein led the negotiations on the ethnic minority groups' side.
In his opening remarks at the talks, Aung Min told ethnic leaders that the nationwide ceasefire agreement should be signed before the end of the tenure of Thein Sein government.
Peace negotiators suggested the agreement could be signed by 15 ethnic groups, but the ethnic leaders have insisted on a deal that also includes buy-in from the Shan state's Ta'ang National Liberation Amry, the Kokang group and the Arakan Army.