Who’s Behind the Bombings in Burma?

By Saw Yan Naing 18 October 2013

RANGOON — A string of unexplained bombings has killed at least three people and injured at least 10 more over the past week in different parts of Burma. There is no strong evidence to blame a particular group, but these attacks were likely connected.

Three main possibilities have been suggested to explain the bomb blasts and the discovery of undetonated explosive devices in Rangoon, Pegu, Mandalay and Sagaing divisions as well as Shan State.

One source of suspicion is hardline military leaders who want to derail President Thein Sein’s peace process, which threatens their power in ethnic minority areas. On the other hand, some wonder whether disgruntled ethnic armed groups are to blame, perhaps planning the bomb attacks to show their dissatisfaction with the peace talks, which many say are one-sided in favor of the government. The last potential culprits are radical Muslims from Malaysia, where many Burmese Muslims have sought refuge over the past year following attacks by Buddhist mobs.

Although two of the arrested suspects hold Malaysian passports, radical Muslims seem to be the least likely instigator of the bombings. The blasts have not targeted extremist Buddhist communities, and indeed they have not occurred in areas where radical Muslim groups are active, such as Arakan State. Muslim groups have been persecuted in Burma over the past year, but they would not likely benefit from a widespread bombing campaign, and they also lack the manpower to pull one off. It would also be odd for hardliner military leaders in the government to plan the bombings, because despite their dissatisfaction with Thein Sein, many of them are eager to promote Burma’s image ahead of the Southeast Asian Games and as their country takes the chairmanship for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Several observers, including sources from an ethnic Karen rebel group known as the Karen National Union (KNU), have suggested that disgruntled KNU members could be behind the bomb plots, perhaps in collaboration with members of other allied ethnic armed groups. Many ethnic rebel groups have voiced frustrations over recent months because they believe that despite individual ceasefires, the government’s peace process has produced no change for ordinary people on the ground.

The KNU is now divided into two factions—one is hardline, and the other is more pragmatic. The pragmatic faction, dominated by the current KNU leadership, wants to move forward quickly with the peace process, despite complaints that little has been done to protect civilians, implement a code of conduct for ceasefires, or withdraw government troops from KNU territories. The so-called hardline faction, dominated by KNU Brigade 5, has support from armed leaders and does not want to follow the government’s plans so easily. In addition to protection for civilians, it wants a guarantee that development projects in the state will benefit local people.

Leaders of the hardline faction are allied with an alliance of ethnic armed groups known as the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), which held peace talks with the government peace delegation in September in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. Afterward, UNFC leaders said a nationwide ceasefire agreement between the government and all ethnic rebel groups was unlikely to be signed anytime soon because the meeting had ended with disagreement.

In August, an ethnic Kachin leader in Chiang Mai told The Irrawaddy that he would support ethnic armed groups to use any means—including military means, and if necessary in urban areas—to fight for their cause. This ethnic leader was allied with the UNFC and has solid financial resources. “We will need to fight. We will need to launch our operation,” he said, declining to elaborate.

The KNU’s pragmatic faction has denied involvement in the bomb plots. It has also tried to distance itself from the hardline faction in this regard. “Don’t blame us for the bombings. It will damage the whole KNU,” a KNU leader told The Irrawaddy this week.

The government has not openly blamed the KNU, but state media reported that the police arrested one suspect who formerly worked with the Karen rebel group and other suspects who were believed to be connected to it. The KNU source said a Burmese businessman who operates a gold mine in Karen State’s Papun District—which is partly under the control of KNU Brigade 5—was also being questioned by local police officers.

Some observers say that disgruntled ethnic leaders are trying to obstruct the nationwide ceasefire agreement that the government hopes to achieve with all rebel groups next month. These leaders might worry that their time is running out to voice frustrations with the peace process.

There is no proof that hardline ethnic factions are responsible for the recent bombings, but they seem to have a motive. The bomb attacks have targeted civilians, but perhaps they were planned as a warning to the government—a call to address ethnic demands before pushing through a nationwide ceasefire agreement next month.