NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's government and eight smaller ethnic rebel armies signed a cease-fire agreement to end more than six decades of fighting, but other more powerful groups refused to come on board, signaling that peace will remain elusive for some time to come.
The pact was signed at a ceremony in Myanmar's administrative capital, Naypyitaw, by President Thein Sein and representatives of the groups. The refusal by the larger armies, such as those of the Kachin and Wa ethnic groups, to sign it robs Thein Sein of what he had hoped would be the crowning achievement of his five-year term.
Still, the agreement, called the "National Ceasefire Agreement" despite its truncated list of participants, is seen as a first step toward ending longstanding insurgencies against the Burmese-majority government by various minority groups demanding autonomy and control over their natural resources in the north, northeast and east of the country.
Ethnic groups, representing 40 percent of the country's 52 million people, have found themselves victims of military abuses and discrimination in areas spanning from health and education to road construction and access to electricity.
"Although some organizations are currently not ready to sign, the government decided to conclude the (agreement) with the vanguard group." Thein Sein said in a speech at the signing ceremony.
"We will continue with our efforts to bring the remaining organizations into the process. The door is open for them," he said. "The road to future peace in Myanmar is now open."
Though largely an agreement to keep talking, the agreement could pave the way for a more comprehensive political settlement in the future.
"It can't be considered a nationwide cease-fire agreement but it is the start of a process that might actually lead to all the ethnic groups signing the cease-fire agreement," Larry Jagan, a specialist on Myanmar and freelance journalist, told The Associated Press.
Myanmar stunned the world by opening politically and economically in 2011 following a half-century of harsh military rule. But early reforms have since either stalled or started rolling backward. That has upped the stakes for getting cease-fire deals with all ethnic armies, one of Thein Sein's biggest pledges.
Many ethnic armies have been fighting since the country gained independence from the British in 1948, and experts say continued civil unrest is slowing development in one of the region's poorest countries.
The signing of the agreement, which was also witnessed by representatives of the United Nations, the European Union, China and others, comes just before the Nov. 8 general elections for a new parliament, which will eventually lead to the election of a new president.
Critics said the only real beneficiary of the agreement would be Thein Sein, as he would use the image as a peacemaker to try to win another presidential term. Some of the groups decided they'd rather wait and negotiate with a new government, even if that means starting from scratch.
The powerful Kachin Independence Army, Shan State Army and United Wa State Army — the biggest in terms of army strength and territory size— were among the groups refusing to sign.
Things proceeded well in the early days of Thein Sein's administration, with more than a dozen groups signing bilateral cease-fire agreements. But negotiations have been on-again-off-again since then, with hundreds of meetings between rebels groups, peace negotiators and government officials.
"We have to keep fighting for our freedom, for our political rights," said Thar Phone Kyaw, the general secretary of Ta'ang National Liberation Army, which also refused to sign. He said no cease-fire agreement will be signed without assurances they will get the "federal union" promised to them by Myanmar's independence leader Gen. Aung San more than 60 years ago.
That would give them greater control over their natural resources in the northern Shan state, including a say in issues surrounding an oil pipeline to China that has displaced people and destroyed livelihoods. It would also allow them to control their own troops' movement and help end the spiraling scourge of drugs.
Still, the agreement is not without meaning. State-run TV emphasized that point this week saying the signatories would be removed from a list of "terrorist groups."
"It's going to allow them to move around their territory, talk to their townships, build up relationships with people on the ground that they have not been able to do because before this they were called illegal," said Jagan, the Myanmar specialist.
It also will potentially allow for development and investment in those areas, others say, serving as encouragement for other holdouts to join the process at a later date.