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Burma signs ceasefire with Karen rebels in step towards ending isolation

Talks with Karen – the only ethnic group never to have reached a peace deal – are part of efforts to seek international legitimacy

Ethnic Karen men outside talks between Karen leaders and Burmese government ministers in Pa-an. Photograph: Soe Than Win/AFP/Getty Images

Burma's government has signed a ceasefire agreement 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 Burma'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 dates back to before Burma's independence from Britain. It has been the only one of Burma's major ethnic groups never to have reached a peace agreement with the government.

"A ceasefire agreement has been signed," Aung Min, head of the government's peace committee, told reporters in the Karen capital, Pa-an, after the talks. Details were not immediately released.

For decades, Burma has been at odds with the ethnic groups who seek greater autonomy, but a military junta that took power in 1988 signed ceasefire 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 elections in November 2010 has embarked on reforms to try to end its international isolation. Western governments had imposed political and economic sanctions on Burma because of repression under the junta.

Ending war with ethnic rebels is one of the conditions set by the west for improved relations, a point emphasised by the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, during her recent visit to Burma.

In recent months, the government has held talks with rebel groups to strike new peace deals or rebuild shattered ceasefires. The other groups reportedly involved in talks include the Shan, Karenni, Chin and Kachin.

Ending the long-running ethnic conflicts has also been one of the key demands by Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

"Unless there is ethnic harmony it will be very difficult for us to build up a strong democracy," Aung San Suu Kyi said in an interview with the Associated Press last week.

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