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Satellite Images Reveal Burmese Atrocities

28 September 2007 (All day)
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2007 DigitalGlobe

Hamlet no more.
A satellite image showing black scars in the middle of a forest confirm that a village in east Myanmar was burned down, most likely in a military raid earlier this year.

The military dictatorship of Myanmar--also known as Burma--has consistently dismissed allegations of human-rights violations against ethnic minorities and other citizens. But new satellite images that show the charred remains of villages in east Myanmar and a buildup of refugees across the country's border with Thailand provide silent confirmation of those atrocities.

The evidence, documented by AAAS, publisher of ScienceNOW, comes amid increasing turmoil in the streets of Yangon (Rangoon), the capital city, where the military has cracked down hard on pro-democracy groups in recent weeks. Since the country became a military state in 1962, human-rights organizations have accused the government of murdering thousands of ordinary citizens, many of them belonging to the Shan, Karen, and Karenni communities.

The AAAS project, supported by the Open Society Institute and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, used high-resolution images from commercial satellites to verify field reports of military atrocities provided by the Free Burma Rangers, the Karen Human Rights Group, and the Thailand Burma Border Consortium. At 25 of the 31 locations in east Myanmar that were examined in the study, researchers found visual evidence confirming eyewitness accounts of villages having been burned or shifted and showing military camps that have been set up near minority settlements. For example, images show blackened scars of buildings in a village in Papun district after a reported set of attacks on 22 April.

"Eighteen of the locations showed evidence consistent with destroyed or damaged villages," says Lars Bromley, director of the project. "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."

Human-rights organizations are hoping that the new evidence will help to convince the international community to take tougher measures against the Burmese dictatorship. "These images show that the military is conducting an organized campaign to force ethnic minorities out of their villages," says Aung Din, policy director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that partnered with AAAS on the project. Bromley says that the images strengthen the accounts of human-rights abuses already documented by many international organizations by helping to "discredit the denials issued by the Burmese government." He and his colleagues at AAAS have used a similar approach in recent months to document violence in Zimbabwe and the Darfur region of Sudan.

Din, a former student leader imprisoned for 4 years following a pro-democracy movement that the government quelled in 1989, says the satellite images may make the dictatorship think twice about its abusive campaign. "Our intention is to tell the military junta that we have these satellites in the sky watching this territory. So don't do anything stupid now."

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