A series of bomb blasts and explosives discovered around Myanmar in recent days may have been aimed at smearing the country’s image as it takes over a key regional leadership role and prepares to host the Southeast Asia Games, a presidential spokesman said Monday.
The latest explosion struck near midnight on Monday at a guest room on the ninth floor of the 22-story luxury Traders Hotel in the country’s commercial hub of Yangon, injuring one American woman.
The blast apparently went off in the guest's bathroom but it was not immediately clear what caused the explosion, the fourth to rock Myanmar over the last four days.
On Friday, two people were killed and one was injured when a bomb exploded at a guesthouse in Taungoo, a central city located between Yangon and the national capital Naypyidaw.
Two other small bombs went off on opposite sides of Yangon on Sunday, injuring three.
Police, who also found unexploded devices in Yangon and in the northern city of Mandalay on Monday, have tightened security, urging the public to report any suspicious packages in public places and asking guesthouses, hotels, and highway bus stations to record travelers passing through, officials said.
The mysterious bomb explosions and discovery of explosive devices came just after Myanmar, long a pariah state under its former military junta, took over the chairmanship of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional bloc on Thursday on the back of reforms introduced by reformist President Thein Sein’s administration.
The country is also making preparations to host in December the Southeast Asia Games, the largest sporting event in the region, after a 44-year hiatus.
Presidential spokesman Ye Htut said the bombs were intended to sow fear in the country at a sensitive time.
“I think that someone or some organization asked some people to explode the bombs,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service, saying they had done it “with the intention of making people worried and scared.”
“I think that the explosions may have been timed to coincide with Myanmar becoming the chair of ASEAN and getting ready to host the Southeast Asia Games, to make the international community misunderstand the situation of stability and peace in Myanmar,” said Ye Htut, who is also Deputy Information Minister.
Bomb blasts were relatively common under Myanmar’s former junta regime, which usually blamed the explosions on armed exile groups or ethnic rebels.
But such explosions are less common under a new quasi-civilian government which took power in 2011, implementing political and economic reforms and striving to end long-running ethnic insurgencies.
Asked whether the bombs could have come from ethnic rebel groups even though the country is in the process of working out peace agreements with the groups, Ye Htut said it was too early to comment on who was behind the incidents.
Stepping up security
Police Lieutenant General Min Aung of the Myanmar Police Force's intelligence and security department told RFA that police were coordinating with the military to step up security in cities around the country.
“The military is helping us search exits and entrances of the towns,” he said.
The two unexploded bombs found in Yangon and Mandalay on Monday were locally made and of a similar type, he said.
“The bombs we found in Yangon and Mandalay are the same type and are locally made. They are bombs that are set off with a hand grenade.”
The one in Yangon had been hidden under a table at upscale Chinese restaurant Western Park, where a worker uncovered it that morning.
“A restaurant worker found it under a table when he was cleaning the room and he told the manager,” a police officer from the nearby Ahlone station told RFA. “The manager informed us and military engineers came and took the bomb.”
The Mandalay bomb was discovered at a bus stop in Pyilonechantha township around 1:30 p.m. and police detonated it themselves later that afternoon.
“A young man who was waiting for a bus found it and he informed police officials,” Pyilonechantha township administrator Soe Naing told RFA.
On Sunday, two teenagers were injured by an explosion caused by a device hidden on the underside of a truck in Thaketa township while one person was wounded when a bomb when off at the Sawbwagyikon bus stop in Insein Township.
Yangon residents said they felt uneasy and wanted authorities to take action to ensure security and hold those responsible accountable.
“We are worried for the safety of our lives because of the bomb explosions,” said Htay Htay Win, a resident from Yangon’s Insein township.
“It shouldn’t be like this…. I think the government should deploy enough security forces in crowed places,” she said.
Myo Min Yu, another Yangon resident, said the atmosphere in the city was tense.
“We feel we are not safe. People are struggling with this insecure feeling,” he said.
In Mandalay, nervous residents were going out of their way to avoid crowded areas, resident Yeying Kyaw said.
“We want the authorities to make more efforts for the people’s security,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.