Myanmar's government expects to reach ceasefire deals with all of the country's ethnic minority rebel armies within three months before starting a process of political dialogue towards everlasting peace, its top peace negotiator said on Wednesday.
In his first interview with a foreign news organisation, Aung Min, a retired general and minister for rail transportation tasked with negotiating an end to the decades-old conflicts, said Myanmar's 49 years of military rule had not let peace prevail but the new civilian-led government was winning the trust of the rebel armies.
Long-lasting political solutions with economic incentives for conflict areas were within reach, he said.
This is a chronic disease that has been happening for over 60 years. Successive governments couldn't cure the disease because the remedy didn't fit, Aung Min said.
Things have changed in our country and this situation has now changed, this has allowed us to find the remedy.
Peace with the rebels, most of whom demand autonomy under what they call a genuine federal system, has been set by the United States and the European Union as a condition for lifting sanctions on the former Burma, an underdeveloped but resource-rich country that has wilted under international isolation and inept army rule.
But Aung Min said the government's motive was not the lifting of sanctions.
I don't consider other factors. We are all brethrens, no matter whether ethnic fighters or soldiers die, they are all our families, he said.
Nine of 16 rebel groups had signed ceasefire agreements with the government and he expected six more deals to be reached within a few months, including with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of the biggest groups, which the Myanmar military is still fighting.
He said the Kayah Nationalities Progressive Party (KNPP) would sign a deal on March 1 and five smaller parties were ready to put down their arms.
He declined to comment on the conflict in Kachin State, which rages on despite an order by President Thein Sein and the armed forces commander-in-chief for troops to end offensives.
Aung Min also said Senior General Than Shwe, the former dictator who ruled Myanmar with an iron fist for 18 years, had no influence on his former prodigies now in charge of the nominally civilian government.
U Than Shwe has retired completely. We don't need to follow his orders or influence. There is now virtually no contact, Aung Min said. U is a Burmese honorific.
He has a big library next to his residence. When he was in power he had no time to read books and he's reading now. We owe a debt of gratitude to him for his leadership during the transitional period, for the peaceful transition from military rule to a democratic society.
He doesn't need to be involved. I'm very sure he'll be pleased with the situation now, looking at it from afar.
Many people in Myanmar suspect the reclusive and highly secretive former strongman, a psychological warfare specialist, has maintained a behind the scenes role.
Aung Min's comments were the first by a member of the new government lauding Than Shwe for his role in the transition since he stepped aside on March 30 last year to make way for Thein Sein's nominally civilian government.
IT CAN TAKE TIME
Aung Min also rejected speculation that there was conflict in the government between reformers and hardline remnants of the junta.
This is all rumours. We are all united behind the president, he added.
Thein Sein had laid down a three-step plan for peace with the rebel groups that involved ceasefires, political agreements and resettlement of displaced people, then a special assembly of parliament in which all of the groups would cement long-term deals, he said.
Ethnic Burmans, the country's traditional rulers, make up about two-thirds of its estimated 60 million people.
A major issue since the country gained independence from Britain in 1948 has been the demand from ethnic minority groups for self-determination.
Aung Min would not say whether that could be possible, but said arrangements could be made under a 2008 constitution, which could be amended, and the groups would be encouraged to form political parties and join parliament.
Dialogue may take some time and then we will have a national assembly, but the more it talks, the longer it will take. The flexibility depends on the groups, we can push this through fast, or it can take time, he said.
It was difficult to gain the trust of the ethnic minority factions, he said, but most were sincere about peace and some leaders had stayed with him at his home in Naypyitaw, he said.
At first they didn't trust me, they carried out body searches on me for weapons, they weren't brave enough to eat food I had brought, in case I poisoned them, he said.
They didn't accept gifts and souvenirs in case there were bombs or booby-traps. I had to win their trust and confidence and I was humble with them.
He said he had approached foreign firms, many of which ran factories that were damaged during neighbouring Thailand's floods last year, with a view to setting up in former conflict zones once peace deals had been reached.
Myanmar migrant workers and refugees, many of whom are in Thailand, would be encouraged to return with offers of incentives like higher wages than Thailand offers, land for farming, factory jobs and development projects in villages.
In the past we never thought of a post-ceasefire agreement, before this, it has just been ceasefires. This is our plan for eternal peace, he said.
(Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun; Editing by Robert Birsel)