YANGON Myanmar's government started talks with top commanders of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) rebel group in China on Monday to try to rescue a faltering peace process and end one of the country's bloodiest ethnic conflicts.
The meeting in Ruili, just inside Chinese territory, was aimed at laying the foundation for further negotiations after 11 rounds of talks in which both sides failed to make any breakthrough, according to sources on both sides, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The talks come off the back of an unprecedented escalation in a conflict in which the military has been accused of using excessive force, discrediting a government lauded for its broad reforms and initiating a nationwide peace drive.
The fighting has displaced tens of thousands of people since it broke out anew in June 2011, when a 17-year truce collapsed. The number of casualties is not known.
The KIA are fighting for autonomy for Kachin state within a federal Myanmar. The rulers of ethnically diverse Myanmar have long ruled out calls for autonomy from the Kachin and other minority groups.
The government sent its top negotiator Aung Min, a minister in the office of President Thein Sein, to Monday's meeting, which was also attended by the second-in-command of the KIA, General Gun Maw.
Gun Maw's no-show at talks in October was taken as a slap in the face for top generals in Myanmar's army, whom Thein Sein had worked hard to convince to attend, according to two sources with knowledge of the issue.
"The significance of today's meeting is General Gun Maw was present," one of the sources told Reuters by telephone.
Truces with ethnic minority rebel groups, some of which have fought central governments since the end of British colonial rule in 1948, were among a series of reforms that led to the suspension last year of most Western sanctions on Myanmar. The KIA is the only group that has yet to agree to a ceasefire.
The conflict was thrust into the domestic and international spotlight when Myanmar's military admitted in December to using jets for air strikes to thwart what it said was KIA aggression.
Witnesses and activists say helicopter gunships were also deployed against the KIA, which is one of the strongest rebel armies in Myanmar and has its own munitions factories.
Retired general Thein Sein has been praised for reaching out and striking ceasefires with various groups including the Karen National Union (KNU), which had been fighting for autonomy for Karen state along the border with Thailand for 60 years.
But the heavy fighting in Kachin state has raised doubts about his ability to control the military, which ruled Myanmar from 1962-2011.
He repeatedly made public calls for troops not to launch offensives, but fighting has not stopped. The government says it wants peace.
Although Monday's talks could build some trust and reduce tensions, a lasting truce could be hard to come by and would require at least one party to soften its stance.
The government wants a ceasefire agreement signed before any long-term political deal is discussed, but the KIA, which harbours deep distrust of the military, wants a concrete proposal to be made before it signs a truce.
The sources close to Monday's meeting said representatives of the KNU also attended as a means of building confidence.
A deal with the KIA would allow the government to start political negotiations, which are expected to be highly complex. It has given no indication as to how it will bring groups that have sought autonomy into the political fold and what guarantees and inducements would be offered.
(Reporting by Aung Hla Tun; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel)