Myanmar today (15 October) signed a limited ceasefire with eight ethnic minority armies, in a step towards ending decades of civil war but diminished by the refusal of several other rebel groups to join the deal.
The truce is the fruit of more than two years of negotiations and was a key goal of reformist President Thein Sein before November elections likely to sweep his army-backed party from power.
Thein Sein inked the agreement in the remote capital Naypyidaw in a televised signing ceremony attended by the army chief and rebel representatives in ethnic dress.
State-backed Global New Light of Myanmar hailed the deal with the headline “Peace starts now” on Thursday’s front page, adding it may herald a “fully fledged peace process that will end more than 60 years of civil conflict.”
But hopes for a full nationwide ceasefire crumbled earlier this month after several rebel groups baulked at any deal without the inclusion of all insurgent forces – notably smaller organisations locked in conflict with the army.
Representatives from China, India, Japan, the European Union and United Nations were due to witnesses the signing, state media said.
The deal will start the “political dialogue stage”, said Ryan Aherin from risk analysis company Verisk Maplecroft.
But he warned the “ceasefire could be short lived” as the still powerful army has ignored government orders to stop fighting in the past.
The ceremony comes during a week of political jitters in Myanmar after election officials briefly suggested delaying the November polls – the first credible general elections in decades in the formerly military-run nation.
Authorities had cited widespread flooding for a proposed postponement, but quickly dropped the idea which was vehemently rejected by Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition.
The veteran democracy activist-turned-politician is expected to lead her party to huge gains at the polls, even though she is currently barred from being president by the junta-drafted constitution.
She was not expected to attend the ceasefire ceremony and has not specifically endorsed the process, but has said that nationwide peace would be a key goal of a government led by her National League for Democracy.
Myanmar has grappled with civil wars since the end of British colonial rule in 1948, with a myriad of ethnic minority armies battling for greater autonomy.
The army, which ruled for almost half a century, asserted its legitimacy by stamping its own concept of unity on the diverse nation, and was accused of widespread abuses across ethnic minority areas.
Bloody conflicts still rage in parts of the country, particularly in Kachin and Shan states in the north.
Major rebel groups including the Kachin Independence Army have refused to sign the ceasefire.
Since early 2011, Myanmar (also known as Burma) has embarked on a remarkable path of political and economic reforms, departing from five decades of authoritarian rule. The government has committed itself to introducing genuine democracy, and some significant steps have been taken towards establishing a more open and equitable society.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest and her party's return to the formal political process were further milestones in the peaceful transition to democracy, which have injected a positive dynamism into political life.
The restrictive measures imposed by the EU on the government were suspended in April 2012 and lifted in 2013 (apart from the arms embargo), in order to welcome and encourage the reform process.
But Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD fears that a possible victory in the ballot box may not bring military rule to an end. The junta ignored the party's landslide victory in the 1990 general elections. As a result, the NLD boycotted the last national election held in 2010, which triggered international concerns due to widespread irregularities.
Despite the remaining obstacles ahead, an Asian Development Bank report underlined that, this time around, “the sense of hope and optimism is palpable that Myanmar’s long-suffering people are finally headed for sustained progress toward prosperity and freedom.”
The ADB predicted that under an “ambitious and yet quite feasible growth scenario”, given the strong economic potential of the country, Myanmar could register a growth rate of 9%–10%. This would bring the country to high-middle-income status in 15 years, similar to Thailand. Under a more realistic scenario of a 7%-8% growth rate, in line with the past experiences of developing Asian economies, the country would reach a similar status to Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
- 8 Nov.: general elections
- Feb. 2016: deadline to nominate a new president