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Getting closer to a ceasefire in Myanmar?

An end to the world's longest insurgency seems closer in Myanmar, but a nationwide ceasefire between armed ethnic groups and the government is proving elusive. Ethnic groups have met several times in the past few months but have struggled to agree on the nationwide ceasefire framework proposed by the government.

The latest hitch came last week when a repeatedly delayed meeting with the government's Internal Peace Making Committee (IPMC) was postponed again after rebel representatives said they needed more time to prepare for the ceasefire talks. The meeting will now take place in March at the earliest, they said.

Representatives from 17 armed ethnic groups last met on January 20 for a five-day conference in Law Khee Lar, Kayin (Karen) state, the home base of the Karen Nation Union and its political wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). An insight into the challenges faced in reaching agreement on the ceasefire was offered by General Saw Moo Htoo Say Phoo, chairman of the Karen Nation Union. In his concluding speech he cautioned against use of the word "revolution" in the framework.

"I would like to warn all of you not to use the phrase 'armed revolution', which leaders said could become a sticking point and further delay the peace process," he said.

The terminology to be included in the draft of the government's long-awaited nationwide ceasefire agreement was the hot topic of conversation from day one of the Law Khee Lar talks. Some rebel leaders wanted the document to refer to them as "ethnic revolutionary armed groups", rather than armed groups. After two days of discussion, agreement was reached to change the wording from "armed group" to "revolutionary group". Such disputes saw the original three-day conference extended to six days. After the six days, 16 armed ethic groups signed the draft ceasefire agreement, with only the Restoration Council of Shan State refusing to sign.

Ethnic rebel leaders are now set to meet with the government Peace Making Committee in March, in the Karen state capital of Hpa-an, where they will attempt to reach agreement on the long-awaited pact.

The road to a nationwide ceasefire began last year, when 18 armed ethnic groups gathered in the rebel-controlled Kachin capital of Laiza to draft guidelines for government negotiations and strengthen their collective position. But the government rejected the Laiza agreement, forcing the rebels to reconvene for talks in Law Khee Lar.

The major sticking point was the government's rejection of ethnic groups' demand for political negotiations on autonomy before signing any ceasefire agreement. The government has offered to hold such talks only after the ceasefire is signed.

"The draft we have signed now is neither in favour of the government nor the ethnic groups. It is a combination of both sides" position, said General Gwan Maw, deputy commander of the Kachin rebels and a joint leader of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordinating Team (NCCT), a collective of 14 armed ethnic groups.

The new draft comprises 11 sections spanning 28 pages and includes a political roadmap and provisions such as the establishment of an independent watchdog group and the role of soldiers in the ceasefire process.

It leaves the way open to reaching peace between the government and ethnic groups, but this will only come through political negotiations. Both sides need to secure ceasefires across the nation and establish a working plan for political reconciliation.

"As ending the fighting is essential to political reconciliation, we need to discuss the process of signing ceasefires across the nation" said Tan Khe, chairman of the All Burma Student Democratic Force, who attended the Law Khee Lar conference as an observer.

Naing Han Thar, a joint leader of the NCCT, was optimistic that the Law Kee Lar draft agreement would eventually secure a nationwide ceasefire, but there is still concern among the ethnic groups that the government will object to its terminology and propose an alternative draft at the Hpa-an meeting, further delaying the journey to peace.

The Law Kee Lar draft has been submitted to the government, representing an important step in Myanmar's protracted peace process, but no agreement has yet been reached between the two sides.

The government has agreed to 80 per cent of the Law Kee Lar agreement, but issues of terminology remained a sticking point, said Hla Mg Shwe, a senior supervisor of the government Peace Making Committee.

However, both sides have underscored the importance of political dialogue as part of the nationwide ceasefire agreement, saying it would be a major test for peace and democracy in the country.

Meanwhile the nation waits to see whether a deal to bring an end to decades of fighting can be reached next month.

Aung Thu Ra is chief reporter for the Yangon-based 7 Day News Journal.


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