(Adds U.N. human rights expert visiting Myanmar)
By Aung Hla Tun
YANGON, Aug 18 (Reuters) - Myanmar's new government called on Thursday for peace talks with armed separatists along its borders with Thailand and China, the latest in a series of conciliatory gestures towards long-time opponents of the former military regime.
In a statement read out on national television, it urged rebel groups engaged in conflict with the military to contact regional governments and start dialogue as soon as possible.
Numerous ethnic militias have battled for decades with the central government, to preserve de facto autonomy held by groups like the Shan, Wa, Kachin, Karen and Mon. Ceasefires have been agreed previously, but no political deals have ever been made.
"Ethnic armed groups, which are willing to work for peace after resolving armed conflicts, are invited to contact respective state/division governments," said a statement attributed to cabinet secretary, Tin Myo Kyi. "After that, the union government will form a delegation to have peace talks."
Myanmar's army has battled since June with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and has clashed with the Shan State Army. Both Shan and Kachin states border China, the country's biggest economic ally, which is concerned conflicts will harm its energy interests in the region.
Separate clashes have also taken place along the eastern border with Thailand between government troops, ethnic Mon rebels and the powerful Karen National Union.
In the run up to an election last year, the first in two decades, the military junta ordered ethnic groups to disarm and join the political process, promising to give militias jobs in an army-run Border Guard Force and hinting the groups would be crushed if they refused.
Several smaller groups agreed, but the larger armies ignored the call. Although there has been low-level fighting this year, no major government offensive have so far been launched.
The government rarely acknowledges publicly that its troops are engaged in combat with ethnic militias but in a televised speech on Wednesday, President Thein Sein said state officials in Kachin had been in talks with the KIA and that he hoped there would be a peaceful solution.
The government's rare public call for peace comes three weeks after democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi wrote an open letter to Thein Sein offering to mediate between the government and the different rebel groups, saying reconciliation "could not be achieved through military means".
The government has also allowed a U.N. human rights expert to visit the country on a fact-finding mission from Aug. 21 to Aug. 25, his first since February 2010.
Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, plans to meet ministers and "various other relevant stakeholders", a U.N. statement said on Thursday.
"This mission takes place in a somehow different political context, with a new government in place since April, following last year's elections, and my main objective is to assess the human rights situation from that perspective," he said.
Suu Kyi was released from a seven-year stint of house arrest in November last year and has been a staunch advocate of autonomy under a federal republic for at least three of Myanmar's ethnic groups.
Suu Kyi has called for a "Second Pinlong Agreement", a revival of a peace plan drafted in 1947 and backed by her late father, independence hero Aung San. He was assassinated soon after the draft and the deal was never put into effect.
The public call from the four-month-old, nominally civilian government, was the latest in a series of olive branches offered by the reclusive leadership in recent weeks.
Suu Kyi, 66, whom the previous military dictatorship kept in detention for a total of 15 years before her release last November, has twice held talks in recent weeks Labour Minister Aung Kyi. Both sides have expressed optimism they can cooperate to help bring peace to the country.
The government on Thursday invited Suu Kyi to join a workshop on economic development and reforms, starting on Friday, in the new capital Naypyitaw, her spokesman said.
Suu Kyi is seen as critical to Myanmar's future and has tremendous influence over Western governments, which have maintained economic sanctions on the new administration.
Many analysts say the government's gestures towards engagement and reform could be genuine but say it is likely the retired generals running the country are using Suu Kyi to gain leverage with the West and boost their image at home and abroad. (Writing by Martin Petty, additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva, editing by Miral Fahmy and Elizabeth Piper)