Traders Hotel in Rangoon, Burma’s largest city and commercial capital, is a hub of social life in this formerly cloistered nation, which is currently enjoying the renewed attentions of foreign investors and tourists alike. So when an explosion detonated late on Monday night in one of the hotel’s guestrooms, news of the blast spread quickly, spooking not only international visitors but also locals who like to congregate in the establishment’s newly renovated lobby.
The explosion, apparently in a ninth-floor guest bathroom, injured an American woman who was in Burma with her husband and two children, according to the Associated Press, which reported that shards of glass rained onto the street below in downtown Rangoon. Why anyone would trigger a blood-seeking device late at night in a hotel bathroom is unclear. But a series of small explosions have erupted in recent days in Burma, also known as Myanmar. Two people may have died and several others were wounded in these incidents, according to local news reports, which placed the unexplained blasts at a guesthouse, bus stop and market.
A presidential spokesman connected these incidents to Burma’s recent accession as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, implying that unknown forces may want to upstage the international debut of a former pariah nation. Meanwhile, Burmese police released a statement speculating as to whether the bombs might be used to sow chaos before the nation welcomes the Southeast Asian Games in December. The sporting affair will be the largest international event to be hosted by Burma’s new government, which replaced a long-ruling military junta two years ago.
Bombings have shaken Burma before, mysterious explosions that were little covered amid widespread government censorship. The ruling top brass tended to blame such violence on armed ethnic groups or disgruntled democracy advocates trying to overthrow the government — claims these forces denied, like in 2005 when nearly two dozen people died in Rangoon bombings pinned on separatist ethnic elements. Critics of the repressive Burmese regime wondered whether some of such incidents had been orchestrated internally in order to undermine antigovernment sentiment.
In April 2010, a trio of explosions at a Burmese new-year celebration in Rangoon, also known as Yangon, claimed 10 or so lives and injured more than 100 others. Soon after, bombings struck a construction site in northern Kachin state, where the Chinese were building a controversial dam. (Construction of the hydropower project is now suspended after a public outcry raised various concerns.) Details surrounding both cases are still murky. The government blamed the Rangoon attack on a band of militant student activists that operated on the border between Burma and Thailand. A young Muslim engineer in Rangoon, Phyo Wai Aung, was sentenced to death for the new-year violence, before being granted a presidential pardon last year. After his release, he told Burmese news websites the Irrawaddy and the Democratic Voice of Burma that he was tortured in prison and had been unjustly blamed for the crime. Phyo Wai Aung died early this year.
Since the nation transitioned in 2011 to a quasi-civilian government, which has unveiled economic and political reforms, unexplained explosions have become less common. However, violence has continued to plague this ethnically diverse nation. Despite a supposed cease-fire with the Kachin ethnic rebel army, fighting with government troops in recent months has claimed civilian and soldier lives in the country’s northern reaches. Anti-Muslim riots in this majority Buddhist land have also killed hundreds, earning the government international condemnation. A reform process may be remaking Burma, but total peace, even as evidenced by the Traders Hotel explosion, remains elusive.