Fear Rises in Rangoon After Bomb Blasts

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 15 October 2013

RANGOON — Tin Hla, a taxi driver in Burma’s biggest city, felt uneasy driving through the streets on Tuesday morning, following a bomb blast at an upscale hotel the night before. “We’re not secure living in Rangoon right now,” he says. “We’ve heard about bomb blasts every day.”

In the latest explosion to hit the commercial capital, an American woman was injured after a small bomb went off late on Monday night in her room at Traders Hotel, an upscale hotel in the downtown area that is popular among tourists and foreign business travelers.

“There are a lot of police in Rangoon’s townships,” the taxi driver said, noting an increase in security checkpoints on the roads. “We were checked by them last night, township by township. Now people in the outskirt townships are reluctant to go downtown.”

Several homemade bombs have been planted in and around Rangoon in recent days. A small bomb exploded at a bus station in Insein Township in the early hours of Sunday morning, while a bomb attached to the underside of a truck exploded later that day in Thaketa Township, leaving two people injured. A homemade bomb was also found Sunday near the bus station in Insein, according to state media, while a small undetonated explosive was discovered Monday at an expensive Chinese restaurant in west Rangoon.

Elsewhere in Burma, in nearby Pegu Division, an explosive device was found and defused by army officials last week on Wednesday, while a bomb blast at a guesthouse on Friday killed two people and injured one. In Mandalay, the country’s second-biggest city, police found and detonated a bomb at a restaurant this week on Monday afternoon. In Sagaing Division, neighboring Mandalay Division, two bombs went off in the early hours of Tuesday morning, with no injuries reported.

At least four people were detained by the police on Tuesday, including three people in Rangoon and one person in Mon State.

On Tuesday mid-morning in Rangoon, a suspicious package on a downtown street corner raised concern. “At the corner of Seikkan Thar Street and 38th Street, the police came and checked with their dogs, but no bomb was found,” said Chit Htike, who lives on the street in Kyauktada Township. “Vendors have stopped selling things—older vendors seem scared to work today.”

He said he believed others in the city would hesitate to visit shopping malls, cinemas or even bus stations. “Even Traders had a bomb blast—how can people dare to go to crowded areas in this situation? I’m worried about my parents and my relatives, I don’t want them to go outside,” he said.

The bombings have also raised concerns for tourists. Rangoon-based travel and tour agencies said foreigners started canceling reservations on Tuesday, following the bomb blast at Traders. In a meeting with the deputy minister of hotels and tourism, they said they worried business would plummet in the coming months.

Aye Kyaw, chairman of Ruby Land travel and tour company, said guests had made reservations with a deposit one month in advance but were now trying to cancel their bookings. “The problem is, hotels are not giving back their deposits,” he said. “It’s really ugly for our country. The government—respective ministries—should give us some support.

“Foreign visitors are getting worried about visiting. This will impact all related sectors in the hotel and tourism industry.”

The Ministry of Hotels and Tourism earlier this year said it expected foreign visitor arrivals to reach 2 million by the end of this year, up from 1.6 million in 2011.

Aung Zaw Win, director general of hotels and tourism, urged hotels to take responsibility for additional security. “The front office should run security checks on visitors’ belongings as well as housekeepers,” he said. “They should check seriously after every visitor checks out.”

The Yangon Hotelier Association will inspect 33 hotels in Rangoon next week for security, the association’s spokesperson said.

The series of bombings comes ahead of two public holidays in Burma. On Wednesday the country’s Muslim minority will observe the Islamic holiday of Eid Mubarak. On Saturday, the Buddhist majority will celebrate the Buddhist festival of lights, known as Thadingyut.

More municipal security officers were posted on Tuesday in downtown Rangoon around Sule Pagoda and neighboring City Hall. Extra security has also been deployed at shopping malls. “We’re increasing security at every Junction mall,” said a spokeswoman for the upscale Junction shopping centers, at four locations in Rangoon and one in Naypyidaw. “We are checking rubbish bins, the corner of escalators, inside elevators and in toilets,” said the spokeswoman.

In 2005, nearly simultaneous bomb blasts rocked two supermarkets in Rangoon, at Junction 8 mall and a City Mart store. Nineteen people were killed, according to the official death toll, while 162 people were injured.

In 2010, three bombs exploded at a pavilion in Rangoon during a celebration of the Burmese New year, killing at least eight people.

Small bomb blasts occurred frequently under Burma’s military regime, and were normally blamed on armed ethnic groups, although many believed the authorities were behind the explosions. Such incidents have become more rare in recent years, and security at borders has been heightened this year in anticipation of December’s Southeast Asian Games.

Burma’s national police chief, Win Khaung, said in August that official intelligence had identified a terrorist movement in the country. At the time he called for heightened security to protect increasing numbers of foreign visitors to Burma.