Asia Crisis

Satellites confirm reports of Myanmar violence

WASHINGTON, Sept 28 (Reuters) - Satellite images confirm reports of burned villages, forced relocations and other human-rights abuses in Myanmar, scientists said on Friday.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science said the high-resolution photographs taken by commercial satellites document a growing military presence at 25 sites across eastern Myanmar, matching eyewitness reports.

"We found evidence of 18 villages that essentially disappeared," AAAS researcher Lars Bromley said in an interview.

"We got reporting in late April that a set of villages in Karen state had been burned. We were actually able to identify burn scars on the ground -- square-shaped burn scars the size of houses," Bromley added.

Myanmar, formerly Burma, is undergoing its worst unrest since a 1988 rebellion by students and monks.

The military government in the poor and isolated Southeast Asian country has long been accused of repression.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations voiced "revulsion" on Thursday at the deaths of nine protesters in Yangon and governments including China and the United States have asked the military-led government to stop using force against protesters.

The AAAS said its images corroborate reports filed by refugees and human rights groups, who say abuses have been going on in many parts of the country for years.


Bromley's group got funding from the Open Society Institute and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to book satellite time over Burma and to buy archived images.

"If an attack was reported in a certain area and that attack was said to have destroyed a village or certain villages, we looked for satellite images before and after the date of attack," Bromley said.

"We literally scroll through them inch by inch and look for villages that essentially disappeared."

They also found evidence of "forest relocation -- where a lot of people are taken from more remote areas and forced to build homes in areas under control of the military government," Bromley said.

"In one area around a military camp that we spotted, there were about 31 villages that popped up in a space of about 5 1/2 years. That is either an incredible baby boom or some sort of targeted development program or, because we have no information on either of those, the forest relocation would be a logical candidate," he said.

The AAAS has used the same technology to document destruction in Sudan's Darfur region and Zimbabwe.

Bromley said the satellite data is not complete or detailed enough to show anything happening in real time, such as the burning of a village. "All we are doing is verifying and quantifying," he said.

The AAAS worked with three human rights groups to follow up on descriptions of more than 70 instances of human rights violations from mid-2006 through early 2007 in eastern Burma's Karen state and surrounding regions.

It was not easy -- the satellites are only rarely over Myanmar, there is often cloud cover and the lush forest grows quickly to mask evidence of damage.

But they got images of the locations of 31 reported events and were able to corroborate reports of human rights violations at 25 of them.

Governments such as the United States likely have had this information, Bromley said.

"But if someone in the State Department or in the Department of Defense was looking at this imagery for Burma and seeing atrocities in process would they be able to talk about it?" he asked.