On Burmese New Year, a String of Attacks

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REUTERS / Myanmar News Agency / Handout

A policeman investigates the site where three bombs exploded during Thingyan, Burma's new year festival, in central Rangoon on April 15, 2010

Burmese New Year is usually a raucous time, with locals setting off fireworks and splashing bucketfuls of water on each other as part of a purification ritual. But this year's Thingyan festival took on a more sinister tone when mysterious bomb blasts hit the nation's largest city, Rangoon, on April 15. The explosions, detonated at a lakeside pavilion where residents were celebrating the new year, killed at least eight people. The military junta that has ruled Burma since 1962 quickly blamed "terrorists" and "destructive elements" for the mayhem, without further elaboration. In 2005, a set of bombs killed 23 people in Rangoon. The regime called those deaths the work of armed ethnic minorities that have battled the ethnically Burmese junta for autonomy, a charge these groups have denied.

Then on Saturday, violence spread northward to Kachin state, when a series of bombs struck a controversial dam construction site, possibly killing Chinese workers. Ethnic Kachins, who have long chafed under the repressive rule of the junta, have nothing good to say about the proposed dam, one of seven hydroelectric projects planned for Kachin state. Not only will it flood thousands of homes — as well as the Myitsone, the confluence of two rivers that holds revered status in Kachin lore — but the electricity produced by the dam will most likely be transferred to neighboring China without illuminating the local populace. Kachin preachers — the population is majority Christian — have led a spirited non-violent resistance to the dam, sending letters to various ministries and holding seminars on hydropower's devastating environmental impact. Despite pre-emptive protestations of their innocence, it seems almost inevitable that the junta will blame the explosions on armed groups fighting for Kachin rights.

But one Kachin activist accuses the junta itself of setting off the bombs in Rangoon and Kachin in order to give itself license to attack ethnic groups. "They want to crush us," he says, "and this is the excuse they will use." Although far-fetched, such speculation isn't completely illogical. In preparation for planned elections later this year, the junta has unveiled a choreographed display of democratic activity that critics have dismissed as mere window-dressing. (The regime ignored the results of the last ballot exercise in 1990 when its proxy party failed to win.)

One of the issues that must be cleared up before the elections is the status of various ethnic ceasefire groups that have signed peace treaties with the junta in exchange for a modicum of autonomy for their peoples. Under Burma's new constitution, these ethnic groups must give up their arms and agree to reconstitute themselves as part of so-called "border-guard forces." However, nearly all of the ethnic armies have declined to sign on. An ethnically linked bombing campaign could give the junta political cover for a crack down. While the ethnic Burmese majority is distrustful of its military rulers, many are also equally skeptical of the autonomy-seeking agendas of the ethnic groups.

Before the bomb blasts, Kachin locals were already complaining that they were being forced to make contributions to Burmese new-year festivities that they had no intention of joining — just another example of how ethnic minorities are made to hew to the Burmese way. Then, the day before the dam explosions, Kachin Independence Organization delegates gathered the public to explain why they could not agree to become part of the junta's border-guard force. "Tensions were already very high," says the Kachin activist. "Everyone was expecting something to happen, but not this."