Who’s behind the mysterious string of bombings in Myanmar?

Standing guard in Yangon.
Standing guard in Yangon.
Image: AP photo/Khin Maung Win
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Two people have been killed and several wounded in nine small bomb blasts in Myanmar since Friday, including an American tourist who was injured by an improvised explosive device left in the bathroom of her luxury hotel. No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, which have raised new doubts about Myanmar’s stability at a time when foreign investments are pouring in and the country is taking on a major role in regional diplomacy after decades of isolation.

Other blasts hit a market, a bus stop, and a Chinese restaurant around the country’s main city Yangon, along with other explosions in other regions of the country; four unexploded devices have been found, as well. In the highest-profile incident, police said a homemade time bomb exploded on Monday night at one of the city’s most upscale hotels, the 22-story Traders, which is popular with journalists and international business travelers. A 43-year-old American woman was seriously injured; her husband and two small children were not hurt.

A spokesman at the US Embassy in Bangkok told Quartz that he could not offer additional information on the woman’s status out of respect for her privacy. The US Embassy in Rangoon urged Americans to exercise caution in public spaces. Police have arrested a 26 year old man in connection with the Traders hotel bombing and have detained five more suspects, two of whom were linked to an attempted bombing in the central city of Mandalay. It is unclear whether the blasts are all connected; investigations continue.

Small explosions of this sort were more common during Myanmar’s military rule, but have been rare in the last few years. So what’s going on?

  • The attackers “intentionally attempted to portray Myanmar as not peaceful, just as more tourists, more investors and other important guests arrive,” a director in President Thein Sein’s office told the New York Times.
  • One possible motive could be to try to derail talks between the government and minority rebel ethnic groups.
  • Another theory: the bombings could have been undertaken to try to “discredit the current government” and “put the security forces back in charge,” an ex-dissident told the Times.
  • Myanmar has experienced repeated outbreaks of Buddhist-on-Muslim violence in recent months; a bomb went off near a radical Buddhist monk in July, wounding five disciples.
  • “I think there could be a connection with some group outside the country,” a Southeast Asian diplomat in Yangon told Reuters.

The timing of this week’s bombings is also notable: Myanmar will host the Southeast Asian Games in December and is the 2014 chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, known as ASEAN, meaning it will host the group’s annual event next year.  ”These devices were obviously not intended to cause large numbers of casualties,” Anthony Davis, an analyst at global security consulting firm IHS-Jane’s, told Reuters. “They were designed to alarm and destabilize.”

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning opposition leader, urged the country not to overreact: “These are deliberate acts to create panic, but the people should be cautious not to fall into the trap.”