Burma’s government signed a cease-fire agreement with the ethnic Karen rebels on Thursday, moving toward ending an insurgency that has been running for nearly 60 years, according to the Associated Press.
The New York Times reported that Aung Min, a government negotiator, told reporters on Thursday, “A cease-fire agreement has been signed.”
The Karen rebels have been fighting for greater autonomy since Burma, also known as Myanmar, gained independence from the British in 1948. Most of Burma’s ethnic minorities signed peace agreements with the military junta when it came to power in 1962.
The Guardian reported that in addition to elections and releasing political prisoners, making peace with the ethnic groups that were still fighting the government was one of the conditions laid out by Western governments before sanctions could be lifted.
The military offensives launched by Burma’s junta against ethnic uprisings were accompanied by “systematic rape, torture and the use of forced labor,” human rights groups said, according to the Guardian. An agreement with the Kachin ethnic minority broke down last summer, reported the Guardian. Aid workers have reported a deteriorating situation, with more than 50,000 Kachin people forced into exile in the last six months.
Burma’s nominally civilian government, which was elected in November 2010, has been making small concessions and reforms in recent months to thaw relations with the outside world. Earlier this month, it announced that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party would be allowed to contest the elections, and Suu Kyi later announced she herself would be running for a seat in parliament.
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Making peace with the rebels was one of Aung San Suu Kyi’s key demands, as she told the AP earlier this week, “Unless there is ethnic harmony it will be very difficult for us to build up a strong democracy”
The last few months have also seen high level diplomatic visits from Western officials such as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Secretary William Hague, after nearly 50 years of diplomatic isolation.
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Saw David Htaw, the deputy leader of the Karen National Union, told Reuters, “The people have experienced the horrors of war a long time. I'm sure they'll be very glad to hear this news. I hope they'll be able to fully enjoy the sweet taste of peace this time.”