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Myanmar has made of lot progress in its transition to democracy. But it has struggled to end the ethnic insurgencies that have long divided the country. Now, the last of the insurgent groups that have been fighting the Burmese government has signed a preliminary agreement that could end the conflict. NPR's Anthony Kuhn recently visited rebel-held territory in northern Myanmar and he brings us this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Kids are playing at a refugee camp in northern Myanmar's Kachin state. Nearby is a little stream which marks the border with China. The Kachin people are a hill tribe who live on both sides of it. Many of the refugees have lived in the camp's wooden shacks since two years ago when the Burmese army broke a cease-fire and launched an offensive against the Kachin Independence Army or KIA. Lamai Luseng is one of the more than 100,000 Kachin displaced by the fighting. At first, she and her family fled over the border into China but they didn't feel safe or welcome there, so she came to this camp.

LAMAI LUSENG: (Through translator) I feel safe staying here because the KIA is from our ethnic group. We trust them. And the people in this camp trust each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SINGING)

KUHN: A nearby church holds services on Sunday. While most Burmese are Buddhists, the Kachin are mostly Christian. They also have their own language. Their homelands are rich in jade and timber. The KIA has been fighting to preserve all of this for about 50 years. Its 8,000 or so soldiers are lightly armed, but they're very good at jungle warfare.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Left, right, left, a drill sergeant calls out in the Kachin language as he trains KIA cadets. There was heavy fighting in the Kachin state early this year. Burmese government troops almost overran KIA headquarters. Neighboring China got alarmed and helped broker a preliminary cease-fire agreement between the two sides. Chinese Academy of Social Sciences scholar Du Jifeng explains that Myanmar's democratic reforms have cost China some influence in that country. But the Kachin conflict offers China a way to maintain some leverage.

DU JIFENG: (Through translator) By getting involved in this peace process, China expanded its local influence, which in turn boosted its leverage in relations with Myanmar's central government. Expanding its influence wasn't China's primary consideration but objectively, this is the result.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK MOVING)

KUHN: My next stop is KIA headquarters in the town of Laiza, a bone-rattling, eight-hour jeep ride away. I'm passing through lush jungles and misty mountains. It's really odd to be in a place that's part of Myanmar - on the map at least - but which the central government has never really controlled. Kachin state just seems to teeter precariously somewhere in between peace and war. In Laiza, I meet with KIA Maj. Gen. Gun Maw. He says that after Burma gained its independence from Britain, the Kachin people agreed to be a part of the new nation in exchange for full autonomy.

MAJ. GEN. GUN MAW: (Through translator) In 1947, our leaders made an agreement with Gen. Aung San to establish a federal union, in which all ethnic people can enjoy equal status. This is a basic principal on which our nation was founded, and we want to maintain it.

KUHN: Aung San is known as the founder of modern Burma, and the father of current opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But not long after the agreement was signed, Aung San was assassinated, and Burmese governments since then have failed to honor the deal. Gun Maw says that the government has never treated the KIA's political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization, as a legitimate entity with which it can negotiate Kachin state's political future.

GUN MAW: (Through translator) From the very beginning, the KIA has fought for the rights which the Kachin people deserve. But the Burmese government has always just treated us like a bunch of armed rebels.

KUHN: The reformist government of President Thein Sein says it now supports federalism, and it's pushing for a nationwide cease-fire with all ethnic insurgent groups. But the ethnic groups are not interested in any cease-fire that does not lead to real autonomy. And without that autonomy, they say, Myanmar's democratic reforms will be empty. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.

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