By SAW YAN NAING
(Jan. 12, 2012) — After more than six decades of uninterrupted armed resistance to Burmese rule, the leaders of the Karen National Union, Burma’s oldest ethnic armed group, have signed a ceasefire agreement with the government.
The historic agreement, the first since the KNU began its struggle for Karen autonomy shortly after Burma achieved independence from British colonial rule in 1948, was signed at 2:57 p.m. on Thursday following talks between a government peace delegation led by Railways Minister Aung Min and KNU representatives led by Gen Mutu Say Poe at the Zwegapin Hotel in the Karen State capital Pa-an.
Under the agreement, the two sides will initiate a ceasefire and allow each other to conduct unarmed patrols in their respective territories. The KNU will also be allowed to set up liaison offices in government-controlled areas.
According to a local source who asked to remain anonymous, the KNU delegation will travel next to the Mon State capital Moulmein and later visit Pegu, a central Burmese city near Rangoon with a large Karen population, where the KNU is considering opening a liaison office.
The KNU representatives arrived in Pa-an on Wednesday, where they were greeted by thousands of Karen people and attended a dinner hosted by the government peace delegation.
Several KNU central committee members, including David Taw, Roger Khin, Ah Toe, Aung Maung Aye, Kwe Htoo Win and Brig-Gen Saw Johnny, as well as representatives from all seven KNLA Brigades except Brigade 5, accompanied the peace delegation.
Ngwe Soe, who helped to broker the talks, said that both sides agreed to meet again for further discussions. A meeting is tentatitively scheduled to take place in Naypyidaw in 45 days, he added.
Despite the unusually upbeat tone coming out of the talks, however, there was still a note of caution in some of the comments coming from those close to the negotiations.
“This time they didn’t ask us to give up our arms, they just want to work for equal rights for ethnic groups. This time we trust them,” Saw Johnny told Agence France-Presse, before adding: “We have been fighting for 60 years and one meeting alone will not end it.”
Several other ethnic armed groups, including the United Wa State Army, the Shan State Army-South, the Chin National Front and the National Democratic Alliance Army, have also recently reached ceasefire agreements with the government.
As a key member of the United Nationalities Federal Council, a coalition of ethnic armed groups formed in February 2011, the KNU has called on the government to enter into an inclusive dialogue with all UNFC members to reach a lasting political settlement that addresses ethnic concerns.
However, according to a UNFC source, the group has agreed in principle to allow its members to enter into individual ceasefire agreements with the government, on the understanding that this will later lead to political talks involving all of the groups concerned.
Founded in 1947, the KNU formed its military wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), in 1949 and immediately began an armed insurgency against Burma’s central government.
Although the group has never signed an official ceasefire agreement with the government, in 2004, the late KNU leader Bo Mya and former government spy chief Khin Nyunt verbally agreed to halt hostilities following talks in Rangoon. However, the fragile informal truce soon broke down.