Representatives of ethnic minorities who have been battling Myanmar's government for decades said Monday their meeting with the country's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was a good beginning but that the peace process remains an uphill task.
Neither side made any promises in the talks to prepare for substantive peace negotiations in August, said Khu Oo Reh of the United Nationalities Federal Council, a coalition of ethnic rebel groups. The ethnic groups are particularly interested in securing a political agreement - the subject of the planned August talks - that would meet their long standing demands for greater autonomy.
"It was just like a family meeting,'' he told reporters. "It was a meeting that led to constructive intentions for the future meeting.''
Khu Oo Reh said the Sunday talks did not resolve whether ethnic armed groups who didn't sign a 2015 nationwide cease-fire agreement would participate in the August meeting, considered by both sides to be crucial to restoring peace after more than five decades of mutual mistrust and warfare. Fighting continues in some areas.
"We have said many times that the government needs to work on the negotiations to stop the offensive attacks by the military on the ground,'' Khu Oo Reh said. "We generally understand that the government and the military are aware of that and working on that process.''
Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party in March succeeded a military-backed government, has dubbed the August meeting the 21st-Century Panglong Conference, a reference to the 1947 Panglong Agreement that was signed by her father, Gen. Aung San, and ethnic minority groups. Aung San was assassinated before the country became formally independent from Britain, and ethnic groups generally hold his successors responsible for not honoring the 1947 pact, which would have guaranteed them more autonomy.
"All stakeholders, which means all armed groups, must be included,'' in the August talks, said Khu Oo Reh. "If any group is excluded, the problem will come back again one day to the country, and the hope that we have on for secure lives, peace and rule of law will fade away.''
He expressed some frustration that Suu Kyi, who holds the official post of State Counselor, had asked what the ethnic rebel groups could give to the government.
He said he replied with his own question noting the suffering that many minority groups had undergone in decades of fighting.
"We no longer have any resources left. Mountains are flattened. The land has become desert-like. Rivers and streams are dried up. Villages are abandoned. People fled from their homes to the jungle, and others are now staying in other countries as refugees. What I want to ask is, what are you looking to get from us? What else do we have to give?''