BANGKOK — A tentative peace agreement between Burma's government and Kachin rebels has been hailed as a breakthrough after recent intense fighting along the border with China. The pact is one of the last to be reached with armed ethnic groups, raising hopes of a nation-wide peace. But trust is still lacking and some ethnic groups want Britain and the United States involved in future negotiations to guarantee a lasting deal.
The peace deal marked the first time Kachin rebels met Burma's government and military in government-held territory.
After three days of meetings in Myitkyina, the Kachin state capital, the two sides agreed to work at a cease-fire and repositioning troops to prevent further bloodshed.
They also agreed the rebels' political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization, would base a team of negotiators in Myitkyina for further technical discussions.
Min Zaw Oo, the director of cease-fire negotiations and implementation at the Myanmar Peace Center, attended the talks. He says, most significantly, Burmese authorities agreed to a political process beyond a cease-fire, a key demand of the KIO.
"Cease-fire agreements in the past do not include political settlement or not even a political discussions. But, this time the government already proclaimed that this discussion doesn't stop short at cease-fire agreement and that will lead to a political dialogue, toward a political settlement," said Min Zaw Oo.
The two sides also agreed to continue relief, rehabilitation, and resettlement efforts for internally displaced people in Kachin.
Over 100,000 Kachin villagers were displaced since a 17-year cease-fire was broken in June 2011. Each side blames the other for starting the fighting.
Min Zaw Oo was speaking Friday by phone from a relief camp just outside of Myitkyina. He says all the displaced people his group talked to have high hopes the agreement can lead to a lasting peace so they can go home.
"A lot of people believe that both sides have reached a point that we can call a breakthrough, especially because this is the first time they can meet in front of representatives, including the community leaders in Kachin state," he said.
The Kachin Independence Army, the KIO's military wing, is the last major rebel group to agree to a preliminary peace deal.
Since taking office from a military government in 2011, President Thein Sein signed agreements to end fighting with numerous ethnic armies, though sporadic clashes still break out on occasion.
The KIO is to hold one-on-one talks with Burmeses negotiators ahead of broader negotiations with other rebel groups for a nationwide cease-fire.
But despite the peace pact with the Kachin, lack of trust is still a major obstacle.
The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) is a coalition of 11 armed ethnic groups, including the KIO.
The UNFC met in February with Burmese negotiators in Thailand but refused to take part in the Myitkyina talks, though several of its members attended.
UNFC joint general secretary Hkhun Okker says the group feels Burma's military leaders still cannot be trusted.
"Now is only fourth or fifth time for cease-fire called by U Thein Sein government. Before we have General Khin Nyunt called cease-fire. Before, we have General Ne Win call cease-fire. Many time we have [calls for cease-fire]. But, all the agreements are later never honored by the other side," said Okker.
Hkun Okker agrees the Myitkyina peace deal is a positive sign. But he says the government needs to enforce a nationwide cease-fire, declare a general amnesty for rebel leaders, and allow Western observers at peace talks.
Min Zaw Oo says the negotiation was aided for the first time by the presence of a United Nations representative, special rapporteur Vijay Nambiar.
"His participation definitely helps build up confidence among parties and also among Kachin public that the talk is not just superficial, that it's genuine and that aims to move to a broader political settlement and lasting peace," he said.
The KIO had originally insisted the negotiations also include observers from Britain and the United States.
Hkun Okker says the ethnic groups want Western powers present to act as a guarantee and to balance the influence of China, which was represented at this week's talks.
"You know, U.N. is very flexible and sometimes rather weak to implement in some parts. At the same time, China is very very pro government of Burma. They have big national interests inside Burma. So, we cannot say they are neutral," he said.
The cease-fire was broken in Kachin by fighting near Chinese-financed dam projects.
Critics say China's extraction-oriented investments in the region have fomented tensions as both sides seek to secure areas rich in natural resources.
Beijing is keen to prevent unrest and refugee flows spilling across its border.
Burmese air strikes near the border in December were widely condemned internationally and led to protests just inside China.
China hosted several previous rounds of peace talks between the KIO and Burmese authorities.
A spokesman for China's embassy in Burma, Gao Mingbo, attended this latest round and spoke to VOA by phone from Myitkyina shortly after the agreement. He says efforts by the Chinese over the past few months paved the way for the negotiations in Burma, also known as Myanmar.
"This issue concerns the border security of China. So, we want to see a direct, or face-to-face talks, between the Burma government and the Kachin side. And, I think that helps to build or to strengthen the military trust between the two sides. And, also, that is essential for eventual peace agreement," said Gao.
Burmese media say China objected to Western nations participating in the Kachin negotiations and future talks that would include other rebel groups.
Gao declined to say whether that is true. He referred to language in the agreement, which says the parties must agree if they wish to invite additional observers in consultation with each other.
The U.S. Embassy in Rangoon issued a statement Friday welcoming the agreement as constructive and encouraging.
It also expressed deep concern about the safety and well-being of displaced civilians in Kachin and urged all sides to ensure unhindered humanitarian access to those in need.