Is the World’s Longest-Running Civil War About to End?

Burma's rebel groups agree in principle to a nationwide cease-fire pact, but hurdles remain

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David Longstreath / AP

Soldiers with the Karen National Liberation Army march during their National Day celebrations near New Myanarplaw, Burma, Jan. 31, 2004.

Hopes for a historic peace deal in Burma were raised this week with a meeting between government officials and representatives of more than a dozen rebel groups in the country’s far north.

On Tuesday, a joint statement announced that an agreement had been made in principle for the signing of a nationwide cease-fire agreement and the establishment of a framework for political dialogue. President’s Office Minister Aung Min hailed the occasion as “one of the most important in 60 years.”

Nevertheless, those familiar with the fractious politics of the Southeast Asian nation — which is known officially as Myanmar — have poured water on prospects of a quick fix to the world’s longest-running civil war.

(PHOTOS: On the Front Lines With the Kachin Independence Army)

Myriad rebel groups, based largely on ethnicity but also political ideology, have battled the military-run state government for greater autonomy for over half a century. Thousands have been killed, while displacement and horrific human-rights abuses remain a daily ordeal for millions, as ragtag militias launch guerrilla offensives from jungle hideouts and mountain lairs.

In 2010, a quasi-civilian government — staffed by former junta generals — came to power, ushering in tentative democratic reforms. Political prisoners were released, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament, and the subsequent easing of Western economic sanctions saw a bevy of multinationals flock to Rangoon, the country’s largest city, to exploit investment opportunities.

Amid this return to the international fold, the government signed individual cease-fires with many ethnic armed groups. On Monday, 107 representatives and witnesses from various rebel armies came together in the Kachin state capital, Myitkyina, for two days of discussions aimed at a multilateral peace agreement.

“It represents a distinct new stage in the development of national reconciliation,” the U.N. Secretary-General’s special adviser on Burma, Vijay Nambiar, told reporters.

Serious challenges remain, however. Rebels and government representatives have put pen to paper many times since independence from colonial rule, yet sporadic skirmishes persist. (Only last month, fresh fighting broke out just a stone’s throw from where the latest talks were held.)

“In the last few months, we’ve documented serious breaches of humanitarian law in Kachin state,” says Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, an NGO that monitors ongoing abuses.

(MORE: Burmese Refugees Remain in Limbo by Thai Border Despite Political Reforms)

Political differences remain significant. “We have one idea and the government has one idea and so we will have to negotiate together to draft an agreement,” David Tarkapaw, spokesman of United Nationalities Federal Council, an umbrella organization representing 11 ethnic armed groups, tells TIME. “The ethnic nationalities want to set up a federal system and [will need to have] agreement on some basic changes to the constitution.”

Also at issue is the sharing of the untapped reserves of oil, gas, minerals and gems in Burma’s border regions. Past peace deals have quickly fallen apart over the control of these resources.

Although the idea of a federal state was anathema to the military regime, which justified its grip on power as the only means to prevent the country from breaking up, attitudes in the new government seem to be softening. Burmese President Thein Sein pledged during a radio broadcast last week “to step up a move to political dialogue, using the cease-fire agreement as a basis.”

But while the government has dialed back longstanding objections to a federation, the rebel goal of a federal army, rather than central one, remains a sticking point. “Regarding our proposal for establishing a federal army, [the government] points out the term and wants us to change it,” New Mon State Party leader Nai Han Thar told Voice of America on Monday. “But it does not mean we are dropping the issue.”

Official estimates put the total number of rebels at 200,000 combatants, many of whom are currently involved in narcotics trafficking, but independent observers suggest in reality there are only about half this number. Nevertheless, incorporation of these battle-hardened fighters with the government’s 400,000 troops, and establishing command structures acceptable to all, will be no easy task.

(PHOTOS: Burma Unbound: Photos From a Waking Nation by Adam Ferguson)

Burma’s constitution is also a touchy subject. While the nation has moved toward a parliamentary democracy, the much maligned 2008 constitution maintains a quarter of legislative seats for the military, bars those with spouses or children who are foreign nationals — like Suu Kyi — from becoming President, and requires 75% of MPs to enact any change to that same document. This gives the men in green uniforms lingering ultimate authority over the country.

Calls for constitutional reform come predominantly from the parliamentary opposition — headed by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy — as well as ethnic parties and the international community. But while the government urges minority groups to put down their arms, join the political process and strive to alter the constitution as lawmakers — general elections are slated for 2015 — the rebels remain wary and insist upon revisions first. “The government wants to do things in a way that is not very conducive to systematic change,” adds Tarkapaw.

Ominously, the specter of the military still looms large in Burma. Just last month, parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann claimed that Senior General Than Shwe, the former dictator whose ironfisted rule lasted nearly two decades, continued to take an avid interest in national politics. “The government has to consult with the military every time it wants to make a decision,” says Tarkapaw.

The next round of negotiations will be held in the Karen state capital, Pa-an, in December. According to Smith, however, there is only so much that can be achieved with the stroke of a pen. “There’s very little trust on the ground in this process,” he says. Local populations in ethnic areas have lost their homes, livelihoods and known nothing but horrific abuses including murder, forced labor and systematic rape stretching back generations. “Trust is going to be the biggest obstacle for a lasting peace.”

MORE: Obstacles Ahead in Burma’s Opium War