The Burmese government and an ethnic Karen rebel group firmed up a ceasefire agreement on Friday following the highest-level peace talks so far after decades of conflict in the eastern part of the country.
Government officials met in Rangoon with members of the Karen National Union (KNU) and its armed wing for the second round of talks since the two sides reached an initial ceasefire agreement in January.
They said in a joint statement that the two sides had agreed to a 13-point deal aimed at ending the conflict that has gripped eastern Burma’s Karen state since 1949.
A member of the KNU delegation, Phado Kwe Htoo, said the two sides had agreed to an outline of a peace plan.
“There were several decisions we made in this meeting, the first being agreement on a ceasefire [between the government and all ethnic groups] nationwide , especially in the ethnic areas, and that we need to realistically and progressively implement this agreement,” Phado Kwe Htoo, a member of the KNU’s Central Committee, told RFA’s Burmese service.
He said that the central Burmese government was committed to forging a lasting peace after waging war with Karen, Kachin, Karenni, and other ethnic groups in border regions since the country’s independence in 1948.
“In my experience from the discussions with [Railway] Minister U Aung Min and others,” he said, “they are quite open and genuine for peace.”
The Karen, or Kayin, are Burma’s third-largest ethnic group, accounting for about seven percent of the country’s population by official statistics.
Internally displaced persons
Of particular concern in the talks are the tens of thousands of Karen villagers who have been forced to flee from their homes in the conflict, including those who remain within Burma’s borders and refugees in camps across the border in Thailand.
“The second agreement is to get the internally displaced people back to their own place,” Phado Kwe Htoo said.
“I think if there is no conflict and no forced labor, they will go back. But I think they would need help to re-start their lives there, and it can’t be done right away.”
The KNU say the Karen group have suffered human rights abuses at the hands of the government troops.
In the talks, the two sides agreed to a code of conduct to ensure civilian safety.
“While agreeing on a ceasefire, we also agree to coordinate on issuing a code of conduct to avoid conflict between the troops, and on how the armed forces will treat civilians in the conflict area,” Phado Kwe Htoo said.
“We can say the civil war has ceased, but we haven’t gotten [control of] our region, and we still need total trust, especially on the ground level.”
In January, the Burmese government signed an initial ceasefire agreement with the Thailand-based KNU, which it considers an illegal organization.
The next step in the negotiations is for the KNU to move on to talks this weekend in Burma’s capital, Naypyidaw, where they will also meet with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The democracy icon, who won a seat in parliament in by-elections on Sunday after having spent most of the last two decades under house arrest, has said that establishing peace with ethnic groups will be one of her first priorities as legislator.
Western governments had made ceasefire agreements between Burma’s nominally civilian government and the KNU and other separatist ethnic armies a precondition to improved relations and the lifting of sanctions that had targeted Burma’s former military junta.
The U.S. announced Wednesday it would begin a targeted easing of financial sanctions.
Reported by Khin Maung Soe for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.