Talks aimed at ending nearly seven decades of fighting between Myanmar's government and ethnic rebel groups opened in the capital of Naypyitaw Wednesday.
Delegates from 17 ethnic minorities, decked out in the colorful costumes of their particular group, filled the convention hall, mingling with military officers and diplomats at the start of the five-day conference, a major initiative of Aung San Suu Kyi's first days as leader of Myanmar's new democratically-elected government.
Myanmar's Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, center, sits with Myanmar's President Htin Kyaw, (Right), and Vice President Henry Van Hti Yu as they smile for a photo session following the Union Peace Conference-21st Century Panglong at the Myanmar International Convention Centre, Aug. 31, 2016, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar.
"Only if we are united will our country be at peace," the Nobel Peace laureate said in her opening remarks. "Only if our country is at peace will we be able to stand on an equal footing with other countries in our region and across the world."
"This is a unique opportunity for us to accomplish a great task that will stand as a landmark throughout our history. Let us grasp this magnificent opportunity, with wisdom, courage, and perseverance, and create a future infused with light," she stated.
The summit has been dubbed "21st Century Panglong," a tribute to a 1947 agreement brokered by independence hero General Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi's late father, that granted ethnic minorities autonomy once Myanmar, also known as Burma, gained independence from Britain. But the deal fell apart the following year when Aung San was assassinated, pitting the separatist groups located on the country's borders with China and Thailand against the military, who ruled Myanmar with an iron fist for over five decades.
On the eve of the peace conference, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Myanmar's new government to confer citizenship on its 1 million-strong Rohingya Muslim minority, who are regarded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
"Every transition takes a risk but refusing to embark on transition may carry the greatest risk of all. We see tragic evidence of this around the world. I urge you all to continue to face up to your responsibilities, particularly to the youth and children of Myanmar - the future of this wonderful country. You owe it to them to work for a better tomorrow," he said.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, delivers an opening speech during the Union Peace Conference-21st Century Panglong, at the Myanmar International Convention Centre, Aug. 31, 2016, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar.
Burmese General Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief, Myanmar Armed Forces stated, "We need to end this tragic drift in the present during our tenure. In all seriousness, I believe we all can successfully implement our peace process with the strength of unity. In this regard, I would say once more that the Tatmadaw's [Myanmar Armed Forces] stand is firm and is based on 'the spirit of restoring peace without fail.'"
General Nban La, Kachin Independence Army leader added, "I want to say that we want to live peacefully together with happiness and sadness. The federal union that we are talking about is not about separating ourselves from the country. We just want equal rights and to live together and collaborate like brothers."
As many as 120,000 Rohingya have been languishing in squalid displaced persons camps in western Rakhine state since 2012, when fighting broke out between Buddhist nationalists and Muslims.
Kofi Annan, Ban Ki-moon's predecessor as U.N. chief, was named by the Myanmar government to head an advisory panel to address the issues in Rakhine state.