YANGON—On Tuesday morning, I received a message from a friend in Vancouver I had just wished a happy birthday.
“Thanks Dan,” she said, “I hope you’re having a blast in Yangon.”
I winced at the unintended irony: my friend had no way of knowing that Yangon had just been shaken by a series of bomb blasts.
Minutes before receiving her note, I learned that another bomb had exploded just before midnight on Monday at Traders Hotel, seriously injuring an American tourist. The victim, who was visiting Myanmar with her husband and two young children, was about to take a shower before going to bed when she noticed a mysterious bag in the bathroom and opened it.
The explosion at Traders—in whose lounge I had enjoyed drinks with friends only four nights earlier—was one of several bombings in the past week that have hit this city as well as townships in Bago and Sagaing regions, and Shan State. There have been at least a dozen blasts and, as of this writing, three fatalities. Thanks to a vigilant public, other bombing attempts have been foiled and suspects arrested. In two cases, alert waiters at restaurants in Yangon and Mandalay noticed suspicious packages and reported the bombs to police, who then safely detonated or dismantled them.
Why is this happening now, and who is responsible? So far, authorities are saying little. Three suspects arrested for the Traders bombing say they did it for the money, but there has been no word on who hired them or why. Police have linked one suspect to the Karen National Union, whose armed wing was involved in one of the country’s longest battles with the government. The KNU, naturally, denies involvement. The bombs themselves have been of the homemade variety: the device found at the restaurant in Mandalay was an American M67 hand grenade converted to a time bomb, with four AA batteries and a clock attached. Not exactly Al-Qaeda material. Despite recent anti-Muslim violence in Rakhine State, the bombings do not appear to have been motivated by religion.
Most theories suggest an attempt to undermine recent political changes. The government line is that it’s a group that “doesn’t like democracy” and is trying to both cripple the tourism industry and derail negotiations for a nationwide ceasefire agreement with ethnic armed groups. By creating fear among the public and an unstable environment for tourists, foreign investors and dignitaries—at a time when Myanmar is about to host the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games and assume the chairmanship of ASEAN—the bombings could also be a pretext to put the security forces back in power. A chilling thought, given how recently the country formerly known as Burma began pulling itself out of its half-century nightmare of military dictatorship.
It is worth noting that the bombings have coincided with a series of public meetings, hosted by the opposition National League for Democracy, to collect citizen feedback on whether to amend or replace the 2008 Constitution. Many citizens regard the constitution as a sham. Drafted mostly by handpicked members of the junta, it was rubberstamped into law after a bogus referendum held in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, the worst natural disaster in the country’s recorded history. With nearly 140,000 dead or dying, and Myanmar in complete chaos, the junta initially refused and then delayed acceptance of international aid while pushing ahead with the referendum. Its claim of a 99-per-cent voter turnout and of 92.5-per-cent support for the draft constitution would have been laughable, if not for the national tragedy surrounding it.
For all of President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian posturing, he cannot pretend that his ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is not disproportionately comprised of former military personnel—including the man himself. Since the 2008 Constitution contains key provisions ensuring that the tatmadaw, or armed forces, remain independent of parliamentary oversight and that military personnel are exempt from prosecution for crimes against humanity, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that certain elements loyal to the military might be interested in scuttling any form of constitutional debate.
As with so many other unsolved mysteries here, the timing of these bomb blasts seems a little fishy.