Suu Kyi says peace talks ‘will be priority’


YANGON–Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi Monday said bringing peace to the country’s strife-wracked ethnic regions will be a priority for her government when it takes power. The veteran democracy champion’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party swept landmark November polls that look set to curtail the military’s decades-long chokehold on the country. But under Myanmar’s complicated junta-era political charter, her party is not expected to take power until February — and Suu Kyi herself is banned from becoming president.

“We have to build peace. Building peace is the first ever duty of a new government,” she told supporters at the party’s Yangon headquarters on Monday, during a speech marking the country’s Independence Day. “We have to work to include everyone in a signed cease-fire agreement by holding a really effective peace conference,” she added. The 70-year-old opposition leader had remained somewhat tight-lipped on what her government’s main objectives and who her main players will be, as delicate transition negotiations continue between the incumbent military-backed government and her victorious party. Myanmar is a patchwork of ethnic identities with over 130 officially recognized minority groups, many with distinct languages and cultures. Across vast swaths of these often remote regions, ethnic rebel groups have fought wars against the military for greater autonomy, many of them lasting for decades.

Ethnic minorities have long accused the central government and the military of human rights abuses and resource grabs. Myanmar’s outgoing quasi-civilian, military-backed government recently inked cease-fires with a clutch of ethnic armed groups, with a landmark peace conference due to start next Tuesday.

But several major conflicts persist and some of the most significant insurgent outfits have yet to sign up to the deal. Suu Kyi has said her party supports a federal future and has made ethnic affairs and peace a central pillar of her party manifesto for Myanmar, where ethnic minority groups have fought decades-long wars for greater autonomy But she was criticized in the run-up to the polls for failing to reach out to minority parties. “All people have to participate in our struggle,” she told supporters. “Tatmadaw (the army) must participate. Ethnic groups must participate.” Suu Kyi is acutely aware that even once her government takes power, its rule will be limited.

The military retains huge power with a quarter of parliamentary seats reserved for unelected soldiers, and military appointees in charge of key security ministries. The ban on Suu Kyi taking the top position of president stems from her having married a foreigner and having foreign born children.

Outgoing president Thein Sein steps down on March 31. His successor will be chosen in a vote by Myanmar’s two legislative houses and the military parliamentary bloc. Suu Kyi has vowed to rewrite the junta-era constitution and be “above the president” when her government takes power.