A bomb exploded at a bank in northern Myanmar on Wednesday, killing at least two people and wounding 22 others, military officials said. The explosion occurred in the often lawless city of Lashio, in northern Shan State, which has been torn apart by ethnic strife and battles to control smuggling networks.
Yoma Bank, one of Myanmar’s largest commercial banks, confirmed that two of its employees, Ma Maw Maw and Ma Sandar Tun, had been killed. “I heard the bomb blast and it felt like it also exploded my house,” said Min Nyunt, whose home is next to the Yoma Bank branch where the bomb went off. “Almost all of the bank has been destroyed.”
No one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but such violence occasionally strikes Myanmar’s frontier region, where armed groups from a patchwork of ethnic minorities, including the Kachin, the Shan, the Ta’ang and the Wa — have battled the Myanmar military for decades.
Fliers were distributed publicly about a month ago in Lashio, the main city in northern Shan State, quoting a warning by Senior Gen. Kyaw Than Swe from the Myanmar Military Security Department that two ethnic militias, the Kachin Independence Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, were preparing to attack the city.
The two rebel armies are part of a coalition of ethnic fighting forces known as the Northern Alliance.
In the flier, General Kyaw Than Swe said that six men and four women from the Kachin Independence Army and 20 people from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army were expert bombmakers and that they would target crowded places like markets, government buildings, and bus and railway stations.
“We got the information that they were making bombs a long time ago so that’s why we distributed the fliers,” Maj. Khaing Zaw Win from the Military Security Department said on Wednesday. “The Northern Alliance is destroying peace and disturbing the public.”
Last year, a rocket-propelled grenade hit a KBZ Bank branch in the town of Muse, also in northern Shan State. The Myanmar military blamed the Northern Alliance for that assault.
But ethnic rebels routinely reject such accusations. They contend that Myanmar’s military faults ethnic insurgents for instigating violence to justify their brutal offensives against ethnic populations.
Fighting in Myanmar’s borderlands is at its worst in years.
The Kachin Independence Army, in particular, has lost territory to the Myanmar military in the intense fighting recently. An estimated 100,000 ethnic Kachin have been displaced from their homes; some have fled across the border into China.
Civilians, including gold and amber miners, have been caught in the crossfire, which extends from Kachin State to northern Shan State. Others have disappeared in areas taken over by the military. The Kachin are mostly Christian in a majority Buddhist land.
Since her government took power in 2016, Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has vowed to bring peace to a country that has suffered from some of the world’s longest-running ethnic conflicts, but the results have been judged worldwide to be far short of what is needed.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has held two peace conferences that seemed to have had little effect on fighting, which has continued. This month, the government announced that a group representing the ethnic Mon and a little known entity from the ethnic Lahu would be joining a national cease-fire agreement.
Most major combatants, like members of the Northern Alliance, however, have refused to join a peace process they claim has been rigged from the start. They say that persecution by the Myanmar military, which ruled the country for nearly half a century, has not ceased in ethnic areas.
International human rights groups have for decades accused the military of gang-raping ethnic-minority women and forcing ethnic-minority civilians to act as human minesweepers, among other war crimes.
Myanmar’s security forces have also orchestrated a campaign of what the United Nations calls ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims, a mostly stateless ethnic group, in far western Rakhine State. Hundreds of villages once populated by the Rohingya have been burned down since August.
Much of Myanmar’s natural resource bounty is concentrated in areas inhabited by ethnic minorities, who make up at least one-third of the country’s population.
Businesses operating in these ethnic strongholds complain that they have to pay levies to ethnic armed groups, as well as taxes to the government.
U Min Zaw Oo, a peace negotiator under the previous transitional government, said that Yoma Bank had a policy of not paying such fees to the ethnic militias.
Yoma Bank representatives did not immediately respond to this claim.
But with all manner of illegal trade proliferating in the foothills of the Himalayas — from timber, jade and gold to opium, methamphetamine and endangered wildlife — business remains vibrant in many ethnic borderlands.
Lashio, for instance, is a conduit to China, and the road through town is often jammed with trucks and motorcycles laden with Chinese goods.
The city is also not far from areas where ethnic populations are struggling, with no end in sight to fighting between the military and ethnic insurgents.
In a statement this month, Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, stressed that the global focus on the Rohingya crisis was diverting attention from serious strife in the rest of the country.
“Representatives from different ethnic groups that I met,” Ms. Lee said, “expressed their concern that as the world’s attention is focused on the atrocities in Rakhine State, potential war crimes are being committed in Shan and Kachin State without so much as a murmur of disapproval from the international community.”