Myanmar minority allowed to form political party

YANGON - Ethnic minority Kachin leaders in Myanmar's war-torn far north on Thursday hailed a government decision to allow them to form a political party as a step towards finding elusive peace.

The former junta barred several Kachin parties from taking part in controversial polls in 2010, denying the ethnic group any genuine representation in what was the country's first election in two decades.

The only Kachin party contesting the poll was backed by the junta.

With fresh parliamentary polls expected in 2015, state media announced on Thursday that the government had granted permission to create the Kachin State Democracy Party.

The group is led by a former vice chairman of the rebel Kachin Independence Organisation, Manam Tu Ja, who welcomed the decision. "The government has been asking political parties to participate in peace dialogue. They talked about all-inclusiveness. We all have to give priority to peace now. As we are allowed to form a political party, I think we will have the chance to participate in peace talks," Manam Tu Ja said.

"I think the coming election will be more significant than the previous 2010 election," he added.

The 2010 vote, won by the military's political proxies, was plagued by complaints of cheating and the exclusion of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

She was released from seven straight years of house arrest shortly afterwards. The approval for the new party came as the country's various ethnic groups held landmark talks in the northern Kachin rebel stronghold of Laiza.

Renewed conflict broke out in Kachin in June 2011 when a 17-year ceasefire crumbled. Around 100,000 people have been displaced. Bloodshed in Kachin - along with religious unrest elsewhere in the country - has overshadowed widely praised political changes as Myanmar emerges from decades of military rule.

President Thein Sein's reformist government has reached tentative peace deals with most major ethnic minority rebel groups in the country, which has been racked by civil wars since independence from Britain in 1948.

But a ceasefire in Kachin - the scene of the country's last major active civil war - has proved elusive.

Another round of peace talks with the Kachin are due to be held in the state capital Myitkyina on November 3, with the government hoping to seal a nationwide peace deal in coming months.