Explosions at Myanmar festival kill 8, injure 90

Three explosions at a water festival in Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar, killed at least eight people and injured more than 90 on Thursday in what state television described as the work of terrorists.

The government broadcast did not cite any particular group, and no one immediately claimed responsibility.

The unrest came at a key time for the isolated country, also known as Burma, which has pledged to hold elections this year. The military has maintained an authoritarian grip on the country for decades.

The violence disrupted the traditional New Year festival in Myanmar, where celebrants were marking the holiday by throwing scented water and white powder. Similar festivities were held in neighboring Thailand and Laos.

The blasts occurred about 3 p.m. near about 20 pavilions assembled for the four-day festival.

Reuters news service, citing witnesses, said loud explosions were heard alongside Kandawgyi Lake, an area containing the pavilions of companies that were closely associated with authorities.

Television images showed blood on the street and scattered sandals left by fleeing revelers.

In the past, the government has been quick to blame explosions and related unrest on the Karen National Union, an anti-government ethnic group, or other separatist organizations.

Debbie Stothard, Bangkok-based coordinator with the Alternative Asean Network on Burma, an activist group, said there had been bombings periodically over the years in Yangon, also known as Rangoon, but rarely during the water festival.

“This is traditionally a time when people relax and let off steam,” she said. “But in the past year, the government has been increasingly repressive with its rules and regulations, and the unrest could be over the upcoming 2010 election.”

Analysts said the deadly blasts may have been the work of one or more dissident groups.

But the violence could also be the work of the government or its close affiliates, they said.

“One could speculate -- although you wouldn’t do this in many other countries, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility here -- that the government is behind this,” said Benjamin Zawacki, Southeast Asia researcher with Amnesty International.

“It could be a reverse-psychology ploy to get more sympathy in advance of the election.”

Stothard said the violence could be a way to justify another crackdown at a politically sensitive time for the government.

The military regime, which is under international pressure to provide at least the veneer of legitimacy for its autocratic rule, is expected to agree to a national election this year, perhaps in November.

In what analysts see as the government’s bid to ensure it wins any election, it has announced tough restrictions for parties not associated with the government, prompting some foreign analysts to condemn the exercise as a sham.

Key opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won the last election, in 1990, only to see the military reject the results, is not allowed to run. She is under house arrest, as she has been for much of the last two decades.

Tensions have been rising in recent weeks after the military government pressured ethnic groups to become border guards, which analysts say is part of its strategy to neutralize them in advance of any election.