Myanmar announced a peace deal with a splinter group of ethnic Karen rebels yesterday, though the pact is unlikely to end the fighting that rights groups say has forced thousands of people to flee their villages.
"The (KNU brigade) led by Brig. Gen. Htein Maung held a peace ceremony at Htokawhto village in Kawkareik Kawkareik township," an official from the information ministry said.
The ceremony was attended by Lt. Gen. Ye Myint, a senior member of the ruling State Peace and Development Council and the head of the country's southeastern military command Maj. Gen. Thet Naing Win, the official said, adding that some 7,500 local residents welcomed the rebel group with songs and dance.
More than 300 rebels dressed in their military uniforms attended the ceremony, according to state television and radio which broadcast it on Sunday night.
Speaking at the ceremony, Maung said the peace deal reflects the dreams of Karen leaders like Saw Ba Oo Gyi and Bo Mya and he blamed external organizations for the fact that more KNU members had not agreed to accept the peace deal. He also urged other KNU members to give up their arms.
"Peace can be appreciated by only those who had fought bitter battles," said Maung, who has fought government forces since he was 17. "I have decided to work for peace after realizing that there can be no development without peace."
According to Irrawaddy magazine, which covers Myanmar, Maung was dismissed as head of the Karen National Union's 7th Brigade on Jan. 30 for starting negotiations with the government.
A day later, he formed his splinter group, the Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council, and returned with his family and followers to Htokawhto village in Karen state, where the peace ceremony took place, the magazine said.
Maung's group is believed to include a few hundred soldiers. The Karen National Union claims to have 10,000 soldiers.
David Thaw, a spokesman for the Karen National Union in Thailand, said they still needed to see the details of the agreement. He offered no information about the ties between the KNU and Maung's splinter group. But Thaw insisted the peace deal did not include the majority of the KNU and would not impact fighting on the ground.
"It is not clear what kind of agreement they reached," Thaw said. "But it will not effect us."
The KNU has been fighting for half a century for greater autonomy from Myanmar's central government. It is the largest ethnic rebel group and the only major one which has yet to sign a cease-fire with the junta. Altogether 17 ethnic armed groups have reached peace agreements with the junta since 1989.
Cease-fire talks broke down between the KNU and the government 2004, and the Myanmar army launched a major offensive in Karen State of eastern Myanmar in 2005. During that time, it has repeatedly tried to entice elements of the KNU to the bargaining table as part of a campaign to split up the group.
The Thailand Burma Border Consortium, the main aid agency caring for tens of thousands of refugees along the Thai-Myanmar frontier, estimates that in 2006 alone the violence forced 82,000 people to leave their homes.
Since 1996, more than 3,000 villages have been destroyed or abandoned in eastern Myanmar and more than a million people displaced, according to its most recent report.
The military has uprooted and abused residents in other ethnic minority areas such as Shan State as well.