Myanmar rebels hold rare meet as Suu Kyi yearns for peace

Mai Ja Yang (Myanmar) (AFP) - Leaders of Myanmar rebel armies held talks in a war-hit border town Wednesday, state media reported, as they prepare for a major peace conference with a government desperate to end insurgencies that have plagued the country.

Myanmar has been racked for half a century by ethnic rebel wars in its resource-rich frontier states, leaving tens of thousands dead or displaced.

Some groups have signed ceasefires but several other rebel armies are still fighting the nation's army -- including in the northern state of Kachin, where Wednesday's talks were held.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy activist leading the country's first civilian government, says ending the fighting is essential if Myanmar is to rise from the ashes of junta rule.

She wants to restart full peace talks within weeks.

This week's summit, held in a Kachin town ravaged by years of warfare, brought together "leaders representing 17 ethnic armed groups to search for common ground in working toward a federal system for the country", state-run Global New Light of Myanmar reported Wednesday.

The negotiators, many sporting traditional clothing, gathered in a hall in Mai Ja Yang, a town ringed by displacement camps on the border with China, which also sent an envoy to the talks.

Peace is hard to secure.

Distrust in the still-powerful military runs deep and the rebel groups themselves are divided -- with four pulling out of the Mai Ja Yang talks at the last minute.

The conflicts are complex and fuelled in part by the illegal trade in drugs, timber and jade, much of which is funnelled across the border to China. Rebels use the proceeds to buy guns.

The former military-backed government launched a peace dialogue but failed to secure a nationwide ceasefire with all groups.

Suu Kyi has promised a greater level of federal autonomy in a bid to secure peace, but has yet to spell out how it would work.

It is a promise her independence hero father also made in 1947. It was ignored by the junta that took control several years after his assassination and ruled over Myanmar for almost 50 years.

Suu Kyi's ability to wrest a peace deal or decentralise the government will depend heavily on the support of the military, which remains a potent political and economic force.

It holds the keys to any charter changes, runs crucial government ministries and dominates the economy's most lucrative sectors.