NAYPYITAW – Myanmar President Thein Sein on Wednesday made his first public appearance since the start of campaigning for Nov. 8 general elections, meeting leaders of ethnic minority guerrilla groups for cease-fire talks in the capital Naypyitaw.
Clinching a deal with rebel groups would be a political win 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 a deal with all ethnic armies is unlikely, experts say, with some groups excluded from the talks, as fighting in the restive Kokang region along Myanmar’s border with China has continued unabated since February.
Representatives of five main groups from about 16 participating in the talks met Thein Sein. The groups included the Karen National Union, the Kachin Independence Organisation and the Karenni National Progressive Party.
“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 cease-fire agreement by the end of September.”
Thein Sein has proposed Sept. 29 for the signing, a source who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic told reporters.
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.
The draft of the cease-fire was hammered out during almost two years of grueling negotiations, but ethnic armed groups had refused to sign it, urging the government to grant ethnic minorities more autonomy.
Another stumbling block is the inclusion of three armed groups fighting the government in the Kokang area as signatories. Many members of the ethnic armed groups want the three to sign at the same time as the others, but the government has pushed for an agreement that excludes them.
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 on Thursday meet voters 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.