PA-AN, Myanmar — Myanmar's government signed a cease-fire agreement Thursday with ethnic Karen rebels in a major step toward ending one of the world's longest-running insurgencies and meeting a key condition for better ties with the West.
The talks between officials and Karen National Union leaders were part of efforts by Myanmar's new, nominally civilian government to seek international legitimacy through democratic reforms after years of military repression.
The Karen group has been fighting for greater autonomy for more than 60 years in a guerrilla campaign in eastern jungles that precedes Myanmar's independence from Britain. It had been the only one of Myanmar's major ethnic groups never to have reached a peace agreement with the government.
Bringing a lasting halt to all of the country's long-running ethnic conflicts has been a crucial demand of Western governments as well as the Myanmar's pro-democracy icon and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Aung Min, head of the government's peace committee, announced the truce to reporters after talks in the Karen capital, Pa-an, but he did not immediately give any further details.
"A cease-fire agreement has been signed," Aung Min said.
For decades, Myanmar has been at odds with the ethnic groups who seek greater autonomy, but a military junta that took power in 1988 signed cease-fire agreements with many of them. Some of those pacts were strained as the central government sought to consolidate power, and combat resumed.
However, the new government that took office after November 2010 elections has embarked on reforms to try to end its international isolation and lift the political and economic sanctions imposed by Western governments because of repression under the junta.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton emphasized during her recent visit to Myanmar that bringing an end to the country's ethnic fighting was a key to improved relations with the West.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on Thursday welcomed the cease-fire as a "good step." She reiterated the need for the government to hold an inclusive dialogue with the ethnic minority groups toward national reconciliation.
Suu Kyi underlined the demand in an interview with The Associated Press last week.
"Unless there is ethnic harmony it will be very difficult for us to build up a strong democracy," Suu Kyi said.
In recent months, the government has held talks with rebel groups to strike new peace deals or rebuild shattered cease-fires. The other groups reportedly involved in talks include the Shan, Karenni, Chin and Kachin.
The Karen have been the most enduring adversaries. Karen guerrillas were able to advance close to what was then the capital, Rangoon, in 1949. After the military seized power in 1962, the Karen struggle expanded and they eventually controlled large swaths of territory along the border with Thailand.
The group has benefited from an unusual source of strength – many of its leadership were Christians and have been able to draw support from foreign donors, including in the United States.
After the government started negotiating cease-fire pacts with smaller minority groups, it was able to concentrate its force on the Karen in the early 1990s. The rebel group then went into decline, accelerated by a split in the group, as Buddhist rank-and-file members, defying the leadership, formed a breakaway group that allied itself with the government.