A series of bomb blasts in Myanmar over the past week was intended to deter foreign investment in the country but was not linked to the Karen ethnic rebel group, even though one of its former members is a key suspect, officials said Friday.
Six explosions have hit five cities—Yangon, Mandalay, Taungoo, Sagaing and most recently in Nanhkan—since Oct. 9, leaving two people dead and four injured, the country’s police chief, Zaw Win, told a press conference in Yangon, the country’s commercial capital.
Four unexploded devices were also found in various cities and towns.
The most high-profile blast occurred Monday at the luxury Traders Hotel in downtown Yangon, injuring an American tourist.
Zaw Win said eight people had been arrested following the blasts which he said were part of a campaign to scare off overseas investments that had been flowing rapidly into the country under reformist President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian administration.
“Their [those who orchestrated the bomb blasts] intentions were to erect a barrier to the development of tourism in the country—to scare away foreign investment in ethnic areas,” he said at a press conference.
“The eight people who carried out the bomb blasts in Yangon, Mandalay, Sagaing and Taungoo were arrested shortly after doing so,” he said.
“We are trying to arrest some other main perpetrators and we are holding this press conference to address people’s concerns by explaining what we know about the incidents.”
Zaw Win said that bomb experts had determined that the materials for the explosives used over the past week had been sourced within the country and were assembled by the same person or organization.
Among suspects held is Saw Myint Lwin, a former member of the Karen National Union (KNU) ethnic rebel group, who according to reports was paid by a group of Karen businessmen to carry out the blasts in the country.
The Associated Press quoted Zaw Win as saying that a man identified as “Nato” promised Saw Myint Lwin a gold mine permit if he succeeded in planting bombs at luxury hotels and restaurants. He was given U.S. $500 and a bag of explosives, he said.
Zaw Win said that the 25-year-old had checked into a room at the Traders Hotel on Sunday night and attached one of the bombs to the back of a toilet, timing the blast to go off within the following 48 hours.
President’s office spokesman Ye Htut told reporters that the explosions had no connection with the country’s ethnic armies and that the government would forge ahead with efforts at national reconciliation through the signing of an all-inclusive cease-fire agreement with rebel groups.
He said that while Saw Myint Lwin was a former member of the KNU, the recent bomb blasts were unrelated to the group.
“There is no reason to stop our peace process because of these incidents,” Ye Htut said at the press conference.
“The government is determined to achieve peace through any means possible. All ethnic leaders who have discussed peace with the government are of the same mind … That is why we will overcome any challenge we face.”
The government has signed cease-fire agreements with 12 major armed ethnic groups as it races to end decades of fighting to speed up political and economic reforms after decades of military rule.
Ye Htut said that while the explosions were meant to drive away foreign investment, it was unclear whether the perpetrators had other motives as well or whether further plots had been planned.
He said that a KNU central committee member had helped to question Saw Myint Lwin in Yangon and that the ethnic army had agreed to cooperate with authorities in the investigation. A KNU representative will travel to the capital Naypyidaw to meet with the government on Saturday.
During the press conference, authorities said that the most recent explosions—three blasts in Nanhkan, in eastern Myanmar’s Shan state on Thursday—were still under investigation, without providing further details.
Following the week of bombings, security has been tightened around the nation.
In the latest bomb scare, a suspicious package was discovered at the No. 1 High School in Daik-U township, in central Myanmar’s Bago division, on Friday, prompting the authorities to deploy police and military engineers to dispose of it.
Soe Moe, a township official and member of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), told RFA’s Myanmar Service that he had been summoned to the scene after receiving a tip about the package.
“The item was packed inside a black plastic bag and had tape around it,” he said.
“Township administrators and police were sent to the school and subsequently informed the military’s engineering branch. It turned out to be a paint container covered with a wooden plate and the engineers took it away.”
According to an officer at the Daik-U police station, Friday was the last day of the school’s first quarter exams and testing was briefly suspended during the bomb scare.
They said that security personnel were later deployed around the school ahead of a full moon festival that will take place in the area on Saturday.
The bombings have shaken the will of the public, buoyed by sweeping democratic reforms implemented since President Thein Sein took power from the former military junta in 2011.
The changes have led to the lifting of international sanctions against Myanmar and turned the former pariah nation into a regional player in Southeast Asia.
The president’s office has said that the blasts were carried out to “frighten the people and to break the nation’s image” as it took over the chairmanship of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional bloc last week and prepares to host the Southeast Asia Games in December after a 44-year hiatus.
Reported by Myo Zaw Ko, Kyaw Thu, Tin Aung Khine, Sai Tun Aung Lwin and Moe Thu Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.