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Bombs kill nine people at New Year water festival in Myanmar

Friday, April 16, 2010

YANGON, Myanmar -- Three bomb blasts at a holiday festival killed nine people in Myanmar's biggest city Thursday, the deadliest attack in five years in the country ruled by an iron-fisted regime.

No indication was given as to who was behind the blasts, which occurred at about 3 p.m. near 20 pavilions erected for celebrations at Kandawgyi Lake. Myanmar is celebrating its annual four-day water festival when people drench each other with water to usher in the Myanmar New Year on Saturday.

Television images from the site showed pools of blood and scattered sandals left behind by fleeing revelers. The television broadcast described the blasts as the handiwork of "terrorists" but did not blame any group or organization. No one has claimed responsibility.

State television and radio put the death toll at eight -- five men and three women. It said 94 people including 30 women were injured. However, a hospital official said nine people were killed. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information.

Witnesses said Yangon General Hospital, where most of the casualties were taken, was a scene of chaos and commotion, with injured arriving drenched in blood and people crying and moaning.

A hospital official said the casualties so far did not include any foreigners, though the festival is a tourist attraction.

State TV warned other revelers in the capital Naypyitaw, Yangon, Mandalay and other cities to be alert and to contact authorities if they have any information about the "terrorists."

Bombings are rare but not unknown in the cities of Myanmar, whose military rulers are fighting several insurgencies in remote provinces. It was the worst such attack since May 2005 when a series of bombs exploded at two upscale supermarkets and at a convention center in Yangon, killing 19 people and injuring more than 160 others.

In the past, the government has blamed bomb blasts on exiled anti-government groups and insurgents including ethnic Karen rebels fighting for greater autonomy in eastern Myanmar.

In January, the junta announced the arrests of 11 people accused of planning bombings to disrupt elections planned for this year. State media said "terrorists" bent on derailing the polls had penetrated the country and were responsible for seven explosions in Yangon industrial parks in September last year.

The exact date for the elections, the first in 20 years, has not yet been set. The 1990 polls were won by the opposition National League for Democracy party of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, but the winners were not allowed to take power by the military.

The government has touted this year's polls as part of a "road map to democracy." Critics say the elections are a sham designed to cement the power of the military.

The NLD decided to boycott the polls and said the electoral laws imposed by the junta are "unjust' and "unrealistic."

Some of the country's powerful ethnic minorities, which have their own political parties, have also expressed dissatisfaction with the election rules, and may not participate. Most of the groups have fought on and off for autonomy since the country gained independence from Britain more than a half century ago.

The initial reaction of several Myanmar analysts was that the attacks would not affect the polls.

"I have no idea of who might have done it but I doubt that the elections will be postponed," said David Steinberg, a Myanmar specialist at Georgetown University in Washington.

John Dale, a conflict resolution specialist at Virginia's George Mason University, also said it was unclear who carried out the bombings. He said the attacks may have been in response to restrictions imposed by the junta on costumes, music, rituals, and performances during the New Year celebrations.

The bombings "will certainly not affect the elections," he said in an e-mail interview.

"My sense is that they were meant as a message to the junta, denouncing the way that they have restricted participation in the water festival -- one of the most important celebrations of the year... This is a direct affront to the ethnic and nationalist minority groups throughout the country," said Dale.


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