www.theedgereview.com (app/subscription only)
YANGON – A series of surprise, small-scale bomb attacks earlier this week has shaken Burmese and tourists alike, coming two months ahead of Myanmar’s hosting of the Southeast Asian Games and days after Myanmar President Thein Sein took part in a handover ceremony at the ASEAN Summit in Brunei, with Myanmar set to chair the bloc for the first time next year.
There is as yet no known motive for the unexplained bombings or attempted attacks in Yangon and several other locations early this week. Two people were killed in a guesthouse in Bago region, about two hours north of Yangon, while one person died early Thursday morning after an explosion in Shan State in Myanmar’s east. An American tourist was injured when an explosion took place in her room at Yangon’s Traders Hotel, previously used as an office by the United Nations
Aung San Suu Kyi, the celebrated opposition leader and presidential aspirant, told media in the capital Naypyidaw, “These [bombings] are deliberate attempts to cause public panic and it is important for people not to fall into the trap.”
Government officials seemed sure, however, that the attacks, which came just before the Muslim celebration of Eid al Adha, a public holiday in Myanmar, were an attempt to sow fear ahead of the SEA Games and the start of Myanmar’s helsmanship of ASEAN. Deputy Information Minister and presidential spokesman Ye Htut said the bombings aimed to “frighten the people and to break the nation’s image” ahead of regional events such as the SEA Games.
Foreign governments began issuing travel advisories to their citizens on Tuesday and Wednesday, noting a heightened chance of terrorist attacks , although they stopped short of telling them not to visit Myanmar.
Unmentioned by officials, however, was that the attacks come at the start of what should be the high season for tourism in Myanmar – the few months of warm, dry weather following the monsoon rains and before the baking heat of the dry season.
Myanmar hopes to increase its revenue from tourism from around US$600 million a year now to US$7 billion by 2020, a feat that would put the country on a path to reach annual revenue of US$14 billion by 2030, according to a report in June on the Myanmar economy by the McKinsey Global Institute.
Despite the recent bombings, some tourists appeared unfazed. Spaniard Alfonso Vazquez said on arriving at Yangon Airport that he hoped to travel widely in Myanmar during his holiday, taking in Yangon and popular tourist attractions such as Bagan, site of numerous centuries-old temples, Inle Lake and Mandalay, the country’s second city and former capital.
He said it was important not to let such attacks deter visitors, citing his own country’s history as an example. “In Spain in the past we had these problems,” he told The Edge Review, referring to the terror campaign waged by ETA, a Basque separatist group. “But we managed to keep our tourism during this time.”
Yangon-based travel agent Lynn Zai Wai Mang said he believes the bombings could pose problems for the sector if they mark the start of a prolonged campaign by those behind the attacks.
He said he hasn’t lost any bookings yet, but that he’s concerned the blasts could scare foreigners away.
“The whole [of] yesterday I was busy answering the questions from my clients asking about this,” he said.
Others argue that the bombings are the work of dissatisfied splinter groups from some of Myanmar’s ethnic minority militias, most which have tentative ceasefires with the government. One of the arrested bombers is said to be a current or former member of the Karen National Union (KNU), which after decades of on-and-off jungle warfare against Myanmar’s army, signed a ceasefire in 2012. That deal that has so far held, but it has sparked divisions within the Karen, with some arguing it was a sellout to the government. The KNU leadership has already denied any link to the recent bombings.
With Myanmar having seen several bouts of Muslim-Buddhist violence since June 2012, the brunt of which has been borne by Muslim groups such as the Kaman and the Rohingya, there is plenty of talk suggesting a link, particularly given that the bombings happened right before Eid and a few days before a major Buddhist holiday.
Some observers argue that official discrimination against the Rohingya in particular has put Myanmar in the sights of regional terror groups, with an apparent plot to bomb the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta foiled earlier this year.
Arrests on Thursday of what were described as “Malaysian passport holders” could fuel speculation of a regional or Islamist link to these latest attacks, given that Malaysian nationals have surfaced as members of groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah over the years. In June, there were clashes between Burmese Buddhists and Burmese Muslims near Kuala Lumpur, as tensions inside Burma spilled over into migrant communities elsewhere in the region.
Given the uncertainty over who is behind the attacks, some are suggesting it is a conspiracy to justify a rebooted prominence for the country’s army and police, given that a showdown is imminent over amending the country’s constitution. Despite Myanmar’s recent reforms, the current constitution assures the military a prominent role in politics. Aung San Suu Kyi wants the constitution changed to reduce the army’s role, and also to allow her to run for president – something which provisions in the current constituion prohibit.
Whatever the motive, people in Yangon, though worried, are getting on with things. About a mile from Lynn Zai Wai Mang’s Unique Asia travel agency, people were preparing for the upcoming holidays, not only Eid Mubarak, but the Buddhist light festival, known as Thadingyut in Myanmar, which takes place on Saturday.
Foodstalls and fairgrounds were being set up around busy downtown intersections, locations that draw crowds as people queue for food or keep an eye on children playing games.
In the relative of dark of Yangon’s poorly-lit streets, Ye Myint Oo stood with his wife, while their two young boys laughed and shouted as they swung past on a small neon-lit merry-go-round on the corner of the Bogyoke Aung San Road – one of Yangon’s main thoroughfares.
“We are worried, but we want to enjoy this holiday,” the 40-year-old told The Edge Review. “We think maybe stay at home, but now should be a happy time for people in Myanmar.”