Myanmar's government signed a ceasefire with ethnic Karen rebels on Thursday to try to end one of the world's longest-running insurgencies, part of its efforts to resolve all conflicts with separatist groups.
The government and the 19-member Karen National Union (KNU) delegation agreed in principle to 11 points and signed two broad agreements to end hostilities between the military and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and start dialogue towards a political settlement to a 62-year conflict.
The ceasefire could be a small step towards the lifting of two decades of sanctions imposed on Myanmar by the European Union and the United States, which have made peace with ethnic militias a pre-requisite for a review of the embargoes.
Peace talks have been held on six occasions since 1949, but no lasting agreement has been reached.
The deputy leader of the KNU delegation, Saw David Htaw, said the climate of change in Myanmar under its new reform-minded government made dialogue inevitable.
We have never been more confident in our talks. According to the changing situation everywhere, peace talks are unavoidable now, this is something we have to pass through without fail, he told Reuters.
The people have experienced the horrors of war a long time. I'm sure they'll be very glad to hear this news. I hope they'll be able to fully enjoy the sweet taste of peace this time.
Through the KNLA, its military wing, the KNU has fought successive governments for greater autonomy since 1949, a year after Myanmar gained independence from Britain.
Saw David Htaw praised the government's peace negotiators as honest and sincere.
As well as the sanctions issue, peace with the KNU is vital for Myanmar's economic interests.
If the conflict resurfaces, it presents a security threat that could disrupt construction of the $50 billion Dawei Special Industrial Zone, which will be Southeast Asia's biggest industrial estate when completed and a major source of income for the impoverished country.
Past offensives by government troops have driven hundreds of thousands of Karens from villages, many into camps in neighbouring Thailand, which has struggled to cope with the flood of refugees.
Myanmar's army has been accused of oppressing the Karens and other ethnic minorities by committing human rights abuses ranging from rape and forced labour to torture and murder. The West has responded by maintaining tight sanctions.
According to the agreements reached in Pa-an in eastern Kayin State, all efforts would be made to resettle and rehabilitate the displaced. Arms would be permitted in certain areas, landmines cleared and liaison offices set up to facilitate dialogue.
The talks were the latest in a series of dialogues between the government and rebel groups along Myanmar's borders with Thailand and China.
An agreement has also been reached with Shan State Army (South), but initial talks with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) have been derailed by persistent fighting, despite an order last month by President Thein Sein for the military to end its operations.
U.S. officials have said the peace process might prove the toughest challenge for civilian leaders who are eager to bring the nation in from the cold after five decades of army rule.
The rebels hold deep distrust towards Thein Sein's government, which is comprised of the same people as the old military regime, but they are broadly behind Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's vision of federalism within Myanmar's republic, a plan supported by her late father, Aung San.
(Reporting by Soe Zeya Tun in Pa-an and Aung Hla Tun in Yangon; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Ron Popeski)