Image: Government and Karen negotiators raise their glasses during a dinner Wednesday.
Khin Maung Win  /  AP
Myanmar's Railway Minister and head of the government negotiation group Aung Min, left, and the Karen National Union (KNU) representative Gen. Mutu Saipo, second left, raise their glasses during a dinner at a hotel in Hpa-an, Myanmar, Wednesday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 1/12/2012 6:26:01 AM ET 2012-01-12T11:26:01

Myanmar's government signed a cease-fire agreement Thursday 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 Myanmar'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 Myanmar's independence from the U.K.

It has been the only one of Myanmar's major ethnic groups never to have reached a peace agreement with the government.

"A cease-fire 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.

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For decades, Myanmar has been at odds with the ethnic groups who seek greater autonomy, but a military junta that took power in 1988 signed cease-fire agreements with many of them.

Some of those pacts were strained as the central government sought to consolidate power, and combat resumed.

US set conditions
However, the new government that took office after November 2010 elections has embarked on reforms to try to end its international isolation. Western governments had imposed political and economic sanctions on Myanmar 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 emphasized by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during her recent visit to Myanmar.

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

Ending the long-running ethnic conflicts also has been one of the key demands by Myanmar's pro-democracy icon and Nobel peace prizer winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

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

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The conflict with the Karens has been extremely violent, with offensives by government troops driving hundreds of thousands of people from their villages, many into camps in neighboring 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 a litany of human rights abuses, from rape and forced labor to torture and murder.

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An agreement has already been reached with another rebel group, the Shan State Army (South), but initial talks with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) have been derailed by fighting that continues to rage, 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 ahead for civilian leaders who are eager to bring the long-isolated nation in from the cold after five decades of iron-fisted army rule.

The rebels hold deep distrust toward the government, which is comprised of the same people as the old military regime, but they are broadly behind Suu Kyi's vision of federalism within Myanmar's republic, a plan supported by her late father, Aung San.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Suu Kyi: ‘There is a chance for real change’

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