Satellite images corroborate eyewitness accounts of human rights abuses in Burma, AAAS reports

September 28, 2007

A new analysis of high-resolution satellite images -- completed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) -- pinpoints evidence consistent with village destruction, forced relocations, and a growing military presence at 25 sites across eastern Burma where eye-witnesses have reported human rights violations.

The research by AAAS, a non-profit, non-partisan organization and the world's largest general scientific society, offers clear physical evidence to corroborate on-the-ground accounts of specific instances of destruction. It is believed to be the first demonstration of satellite image analysis to document human rights violations in Burma, also known as Myanmar.

AAAS had previously used the same technology to assess destruction in Darfur and Zimbabwe. The latest research was supported by the Open Society Institute and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

A military state since 1962, Burma's ruling junta continues to clash with the National League for Democracy, and has detained the group's elected leader -- the world's only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi -- for nearly a dozen years now. Earlier this year, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) joined First Lady Laura Bush in decrying human rights violations in Burma, describing it as "a land where 3,000 villages have been destroyed, 1,300 political prisoners are in jail, 70,000 child soldiers have been forcibly recruited, and over 500,000 people are internally displaced." U.S. Ambassador Jackie W. Sanders said Burmese military forces systematically rape women and girls, especially those of the Shan, Karen, Karenni, and other ethnic minorities.

An estimated 90 percent of Burmese people live below or near the poverty level, subsisting on a dollar per day or less, Charles Petrie, the United Nations humanitarian chief in Burma told the Associated Press in August.

Working with three human rights groups in Burma, AAAS researcher Lars Bromley obtained field descriptions of more than 70 instances of human rights violations that were reported to take place from mid-2006 through early 2007 in eastern Burma's Karen State and surrounding regions.

Bromley, director of the AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights project, said documenting human rights violations in Burma posed special challenges. Burmese military tactics reportedly include forcing ethnic minorities to abandon their homes, and the use of scattered mortar fire to intimidate those who try to grow rice or other crops.

Consequently, Bromley noted: "Physical evidence of reported attacks on civilians sometimes can be subtle compared to the slash-and-burn types of destruction that we saw in Darfur or Zimbabwe. It's also a lush ecosystem where plants can quickly grow to cover burn marks, and clouds and terrain often block satellite observation." In addition, he said, maps of the area are largely decades old, with "foreign" village name spellings that are not used by reporting organizations or local people.

Despite such challenges, AAAS precisely mapped the locations of 31 of some 70 reported human rights violations by comparing field notes with information provided by the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Satellite image analysis then revealed physical evidence to corroborate reported instances of human rights violations at 25 of the 31 accurately mapped sites. Wherever possible, Bromley compared archival satellite images with newly acquired shots to examine sites before as well as after the reported military activity. In other cases, recent images revealed clear signs of destruction.

"Eighteen of the locations showed evidence consistent with destroyed or damaged villages," Bromley reported. "We found evidence of expanded military camps in four other locations as well as multiple possibly relocated villages, and we documented growth in one refugee camp on the Thai border. All of this was very consistent with reporting by multiple human rights groups on the ground in Burma."

Within the Papun District, human rights groups had described increasing conflicts and displacement, and the development of 33 new military camps beginning in late March 2006. Field reports then allowed Bromley to map the location of Papun District villages burned on and around April 22, 2007. Newly acquired satellite images revealed multiple burn scars in the midst of an otherwise thick green forest. Before-and-after images showed the removal of structures, consistent with eye-witness reports of village destruction. Signs of an expanded military presence, such as the buildup of bamboo fencing around a camp, and construction of a satellite camp, also were identified.

North of the Papun District, in the Toungoo District, human rights groups have reported military camp buildup, village buildings burned, and dam and road construction by military forces. Again, AAAS before-and-after satellite images provided evidence consistent with ground reports of such incidents.

Similarly, Bromley documented human rights violations in the Dooplaya District and the Shan State, where 23,700 people are said to be living in relocation sites, as well as the expansion of refugee camps in Thailand near the Burmese border. Nearly 160,000 refugees were believed to have crossed the border into Thailand as of 2006. One dramatic pair of images from Shan State reveals a 24-structure settlement in January 2000 where nearly all structures had been either completely destroyed or severely damaged by February 2007.

The AAAS research is continuing, Bromley emphasized, and further study by other investigators would be ideal in order to rule out any possible alternate explanations for the removed or severely degraded villages. He encourages reporting organizations and other parties to engage in the image-analysis process.

The AAAS Science and Human Rights Program explores how satellite imagery and other cutting-edge geospatial technologies can be used to assess potential human rights violations and prevent new ones before they develop, Director Mona Younis explained. "The imaging initiative is an excellent example of how science and technology can be applied to help expose human rights violations," Younis said. "The Burma project is the latest in a 30-year effort by AAAS that has included documenting atrocities from Guatemala to Kosovo, while also working to promote basic human rights worldwide."

Bromley relied upon the Free Burma Rangers, the Karen Human Rights Group, and the Thailand Burma Border Consortium for field accounts of military oppression and destruction.

Images were provided by two firms: GeoEye, Inc (Nasdaq:GEOY) and DigitalGlobe.
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For background on the AAAS Darfur study, completed in conjunction with Amnesty International USA, see:

For background on the AAAS Zimbabwe study, see:

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