NAYPYITAW, Myanmar – Hundreds of representatives of Myanmar's ethnic tribes gathered Wednesday in the country's capital for historic peace talks with the government aimed at ending decades of separatist insurgencies that have claimed thousands of lives.
The delegates, dressed in traditional garb and headgear, streamed into a conference hall in Naypyitaw for the five-day talks called by the new government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Although her title is state counsellor she is seen as the country's real leader.
Suu Kyi, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the head of armed forces Gen. Min Aung Hlaing are scheduled to give speeches at the opening of the talks to determine the fate of the country's various ethnic minorities, who make up about 40 percent of the population.
"All our people around the country want peace. So I do believe we will be successful in getting it at the conference," said Khun Than Myint, the facilitator of the meeting, whose official title is Union Peace Conference -- 21st Century Panglong.
This is a reference to the Panglong Agreement brokered in 1947 by Suu Kyi's late father, independence hero Gen. Aung San, in a town called Panglong. This week's conference is being attended by 17 of the 20 main armed groups, including the Karen, Kachin, Shan and Wa, along with other stakeholders.
The 1947 deal granted ethnic minorities autonomy and the right to secede if they worked with the federal government to break away from Britain together. Aung San was assassinated the following year and the deal fell apart. Since then, ethnic groups have accused successive, mostly military, governments of failing to honor the 1947 pact, just before Myanmar gained independence from Britain the next year.
The first uprising — launched by ethnic Karen insurgents — began shortly after independence. Since then other ethnic groups have also taken up arms.
Skirmishes, particularly in northern zones where Kachin insurgents are fighting the army, have displaced more than 100,000 civilians since 2011 alone. At least 100,000 more have sought refuge in squalid camps in neighboring Thailand, and are unlikely to return home until true peace takes hold.
The rebel armies control a patchwork of remote territories rich in jade and timber that are located mostly in the north and east along the borders with China and Thailand. They represent various ethnic groups that for decades have been fighting for autonomy while resisting "Burmanization," a push by the Burman ethnic majority to propagate its language, religion and culture in ethnic minority regions.
Suu Kyi promised that bringing peace would be her top priority when her government assumed power earlier this year after decades of military rule. The previous military-backed government brokered individual truces with various insurgent groups and oversaw a cease-fire covering eight minor insurgencies last year that fell short of a nationwide deal.
"It is still too early to say" whether this Panglong conference is representative of the aspirations of all groups, said Khu Oo Reh, the spokesman of the United Nationalities and Federal Council, a group that represents all ethnic armed groups. "But we really hope that we can achieve real democracy and equality for all ethnic groups, and self-determination in our region."