Myanmar's government launched a new round of peace talks with ethnic Kachin rebels on Tuesday, seeking to end an armed conflict that has recently been overshadowed by strife between Buddhists and Muslims in other parts of the country.
The top government negotiator said the talks, if successful, could lead to a comprehensive cease-fire agreement with all ethnic rebel groups in a month or two.
The talks with the Kachin Independence Organization, scheduled to last three days, are the first to be held in the Kachin state capital of Myitkyina.
Fighting erupted in Kachin in June 2011, ending a cease-fire that had been in place since 1994 and displacing more than 100,000 people.
Since independence in 1948, Myanmar has faced rebellions from a number of minority groups seeking autonomy. While sporadic fighting continues with several, the Kachin are the only major group that has not reached a cease-fire agreement with the elected government of President Thein Sein, who came to power in 2011 after almost five decades of military rule.
"If we can have an agreement with the KIO, the president has the desire to hold a formal cease-fire signing agreement with all ethnic groups" by June or July, said President's Office Minister Aung Min, a veteran negotiator with ethnic rebel groups who is leading the government side at the talks.
The current fighting began when Kachin guerrillas refused to abandon a strategic base near a hydropower plant that the government is developing in a joint venture with a Chinese company. To help maintain peace with the minority groups, the government allows them to maintain their own militias, although in recent years the groups have been pressured to put them under government control.
The two sides had 14 earlier meetings in Ruili in China and Chiang Mai in Thailand, but failed to agree on a cease-fire. The government has made a cease-fire its priority, but the Kachin rebels want any agreement to include a political framework that could lead to long-term peace.
The Kachin team at the peace talks is being led by the deputy chief of its military wing, Gen. Gum Maw. Observers include U.N. special advisor on Myanmar Vijay Nambiar and several Chinese officials. Kachin borders China and the fighting risks destabilizing the area.