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The End of War in Myanmar?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
January 13, 2012

Representatives from Myanmar's government and the Karen National Union (KNU) shake hands during peace talks at Hotel Zwekabin in Pa-an, capital of the Karen State in eastern Myanmar January 12, 2012. Representatives from Myanmar's government and the Karen National Union (KNU) shake hands during peace talks at Hotel Zwekabin in Pa-an, capital of the Karen State in eastern Myanmar January 12, 2012. (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters)

News yesterday that the Myanmar government has signed what appears to be a cease-fire with the Karen National Union (KNU), one of the largest ethnic insurgent groups in the country, may mean the end of one of the longest civil wars in the world. The Karen have been fighting the Myanmar central government since nearly the time the country gained independence from Britain six decades ago, and though their numbers have dwindled, every year conflict has dragged on in eastern Myanmar, sucking in tens and even hundreds of thousands of civilians. Massive human rights abuses became the norm — on both sides of the conflict– in eastern Myanmar.

Is this a permanent deal? It does not appear so – yet. But the Karen leadership seems confident at least publicly that they are well on the way to ending the war permanently, expressing high confidence in the Myanmar government, which has launched one surprising reform after the next over the past year.

Just as important is the signal this deal sends to the other insurgent groups still holding out against the central government. As one of the largest, and longest-lasting, the KNU gained a measure of respect among other insurgent groups for their tenacious stand – they have never signed any cease-fire in the past six decades. This deal may make it easier for the government to wrap up the other remaining ethnic conflicts, if Naypyidaw shows it will make good on the promises it has offered the KNU in terms of re-entering national politics. However, the KNU does not have the massive sources of revenue – i.e, narcotics – that the most powerful insurgent group, the United Wa State Army, has controlled. Like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the United Wa State Army now has many financial reasons to not hand over its guns and territory. Getting it to come to the table will be harder.

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