LAIZA, BURMA —
Representatives from 17 Burmese ethnic groups kicked off a three-day conference the northern town of Laiza to discuss ways to work together and engage the government in ceasefire talks.
Speakers stressed the need for unity on Wednesday at headquarters of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political arm of the main Kachin ethnic rebel group.
Kachin rebel leader Zaung Hkra, who rarely gives interviews or speaks in public, told the assembly he has high hopes for the meeting.
"All the leaders of the ethnic groups, we have a lot of experience and we have learned what the people want," he said. "I believe we will make a correct decision at the conference."
Karen National Union (KNU) chairman Mutu Saepo said the various groups need to work together for a peaceful resolution of their disputes with the national government.
"We believe the problem can be solved only by political means," he said. "That is why we are proceeding with the government step by step."
The delegates will also be discussing strategies for changes to the national constitution that would give more autonomy to each state.
Although the government was not invited to the conference, Burmese President Thein Sein sent a message wishing a good outcome for the peace process.
The Wa ethnic group, which is among the most powerful of Burma's ethnic minorities, declined an invitation to attend.
Burma's various minority ethnic groups have been fighting against the national government for decades. Most have reached unofficial ceasefires with the army in recent years.
This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Burmese service.