YANGON Myanmar agreed to a cease-fire with ethnic Mon separatists Wednesday, a peace mediator said, the latest in a series of tentative peace deals sought by a nominally civilian government trying to escape economic sanctions.
The cease-fire between the army and the New Mon State Party (NMSP) was the seventh such agreement between the government and ethnic rebel groups since former military junta leader and now President Thein Sein made a public call for peace talks with separatists late last year.
The cease-fire, one of 11 being sought by the government which came to power in 2010 in disputed polls, may strengthen Myanmar's case for getting Western sanctions lifted. Along with freeing political prisoners and holding fair by-elections in April, the United States and European Union have made peace with ethnic militias a pre-requisite for a review of their embargoes.
The NMSP, the political wing of the Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA), which has fought for autonomy in eastern Mon State under various guises since 1948, agreed to set up liaison offices and restrict movement of weapons, a mediator told Reuters.
"The Mon State government and NMSP this morning signed a five-point preliminary agreement in principle," Hla Maung Shwe said by telephone from Mawlamyaing, the venue for the talks about 304 km (190 miles) east of the biggest city, Yangon.
Most ethnic groups seek some form of self-rule.
Deals have been reached with the Karen National Union (KNU) and Shan State Army (South).
But talks with the powerful Kachin Independence Army (KIA) have been derailed by persistent fighting that aid groups say has displaced as many as 50,000 people and underlines the high political, economic and diplomatic stakes at play.
Kachin State is central to the energy interests of both Myanmar and China, hosting crucial hydropower dams and twin pipelines that will transport oil and natural gas to supply southwestern Yunnan province.
(Reporting by Aung Hla Tun; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Ed Lane)