YANGON Myanmar's government held peace talks on Thursday with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of the country's most powerful rebel groups, as part of moves to resolve all its ethnic conflicts after decades of fighting.
A delegation led by industry minister and head peace negotiator Aung Thaung met KIA representatives in the Chinese border town of Ruili for talks aimed at halting a conflict that resurfaced in June and has displaced tens of thousands of people.
In a statement sent to Reuters, the KIA said the talks were aimed at containing the conflict "with a view to the emergence of stability, tranquility and sustainable peace."
Myanmar has agreed to ceasefires with several ethnic rebel groups in the past two months, including the Shan State Army (South) and the Karen National Union (KNU), which has fought the central government since 1949.
It has yet to agree any political deals, however, and some groups are pushing for some form of autonomy in the jungle and mountain-clad regions they have controlled for decades along the Chinese and Thai borders.
A ceasefire with the KIA would be a step towards the lifting of sanctions imposed on Myanmar by the European Union and the United States, which have made peace deals with ethnic militias a pre-requisite.
U.S. officials have said the peace process might prove the toughest challenge for civilian leaders who are eager to bring the nation in from the cold after five decades of army rule.
Myanmar's government has faced fierce political and armed resistance from the KIA, which harbors deep distrust towards the military and accuses it of taking the Kachin State conflict to "total annihilation stage."
Battles are continuing every day, despite an order last month by Myanmar President Thein Sein for the military to end its operations in Kachin State.
The government's only explanation for the troops' failure to withdraw has been communication problems, but the continued fighting has cast doubt on whether the former general in charge of the country has full control over the military.
In a statement posted on a Burmese-language Kachin News Today, the KIA suggested the military action was excessive but welcomed the offer of talks it said should be based on "the rights to self-determination and equality."
"Battles have become widespread since the first broke out on June 9. Undesirable problems are breaking out every day as a result of using extensive military forces," it added.
The government says peace is its priority, but has given no indication as to whether it would consider allowing some form of self-rule to any of the ceasefire groups.
Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has long advocated autonomy under a federal system for some of the ethnic groups. She wants a "Second Pinlong Agreement," which would be a revival of a 1947
autonomy plan that was aborted after the assassination of her late father and national independence hero, Aung San.
According to the government's peace negotiators, Thein Sein wants to hold a conference in parliament aimed at cementing all the separate ceasefire agreements and ensuring the conflicts would not reignite.
(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Ed Lane)