Satellites confirm reports of Myanmar violence

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Satellite images confirm reports earlier this year 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.”

Myanmar, formerly Burma, is suffering 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.

Aung Din, policy director for the U.S. Campaign for Burma activist group, said his organization will use the evidence to pressure Myanmar’s government, which this week begun a violent crackdown to quell protests led by Buddhist monks.

“We are trying to send a message to the military junta that we are watching from the sky,” he told reporters in a conference call.

He said the images also will be used pressure the Chinese government to support U.N. sanctions against the junta.

A before image (top) depicts a small settlement in Myanmar on May 5, 2004, and again on Feb. 23, 2007, with all structures removed. The images correspond with information provided by the Free Burma Rangers regarding December 2006 attacks at and near the Myanmar village of Kwey Kee. Satellite images confirm reports of burned villages, forced relocations and other human-rights abuses in Myanmar, scientists said on Friday. REUTERS/GeoEye (top)/Digital Globe (bottom)

Din said the satellite images corroborate reports by refugees and human rights activists, who say abuses have been going on in many parts of the country for years.

The researchers are now gathering satellite images of major cities inside Myanmar.

“As most communication links from these cities are cut, these images -- if they come through -- will be one of the few ways to understand the level of deployment of the military regime,” Bromley told reporters.


Bromley’s group got funding from the Open Society Institute and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to book satellite time over Myanmar 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 “forced 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,” he said.

“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 forced relocation would be a logical candidate.”

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

The AAAS worked with three human rights groups to follow up on descriptions of more than 70 instances of rights violations from mid-2006 through early 2007 in eastern Myanmar’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.

Additional reporting by Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago