Who’s bombing Myanmar?
October 30th, 2013
09:57 AM ET

Who’s bombing Myanmar?

By Jonah Blank, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Jonah Blank is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He is author of the books Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God and Mullahs on the Mainframe. The views expressed are his own.

The explosion in downtown Yangon blew out a window overlooking the iconic Sule Pagoda, injuring an American tourist and littering the busy street with shards of glass. The attack, on the Traders’ Hotel in the heart of Myanmar’s commercial center, was one of at least nine bombings to rack the nation in a single week earlier this month, leaving three dead, 10 wounded and many thousands of others worried about what the future may hold. But who is behind the attacks? And should Myanmar brace itself for a period of violent chaos?

Throughout the period of military rule in Myanmar (also called Burma), small-scale explosions were a standard tactic among several of the nation’s long-running insurgencies.  Since President Thein Sein started a program of reform and reconciliation in 2011, however, such attacks had essentially ceased. After a half-century of hermetic authoritarianism, Myanmar’s re-entry into the world community has been one of the biggest (and most optimistic) stories in Asia. Yet an upswing in ethnic and religious conflict could put Myanmar’s progress at risk.

On October 18, government authorities blamed rogue elements of the Karen National Union for the attacks, but the Karen rebels deny involvement and no other group has claimed credit. It is not even certain that all of the attacks had the same source.  The list of possible culprits is long.

Myanmar has seen dozens of revolts and uprisings since gaining its independence from Britain in 1948, most of them led by various ethnic minority groups living in the country’s vast mountainous uplands.  Several of the recent explosions occurred in sites with enduring ethnic unrest: one blast rocked Namkham (in a remote corner of Shan state), while the deadliest one hit Tuangoo (a town near the new capital of Naypyidaw, with a large Karen population).  Police arrested three suspects in the Traders attack in the southeastern Mon state.

More from GPS: 10 steps Myanmar must take

If the recent bombings are indeed tied to the Karen movement or another ethnic insurgency, they would follow a longstanding pattern.

Some observers see the bombings instead as a continuation of the most troubling recent trend in Myanmar: violent confrontations between Buddhists and Muslims. Last year, communal riots in Rakhine State killed hundreds and displaced hundreds of thousands; most of the victims were Muslim.  Violence spread to various cities in central Myanmar, often fueled by radical Buddhist monks such as U Wirathu, who blamed Islamic extremists for a July bombing. One of this month’s blasts targeted a Buddhist pagoda in Sagaing. There is no evidence of a foreign connection – either in the recent bombings or earlier attacks – but many Burmese Buddhists attribute the rise in religious violence to global terrorist groups.

Others point a finger at the military itself. U Aung Moe Zaw, a former dissident and current member of the Democratic Party for a New Society, seemed to imply as much in the wake of the Traders’ Hotel attack. After half a century of enjoying the perks of power, not all members of the country’s military are pleased with the reforms of Thein Sein (himself a former general).  A failure of social order could provide an excuse for such disgruntled officers to attempt to retake the reins of governance.

Whoever is behind the recent spate of attacks, ethnic and religious violence represents the greatest threat to Myanmar’s political, social and economic progress.  Almost exactly a year ago, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president ever to visit Myanmar – testimony to the significance of this nation for American strategy in Asia and the wider world. Myanmar’s transition from insular military dictatorship to an internationally engaged democracy will not always be smooth.  The country’s leaders – and its well-wishers in the United States and throughout the world – must work hard to insure that all of Myanmar’s ethnic and religious communities benefit from the encouraging developments now underway.

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Topics: Myanmar

soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. JAL

    Since Halloween is tomorrow, I think it might be a good time to ask ourselves a few questions about terror and the societal norms associated with terror (i.e. escalations, reward and entertainment). Also, when we were attacked on 9-11, there was no closure in the fact that all terrorists were killed in the attack. Instead, quite the opposite happened. New frameworks were created and we really need to ask ourselves if these frameworks served humanity correctly.

    October 30, 2013 at 10:05 am | Reply
    • JAL

      Also, when Halloween passes, let it pass. I dislike Halloween and all that it symbolizes.

      October 30, 2013 at 10:09 am | Reply
  2. matslats

    OMG you don't think the government would bomb its own country do you, how unthinkable! Or at least unthinkable in civilised countries.
    But you forgot to mention the CIA they are usualy standing right behind the terrorists, at least they were in Iran, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, all of South America, and much of Asia. Surely they are a suspect too. Now that Myanmar is opening up to the west it will need some new defense contracts to spend all the aid money on. So what better way to get the public behind a hardware upgrade. All the really civilised nations have a war on terror, you know.

    October 30, 2013 at 10:46 am | Reply
    • Jamie Sentaro

      Bro read the articles. These bombing took place only after the Buddhist & Muslim clash. Also go search on Google "Jihad Myanmar" you'll see many many sites that pops up showing posts where Muslims around the world are calling a Jihad on Myanmar. Not to mention a Cyber Terrorist attack took place from a group of hackers from Bangladesh on Myanmar defense system(Google the news). First it was the hack then came 17 bombings.

      November 14, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Reply
  3. UNITED ART STUDENTS, FORGOTTEN WORLDS GROUP

    RETIRED GENERAL THAN SHWE, THE GOD FATHER MOB ALONG WITH UNDERMINED MILITANT GROUP.

    (WHO HAD ROB TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS FROM PEOPLE AND ITS NATION TREASURE FOR DECADES, CONTROLLED THE MAJORITY OF MYANMAR BUSINESS.

    WELL PAID TO SERVE BY THE HOME GROWN ITS ORG'S, INITIALLY FOUNDED WITH HIS SECRET RELIGIOUS EXTREMIST, UNSEEMLY ORDERED TO MANIPULATE THE COUNTRY DIRECTION, SINCE 1988 AND SERIAL YEARS OF HIS MASS KILLINGS,

    IN ORDER TO GET AWAY FROM INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL COURT.

    October 30, 2013 at 5:19 pm | Reply
  4. rightospeak

    You tell us. The Buddhists do not want the Muslims because Multiculturalism as you can vividly observe there does not work-people want their own country back. People like people who are like themselves – have a sense of a community.
    The article should have given the history and the background of the Muslim Minority immigration into Myanmar which is probably the cause of the problem. Or maybe it is like Syria -a proxy war between big powers. They are close to China. So who benefits from the mess ?

    October 30, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Reply
  5. activefellowship

    I spent some time in Myanmar recently. Here's a video of some of the beautiful kids there. https://www.causes.com/posts/830585

    October 30, 2013 at 9:37 pm | Reply
  6. j. von hettlingen

    The state authorities claimed the explosions were an attempt to damage the country's image following the introduction of democratic reforms. There was public euphoria over democratic reforms, which soon gave way to sectarian attacks that have spread across Burma.
    Aung San Suu Kyi told parliament that the devices were intended "to create panic". With multiple armed groups harbouring decades of grievances, there is no shortage of candidates who might have carried out the bombings. No doubt some wanted to discredit Myanmar's credence for assuming the chair of the ASEAN. The first chapter of democratisation should be to grant rights and liberties to ethnic minorities and to treat them as citizens.

    October 31, 2013 at 10:27 am | Reply
  7. Jamie Sentaro

    Here's an WILD idea, these string of bombing started once the clashes between Buddhist and Muslim took place right? I also saw many Islamic websites that was demanding a Jihad on Myanmar for what had happened. I also saw Islamic propaganda on Youtube where they posted pictures of people that was killed in other countries disasters, underneath it I saw many posts from people such as Jihadboy, Jihadthis, Jihadthat calling for attack on Myanmar. All of a sudden out of NO WHERE, there goes a string of bombings. Not to mention 3 Muslim Jihadists were captured in Jakarta for bombing of Myanmar Embassy, and people are wondering WHO is responsible for bombing in Myanmar??? Are you guys kidding me??? People keep on whining about "Buddhists are killing Muslims" what about what the Muslims are doing? All of these bombing started only after the Buddhist & Muslim clash, common people your not that stupid.

    November 14, 2013 at 3:25 pm | Reply
  8. Jamie Sentaro

    http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2013/11/12/life-term-sought-men-behind-myanmar-plot.html
    https://www.facebook.com/JihadAgainstMyanmarBuddhists
    http://kavkazcenter.com/eng/content/2013/07/12/18041.shtml
    http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2013/07/jihadists_seek_to_op.php

    Read that links, ain't making anything. First one is where 3 Jahidaists were arrested, the other ones are Muslims calling for Jihad on Myanmar, they even got a facebook fan page with a few hundreds Rohingya's as members.

    November 14, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Reply

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