Myanmar on Thursday signed a ceasefire with eight ethnic minority armies in a step towards ending decades of civil war, a move weakened by the refusal of several other rebel groups to join the deal.
The truce is the fruit of more than two years of negotiations and was a key goal of reformist President Thein Sein ahead of November elections, which are likely to sweep his army-backed party from power.
Thein Sein inked the agreement in the remote capital Naypyidaw in a televised signing ceremony attended by the army chief and rebel representatives in ethnic dress.
State-backed newspaper Global New Light of Myanmar hailed the deal with the headline “Peace starts now” on Thursday’s front page, adding it may herald a “fully fledged peace process that will end more than 60 years of civil conflict.”
But hopes for a full nationwide ceasefire crumbled recently after several rebel groups baulked at any deal without the inclusion of all insurgent forces — notably smaller organisations locked in conflict with the army.
Representatives from China, India, the European Union and United Nations were among those witnessing the signing.
In a statement, the US State Department welcomed “a critical first step in a long process of building a sustainable and just peace in Burma [Myanmar]”.
But added: “We remain concerned by reports of continued military offensives in Kachin and Shan States and the lack of humanitarian access to many of the more than 100,000 internally displaced persons in those areas.”
The deal will start the “political dialogue stage”, said Ryan Aherin from risk analysis company Verisk Maplecroft.
But he warned the “ceasefire could be short lived” as the still powerful army has ignored government orders to stop fighting in the past.
The ceremony comes during a week of political jitters in Myanmar after election officials briefly suggested delaying the November polls — the first credible general elections in decades in the formerly military-run nation.
Authorities had cited widespread flooding for a proposed postponement, but quickly dropped the idea which was vehemently rejected by Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party.
The veteran democracy activist-turned-politician is expected to lead her party to huge gains at the polls, even though she is currently barred from being president by the junta-drafted constitution.
She was not expected to attend the ceasefire ceremony and has not specifically endorsed the process, but insists any government led by her National League for Democracy is committed to peace.
Myanmar has been torn by civil wars since the end of British colonial rule in 1948, with a myriad of ethnic minority armies battling for greater autonomy.
The army, which ruled for almost half a century, stamped its own concept of unity on the diverse nation, and was accused of widespread abuses across ethnic areas.
Myanmar’s government has sought to reward groups signing the deal by removing them from lists of unlawful organisations, meaning their members can now travel freely and take part in politics.
These include the Karen Nation Union, whose armed wing battled government forces in Myanmar’s east from 1949 in one of the world’s longest civil wars.
But with fighting still raging in parts of the country, particularly in Kachin and Shan states in the north, election officials this week cancelled November’s polls in areas battered by conflict or outside government control.
Major rebel groups in the north, including the Kachin Independence Army, have refused to sign the ceasefire.
In Kachin more than 100,000 people have been displaced since a ceasefire between rebels and the state army collapsed in 2011.