YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's government and 16 ethnic armed groups agreed Tuesday on the wording of a draft nationwide cease-fire agreement aimed at ending decades of civil unrest.
Though it was lauded as a significant step — the opposing sides have tussled over words and rights over natural resources for months — continuing fighting between the army and small rebel groups along the northern border highlights the many challenges ahead.
"I'm really happy that the two sides have finally agreed on a single draft," said President Thein Sein, who briefly attended the signing. "This opens the door for political dialogue and also further peace talks."
Minutes later, representatives from the government and 16 ethnic armed groups, including the Kachin Independence Army, signed the draft accord.
The specifics were not released and it remained unclear when the final cease-fire deal would be signed.
The draft will be presented to the ethnic armed groups in each of their regions, and in places where tensions remain high a National Ceasefire Coordination Team will try to convince both sides to stop fighting.
The government is hoping to have a nationwide cease-fire agreement signed in April, but there is no guarantee that is possible, said Naing Han Tha, head of the NCCT, adding that it depends on the situation on the ground.
The Myanmar Peace Center, which mediated the pact, will announce when and where the final agreement will be signed, said Aung Min, a government minister closely involved in the process.
Myanmar stunned the world by opening politically and economically in 2011 following elections that most rights groups say were neither free nor fair. Though Thein Sein started steering the country toward democracy from a half-century of dictatorship, early reforms have either stalled or begun regressing.
That has upped the stakes for getting cease-fire deals with all ethnic armies, one of the president's biggest pledges. Many ethnic armies have been fighting since Myanmar gained independence from the British in 1948, and experts say continued civil unrest is slowing development in one of Southeast Asia's poorest countries.
The Kachin Independence Army has been one of the most stubborn holdouts, and its agreement to sign the draft was significant.
But fighting that started last month between rebels and the government in the Kokang region of Shan state continues. Tens of thousands of people have fled across the border into China. The Ta'ang National Liberation Army, also in Shan state, was refusing to sign as well.