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Myanmar Crisis

Escalating Myanmar bombings cause civilian casualties

Junta accuses peaceful protesters of turning into urban guerrillas

Zaw Win Aung, 19, was killed in Yangon on May 25 when a bomb disguised as a gift exploded at a wedding reception. 

YANGON/BANGKOK -- Four and half months after an inconclusive coup on Feb. 1, bombings are on the rise in Yangon, Mandalay, Bago and other cities in Myanmar, targeting government offices, schools and security forces, after the military gained the upper hand over widespread street protests.

A gift that appeared to be an electric stove exploded during a wedding reception in Yangon on May 25, killing the bride and two relatives of the groom. Eight guests were also wounded. The gift-wrapped bomb was brought to the reception by a man in a pink shirt wearing a face mask, according to Win Win Thein, a mother of one of the dead. "The man sat for a while and left when his phone rang," she told Nikkei Asia. "The bomb exploded shortly after."

According to local media, the groom was known to be pro-military, and had become infamous as an informant to security forces during brutal crackdowns on street protests. Although no one has claimed responsibility for the blast, most of those who attended believe the groom was the intended target, but he escaped unharmed.

"My son was very supportive and helpful in our ward," Win Win Thein said of Zaw Win Aung, her dead 19-year-old son who was a cousin of the groom. Last year, he volunteered at the COVID-19 control center in Yangon and worked away from home for six months. Zaw Win Aung was awarded a special certificate and a medal with then State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi's portrait on it by Suu Kyi herself.

"I do not want to see innocent people harmed," said Win Win Thein. Another of her sons, Wai Yan Moe, was badly lacerated in the attack and had to be hospitalized for a week for surgery on his hands and legs.

Win Win Thein lost one son when a wedding reception was bombed last month, and another was wounded. Both were cousins of the groom.

According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a U.S.-based non-profit organization monitoring conflicts around the world, Myanmar suffered 297 explosions in May -- a major surge from the 73 in April. Most were reported to have been carried out by "unidentified" armed groups.

Yangon saw 87 bombings in May and Mandalay 41. There were other incidents right across the country, including one in Naypyitaw, the maximum security capital.

Most of the blasts have been solo, but there have been some synchronized incidents that suggest some well organized groups are in play.

Yangon's Thaketa Township had eight bombings without casualties in the early hours of May 27. The targets included two police stations, a school, a market and a street corner. Following the explosions, a junta-appointed ward administrator was assassinated by three unidentified gunmen. Thaketa has been the setting for some of the most intense anti-junta demonstrations.

Politicians have also been targeted. On June 10, a former member of parliament in the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party was gunned down by two unidentified gunmen on a Yangon street.

In the last three days, the house of Zaw Myint Maung, a senior National League for Democracy (NLD) politician in Mandalay, was bombed as were two NLD offices in the city.

With bombs going off on a daily basis, and schools being among the targets, many parents have been reluctant to send their children to classes after their reopening on June 1. That followed a year's closure because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We are concerned about the safety of our children," the father of grade 7 boy told Nikkei. "If something happens while the children are studying, we will have no recourse." He said he had not enrolled his son this year even though the junta has urged all parents to send their children back to school.

At a June 12 press conference, Zaw Min Tun, spokesperson of the junta, the State Administration Council (SAC), said that 173 civilians have been killed in bombs and other attacks since the coup. He blamed the NLD of ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi for the bombings. "The destructive acts are crimes committed by NLD party members, supporters and extremists," he said.

Zaw Min Tun put the recent change in tactics down to the protests running out of steam. "So we are seeing more arson and bombing of public places and administration buildings," he said.

The junta also accused others of involvement in guerrilla activity. They include the National Unity Government (NUG), which runs in opposition to the SAC, and the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) that is mostly made up of members of parliament elected in November's general election.

Major Kaung Htet San, a SAC information team member, told reporters in May that "atrocities" are being incited and financed by "the unlawful CRPH and NUG in exile and its supporters." The junta's information team claimed that 3 million kyat ($1,820) had been awarded as "financial assistance" to each successful bombing or act of arson.

A six-year-old girl was one of two children wounded when a wedding in Yangon was bombed. Three people, including the bride, died and six more adults were also hit by shrapnel.  

The NUG's People's Defense Force announced its rules of engagement on the Facebook page on May 26, and said it would not target civilians, schools, hospitals or religious and culturally significant buildings.

There are suspicions that the junta is behind some of the attacks, including the bombing of NLD targets in Mandalay. According to local and foreign media reports, the Pyusawhti group, named after a Burmese warrior prince, was formed in early May to support the military and police in urban areas. They engage in security operations, including vehicle checks.

"Against the backdrop of a marked escalation in urban attacks by anti-coup opposition forces using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) over the past month, Pyusawhti elements are also being deployed in unarmed, undercover surveillance duties and as informants targeting local opposition and protest groups," Anthony Davis reported late last month in Jane's Defence Weekly.

Some analysts believe the Pyusawhti are also being trained in explosives and are responsible for 15% of recent bombings. These operations are meant to discredit the junta's enemies.

It is clear, however, that many of the explosions target the junta. Reliable sources told Nikkei that there will be more bombings in Yangon of public buildings, schools and anything obviously connected to security personnel.

In the weeks after the Feb. 1 coup, pro-democracy protesters openly marched in the streets nationwide, but as crackdowns became more forceful they changed tactics to flash mobs that gathered and dispersed quickly to avoid arrest.

The situation now appears to be sliding toward armed resistance. Defense forces have been forming in townships and provincial areas. There has been heavy fighting with Karen, Karenni, Kachin and Chin armed ethnic organizations, and also in the Sagaing Region. Dozens of troops and Karenni fighters have been reported killed in recent clashes in Kayah State along the border with Thailand in recent weeks, displacing an estimated 100,000 people.

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