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Myanmar army pauses operations in north in rare conciliatory action

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By Shoon Naing and Thu Thu Aung

(Reuters) – The Myanmar military on Friday announced a more than four-month cessation of its activities in northern areas where it is fighting ethnic minority insurgents, in what appeared to be a rare conciliatory move aimed at kick-starting peace talks.

The army would “stop military operations in respective military regions” in the north and east of the country until April 30, 2019, the office of the military’s commander in chief said in a statement.

The cessation would allow military negotiators to conduct talks with insurgent groups that have refused to sign up to a nationwide ceasefire agreement, with the aim of completing a peace process by 2020, it said.

Government spokesman Zaw Htay said the military had informed the civilian administration led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi ahead of the announcement, and that the two sides were “cooperating” on the peace process.

“We hope there will be good results,” Zaw Htay told a news conference in the capital, Naypyitaw.

Suu Kyi prioritised ending the conflicts on coming to power in 2016, but talks have failed to make significant gains.

The Myanmar military has been engaged in multiple conflicts for decades with groups who say they represent the interests of ethnic minorities that want more autonomy in their regions.

The military said its commands in the northern Kachin State and Shan State to the northeast would be affected by the cessation, after a coalition of groups fighting there asked for a pause in the conflict this month.

More than 100,000 people have been displaced by clashes between the army and insurgents since a ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army broke down in 2011.

Maung Maung Soe, a political analyst based in Yangon, said it was the first time in at least three decades that the military had unilaterally announced a stop in fighting.

“Peace for the whole country will depend on further discussions with each group,” he said, noting that there would be concern that the announcement does not cover the troubled western state of Rakhine.

The Friday announcement did not make specific reference to Rakhine, where the military has battled both Buddhist and Rohingya Muslim insurgents in recent years.

The military launched a crackdown in response to attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in August 2017, which claims to represent the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority. Myanmar considers the group “terrorists” and they are not included in any negotiations.

U.N.-mandated investigators said the military committed killings, gang rape and arson in a campaign carried out with “genocidal intent” that pushed more than 730,000 Rohingya across Myanmar’s border to Bangladesh.

Myanmar denied that saying it conducted a legitimate counter-terrorist campaign.

In recent weeks, fighting has flared up between the army and a Rakhine Buddhist group, the Arakan Army, in mountainous parts of the western state.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs received reports that more than 700 people had been displaced by that fighting since Dec. 8, said Pierre Peron, a spokesman for the agency.

(Reporting by Shoon Naing, Thu Thu Aung and Simon Lewis; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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