Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday offered to help negotiate an end to conflicts between the government and ethnic minority groups, a challenge the country’s president called essential to building democracy.
Suu Kyi made the offer in a video address to members of her National League for Democracy party on Union Day, which marks when her late father Gen Aung San signed a 1947 agreement with leaders of the country’s ethnic minorities to gain independence from Britain together.
The occasion is a reminder of an issue that has destabilized the country since even before it obtained independence in 1948 under the name of Burma.
Rebellions by ethnic minorities striving for greater autonomy were hard for a democratic parliamentary system to handle, which increased pressure for strong central authority and helped lead to an army takeover in 1962. Military rule persisted until 2011.
The government of elected President Thein Sein has reached cease-fire agreements with most of the major ethnic groups but is still engaged in a bitter struggle with the Kachin in northern Burma.
Thein Sein in his Union Day address stressed the importance of “political stability and the end of armed conflicts.”
“At present, political stability and the end of armed conflicts is of prime importance for the flourishing of democracy in the country,” he said in a speech delivered by Vice President Sai Mauk Kham, a member of the Shan minority.
Suu Kyi said she would take part in peace talks if the parties involved asked her to do so.
“I have been criticized by some people for not taking part in peace talks regarding the Kachin conflict. I have always said I am willing to take part in the peace process if the concerned parties wanted me to,” she said.
Suu Kyi’s father was assassinated before independence after negotiating the1947 Panglong Agreement with the minorities. Many in Burma believe his removal from the scene was the reason the pact failed to keep the peace.
Tension with ethnic minorities fighting for greater autonomy in Burma is considered one of the biggest major long-term challenges for any Burma government, though the Kachin are the only major ethnic rebel group that has not reached a truce with Thein Sein’s administration.
A cease-fire that held for nearly two decades broke down in June 2011 after the Kachin refused to abandon a strategic base near a hydropower plant that is a joint venture with a Chinese company. Clashes escalated after the government began using fighter planes and helicopter gunships in its attacks starting on Christmas Day last year.
Earlier this month the government and the Kachin agreed to de-escalate military tensions, open lines of communication and invite observers to attend their next meeting to be held before end of February. Both sides agreed to hold a political dialogue — as opposed to just cease-fire talks — and to establish a monitoring system to implement a cease-fire between warring government troops and Kachin guerrillas in the north of the country.