Two military-owned shopping malls in Yangon—one downtown and another in the northern part of the city—burned down early on Thursday morning. Photos that went viral online show the charred remains of Ruby Mart in the city center, burned beyond recognition. The Gandamar Wholesale center in Mayangone Township was seriously damaged in a separate blaze that was still smoldering after sunrise.
So far, the causes of the fires remain unknown, as does the extent of the financial losses.
On Myanmar’s most popular social media platform, Facebook, people reacted to the news with jubilation, as everyone knows that the malls are run by the military. But many also pointed out that the timing and locations of the blazes raise a number of questions.
According to Yangon’s Fire Services Department, both fires broke out at around 2 in the morning—during the curfew hours (8 p.m. to 4 a.m.) when civilians are not allowed outdoors. The department said the causes of the fires are not yet known. Facebook users pointed out that whatever the causes, and whoever was responsible, it is the malls’ insurers, not the military, who will foot the bill.
Many people have expressed suspicions that the regime torched the malls as a pretext to crack down on “rioters” trying to destabilize the country under the “influence of Western countries”. Such speculation is fueled by the nightly claims by newscasters on state-run TV that government offices, local level administration offices and police stations have come under attack by “rioters”—the military’s euphemism for anti-regime protesters.
It should be noted that Thursday’s fires coincided with a visit to Myanmar by CNN reporter Clarissa Ward. On Thursday morning, the network’s chief international correspondent was seen at Gandamar Wholesale after the fire was put out, accompanied by authorities; many fear she has been fed the regime’s official narrative. She was also seen in some Yangon neighborhoods on Wednesday with an army escort, apparently being given a guided tour by the regime. Many people are concerned that restrictions on her access will give her a distorted view of what is actually happening on the ground.
The malls’ locations and surroundings would appear to make them difficult targets for anti-military arsonists.
Ruby Mart is on Bogyoke Aung San Road, partially ensconced in a densely populated neighborhood. Any residents staging such an attack would put their own lives at risk. Furthermore, several meters away from the mall, columns of soldiers have been camped in the City Hall since February. The Central Fire Station is in the vicinity as well.
Given the huge scale of the devastation at Ruby Mart, it seems unlikely it was caused by the Molotov cocktails or homemade bombs the regime has long claimed protesters are using to commit arson. The ground floor was sealed off with roller shutters, making it impossible for inflammable projectiles thrown from the road to penetrate the building.
Gandamar Wholesale enjoys a more spacious location. It is separated by a large compound from the nearest residential area, and the main road outside provides a natural defense against projectiles. Right across the road, a branch of military-owned Myawaddy Bank, protected by a heavy security force, is located.
It is likely that the regime will break its silence on the incidents soon. Any claims by the junta that both were the result of arson attacks by “rioters” are unlikely to be met with surprise from the public.
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