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Satellite Images Catch Human-Rights Violations in Burma

Analysis of photos shows chilling scenes of razed villages and forced-relocation sites.
September 28, 2007

Backing up human-rights reports that the Burmese military is razing villages of ethnic minorities and herding people into areas under tighter military control, an analysis of satellite images shows chilling scenes of bare ground where villages once stood, new settlements near military camps, and swelling refugee camps just across the border, in Thailand. The new analysis was done by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and human-rights groups.

Camp constructed: “Before” and “after” satellite images show the site of an apparent military encampment in Burma on November 11, 2000 (top), and again on December 13, 2006 (bottom), when new bamboo fencing can be seen. The human-rights group the Free Burma Rangers reported a major expansion of this camp in 2006, corroborated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science analysis of images.

“What we did was essentially draw from a set of commercially available imaging satellites to see what we could see in the locations where [human-rights groups] said attacks were taking place,” Lars Bromley, who heads up the AAAS’s Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights project, said in a news conference. “When they got a report out of a region, we would do our best to precisely locate the coordinates where the events took place.” The images were provided by two firms: GeoEye and DigitalGlobe.

In one case, reports that villages were razed on April 22 of this year were backed up by a satellite picture snapped on June 24, Bromley said. “We feel that information matches up fairly well with the reports,” he said. A dozen or more people were killed during that incident–one of more than 70 instances of human-rights violations reported from mid 2006 through early 2007 in eastern Burma’s Karen State and surrounding regions.

What’s more, satellite images show that large numbers of people have been moved closer to military centers. “Overall, 31 new villages appeared around a military camp around a five-year period,” Bromley said. “What that tells us is that either there are some demographic changes going on, or there might be a basis to reports of forced relocations.”


  • See photos of Burma.

The satellite comparison comes as Burmese authorities are violently cracking down on peaceful street protests by Buddhist monks. “We are trying to send a message to the military junta that we are watching from the sky–we are watching what you are doing,” Aung Din, policy director for the U.S. Campaign for Burma, a human-rights group, said during the news conference.

Previous AAAS efforts used satellites to produce evidence of human-rights abuses in Darfur and Zimbabwe. But the job was harder in the thick jungles of Burma, where vegetation quickly regrows and clouds often obscure terrain, Bromley said. 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.

In parts of Burma, human-rights groups have reported military-camp buildups, village buildings being burned, and dam and road construction by military forces. “Before” and “after” satellite images provided evidence consistent with ground reports of such incidents. And Bromley documented human-rights violations in areas where 23,700 people are said to be living in forced-relocation sites, as well as the expansion of refugee camps in Thailand near the Burmese border.

Bromley said that the AAAS research is continuing, and he encouraged human-rights groups and other experts to help improve the image-analysis process.

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