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Politics

Crunch time for cease-fire talks

A Kachin soldier near the Chinese border (Photo by Steve Tickner)

TAUNGGYI, Myanmar -- Ahead of Myanmar's elections, President Thein Sein is pushing to sign a nationwide cease-fire with ethnic armed groups.

     In early September, just two months before the national poll, these groups were still engaged in tense discussions about their strategy for the final phase of cease-fire negotiations, which was to begin Sept. 9. This is the 10th such round since talks began in August 2011.

     A draft national cease-fire deal was agreed in March, but whether the agreement will be signed is questionable, given that the government has refused to recognize six of the 21 ethnic armed groups as potential signatories. The government says these groups are no longer militarily active, have broken or failed to sign bilateral cease-fires, or are based outside the area they claim to represent.

     The government's stance has caused a rift among the ethnic organizations. Some, including the powerful Karen National Union and the Restoration Council of Shan State - Shan State Army South, said in August that they would back the deal regardless of others' involvement, but have since wavered.

     The Kachin Independence Organization, with an estimated 10,000 fighters, has said it will not sign the national cease-fire without all armed groups on board. If the Kachin were to opt out, any deal would be toothless.

     "You really need the Kachin involved for it to be comprehensive," said a close observer of the negotiations, who did not want to be identified. The observer added that if the government is able to involve seven or eight groups, the others are more likely to feel there is "critical mass" for an agreement.

     Even if a national cease-fire deal is signed, it will be only the first step in ending the civil war. Political negotiations that would follow are expected to be fraught with complications -- though they could lead to a far-reaching agreement on the system of government, perhaps realizing long-held hopes among many ethnic minority groups for a federal state.

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