Who’s Bombing Burma?


A third explosion went off near the ticketing office at the Rangoon Railway Station

Burma's ruling State Peace and Development Council has accused Karen ethnic minority insurgents and a "major group from abroad" for a series of bombings over the past 10 days, raising suspicions that the junta itself is behind the violence in an effort shore up unity in the armed forces or as an excuse for crackdowns against the pro-democracy movement and ethnic resistance groups.

The first of four explosions took place in a public toilet at the Naypyidaw-Pyinamana Railway Station on January 11, killing a 40-year old Karen woman. It was the first time that a bombing has taken place in the area of the new Burmese capital at Naypyidaw. Although security was tightened after the blast, authorities reportedly did not think it was sufficient cause to disrupt the train schedule.

On the evening of the same day, another explosion occurred at a travelling circus near the town of Pyu in Burma's central Pegu Division. According to the state-run mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar, the bomb exploded prematurely while it was being set by a member of the Karen National Union, an armed opposition group fighting the military regime. A Karen man was said to have been killed in the explosion and a revolver and 20 rounds of ammunition and another explosive device were found on the body, according to the New Light. Four civilians were injured in the blast, including a 4-year-old boy.

Two days later a third explosion went off near the ticketing office at the Rangoon Railway Station, injuring a woman. The bomb was reportedly in a drain near a toilet outside the building. The last explosion occurred on January 16 on a bus as it pulled into a rest stop 65 kilometers north of Rangoon. The driver was reportedly killed.

The junta, through The New Light of Myanmar, initially claimed on January 12 that it had a "tip-off" that "insurgents have sent terrorists and explosives to the country across the border to carry out sabotage." It is widely understood that the border is the one with Thailand.

The next day a longer article gave details of the second attack and blamed both on foreigners as well as insurgents. The victim of the bomb in Pyinmana was now said to be a bomber who was killed when her device exploded prematurely. According to The New Light of Myanmar, “a major group from abroad that is desirous of practicing hegemony over Myanmar provided terrorist insurgent saboteurs with cash and related equipment with the intent of harming the public, causing panic among the people and undermining peace and stability.”

The "group from abroad" is often meant to refer to the United States or the Central Intelligence Agency, although other groups such as the US-based National Endowment for Democracy, the Open Society Institute of George Soros and Thailand-based exile organizations have been blamed for disturbances and plots in the past. The public was also called on to report sightings of possible terrorists.

No groups have claimed responsibility for the bombings and the Karen National Union has denied involvement. David Taw, the KNU's Foreign Minister, has denied that the organization has anything to do with the attacks and Padoh Mahn Sha, the KNU's General Secretary, has stated that it is the KNU's policy to avoid harming civilians. He went on to say that no orders were given for the attacks.

The junta’s accusations do not ring true with many observers. Each year since 1996 several bombings have taken place in central Burmese cities and towns. Almost every time, with a few notable exceptions, the bombs were small, caused minimal damage and resulted in few casualties. Almost none of the targets had much military significance. Foreign organizations and individuals, political opposition groups and insurgents have always been blamed by the regime. Sometimes elaborate press conferences are called with organizational charts complete with photographs attached that set out the conspiracies against the junta. The charges have become a joke among Burmese exiles, and it has become something of a badge of pride to be named.

The junta, through its spokesman Major General Kyaw Hsan, seems quite aware of the power of the word "terrorist.” By invoking it, the regime not only hopes to paint the opposition in a negative light domestically, but also to reduce support for them internationally. The term was used extensively to justify the 2006 offensive against the KNU in Pegu Division and Karen State.

Burma has not been the scene of a really large-scale terrorist act since the October 1983 bombing in Rangoon that resulted in the deaths of 17 South Korean diplomats and four Burmese. That attack was carried out by North Korean agents trying to assassinate South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan.

The many ethnic insurgencies in Burma, most of them defeated or in retreat for years, have generally not used assassinations and terrorist bombings. The Karen themselves have suffered defeat after defeat and sources within the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the KNU, which has been blamed for the recent bombings, say that it has been almost impossible for them to operate in central Burma since the late 1980s.

Burma watchers also suspect the regime for different reasons. On a few occasions bombings are believed to have been the result of intramural battles inside the junta. A December 1996 double bombing in Rangoon killed five people and wounded 17; an April 1997 parcel bomb killed the eldest daughter of Lt. General Tin Oo, a senior member of the junta at the time; a second bomb that month at the elite Defense Services Academy in Maymyo killed 15 and wounded 10 and on May 7 2005, simultaneous bombings of two supermarkets and a convention center in Rangoon left 19 people dead and 162 injured — all were seen by analysts as the likely result of disputes within the military, which are often put down to infighting between factions loyal to SPDC Chairman Senior General Than Shwe and a faction loyal to Vice Senior General Maung Aye, SPDC Vice Chairman.

The junta has also been accused of setting off bombs to distract attention from dissent within the ranks of the military. There is some speculation that this may be the reason for the current series of bombs. The harsh crackdown against protesters in September, especially the shooting and beating of monks, was reportedly unpopular within the officer corps. With the Burmese military brass insisting it is the only institution that can maintain national unity, bombings are a good way to reinforce the idea and calm the soldiers.

From the 1950s through the 1980s the ethnic and communist insurgencies were strong enough to justify a large military and the army could point to the insurgencies as a reason for maintaining control, especially after seizing power in 1962. Since the ceasefires of the late 1980s and early 1990s and the demise of the Burmese Communist Party, there is a less obvious reason for the military to retain control.

The SPDC used a string of eight bombings in Pegu Division in 2006 to justify an offensive against the remnants of the KNU in eastern Pegu Division and northern Karen State. At a press conference in May 2006, several foreign diplomats and journalists were told that the offensive was necessary to stop the KNU from carrying out "atrocities and sabotage acts" and to "ensure the public safety." The SPDC has quietly begun another offensive in Karen State and the bombs may be used to justify its counterinsurgency campaign there.

The September protests highlighted dissatisfaction with military rule and the crackdown, which killed at least 31 persons, according to the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma Sergio Pinheiro. Arrests are continuing and the bombings serve as a convenient justification for the regime to crack down further.

Accounts from Rangoon and Pegu Division indicate that security has been stepped up since the bombings around important buildings, shopping centers, railway stations and the Shwedagon Pagoda, a focal point for demonstrations. Troops from the 77th Light Infantry Division were reportedly patrolling the city amid rumors of possible renewed street protests. If nothing else the bombs give the regime a reason to step up security — another way to make it very difficult for new demonstrations to be organized.