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Two ethnic groups in Myanmar sign ceasefire

Political dialogue still a challenge for Suu Kyi's government

Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during the signing ceremony of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in Naypyitaw on Feb. 13. (Photo by Yuichi Nitta)

NAYPITAW -- Two armed ethnic minority groups in Myanmar have signed a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with the government and military, marking the first signatories under the current administration of the National League for Democracy.

The signing of the accord in Naypyitaw on Tuesday was a step toward peace in Myanmar, said the country's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. "This is the decision to make the first step to jointly lay the foundation stone of the Democratic Federal Republic that will emerge in the future for the national reconciliation and union peace."

The two rebel groups that signed the agreement are the New Mon State Party and the Lahu Democratic Union, both of which are based near the border with Thailand.

The NCA was designed to be signed between all armed rebel groups, the government and the military. In 2015, eight rebel groups signed the NCA under the administration of then President Thein Sein, a retired general in the Myanmar Army.

Those that have signed the NCA are allowed to participate in a peace conference named the "Union Peace Conference -- 21st Century Panglong" by the current government. They will discuss the establishment of a federal system guaranteeing the autonomy of each ethnic group and the process of disarmament.

"The first significant change for the people is the disappearance of the fears that have resulted from the armed conflicts," Suu Kyi said.

But the Southeast Asian nation still has a long way to go in securing domestic stability. A majority of 20 armed rebel groups have yet to agree with the government to stop fighting. Although eight groups have signed a ceasefire agreement, they have not disarmed. Myanmar is also struggling to deal with the military's persecution of the Rohingya people.

Delegates from ethnic minority groups join the signing ceremony of Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in Naypyitaw on Feb. 13. (Photo by Yuichi Nitta)

State Counsellor Suu Kyi has prioritized an end to civil war. But the current government under her leadership has only managed to sign the NCA with two rebel groups. The Panglong peace conference is aimed at achieving domestic peace through dialogues and Suu Kyi positions it as the most important venue for the goal. But the session of the conference slated for January has been postponed. The military is growing irritated with rebel groups calling for the right to secede from the union.

The military complained that peace talks under the conference have hardly made headway in part because Suu Kyi named it "21st Century Panglong," a source familiar with the meeting said on condition of anonymity.

"Panglong" refers to the 1947 Panglong Agreement signed between General Aung San, Suu Kyi's father revered as a national hero who fought for the independence of the country, and ethnic minority groups. But the agreement included a clause permitting minority groups to secede from the union 10 years later, hardly acceptable to the military that treats national unity as its top priority.

Myanmar shifted to a civil government system in 2011 after long-lasting military rule. But the commander in chief of the military still has the constitutional right of command in the fields of security and civil order. Suu Kyi has to balance the pursuit of peace with minorities while maintaining relations with the military.

Peace talks with minority groups have stagnated also because experienced negotiators have left the government due to the change of administration.

Britain, when it ruled Myanmar, controlled majority Burmese Buddhists with an army of soldiers formed by minority ethnic group of Christians. Subsequently, Burmese Buddhists who sought independence tried to remove ethnic minorities in retaliation. Some minority groups have broken away from the central government and continued fighting it for about 70 years.

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