Myanmar Signs Cease-Fire With Armed Groups Before Vote

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Myanmar’s government signed a cease-fire agreement with half of the nation’s armed ethnic groups, a partial victory for President Thein Sein less than a month before an historic national election.

In a nationally televised ceremony, representatives of eight of the 15 rebel groups invited to take part took turns walking to the stage to sign the agreement in Naypyidaw as songs about peace played in the background. The crowd of politicians, civil society groups and foreign diplomats applauded each time a group signed the deal.

The United Wa State Army and the Kachin Independence Organization, which controls large swathes of territory near Myanmar’s northeastern border with China, were among groups that didn’t agree to the cease-fire, dealing a blow to Thein Sein’s efforts to forge a nationwide deal before the Nov. 8 election, which is expected to be the most widely contested since 1990.

“The cease-fire could be short-lived as the military has failed government orders to cease offensive operations in the past,” Ryan Aherin, senior Asia analyst at risk analysis company Verisk Maplecroft, said by e-mail before the signing ceremony. “Whether the military shows goodwill towards the groups that sign will be crucial for the survival of the peace process in the long term.”

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy is expected to make significant gains in its first nationwide election in 25 years. The party won polls in 1990, but was barred from taking power by the junta. It boycotted the 2010 vote and only re-entered the political system in later by-elections. Suu Kyi is ineligible for the presidency because her sons are British citizens.

The poll will be closely watched by investors keen to take advantage of Myanmar’s political opening, its strategic location between China and India and its potential market of 54 million consumers. The country attracted $8 billion of investment in 2014 and may lure $10 billion to $12 billion annually by 2020, Thein Sein’s top economic adviser said this month.

Clashes between armed groups including the Kachin Independent Army and government forces have tested Thein Sein’s control over army commanders since he took power following a 2010 election that ended about five decades of direct military rule. The government has said that groups that didn’t take part in the talks can still sign the deal later.

“The failure of the other groups to sign the agreement means that the regions under their influence will most likely be excluded from the November general elections,” Aherin said.

Voting has already been canceled in more than 400 villages and towns in five states because the country’s election commission determined that it couldn’t guarantee a “free and fair” poll in some areas because of ethnic violence.

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