The Crackdown in Burma, Captured on Satellite Imagery

Now that the military dictatorship in Burma has cut off the country’s Internet access, and few reporters have been able to enter the closed country, the newest means to document human rights abuses hasn’t come a moment too soon. As troops storm Buddhist monasteries and kill protesters (at least nine on Thursday, Sept. 27), scientists are marshaling high-resolution satellite images to document the destruction of villages, forced relocations, and growing military presence at sites across eastern Burma where eyewitnesses have reported human rights violations.

It is the latest use of digital satellite imagery from companies such as Digital Globe, whose QuickBird and WorldView-1 satellites (the latter launched earlier this month) have provided images that are revolutionizing fields as diverse as chimp conservation and oil-spill tracking.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has previously used satellite image analysis to document human rights violations and destruction in Darfur and Zimbabwe. Like those sites, Burma is an especially difficult place to document human rights violations, such as the military forcing ethnic minorities to abandon their homes, and the use of mortar fire to intimidate farmers. “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,” says Lars Bromley, who heads the AAAS Science and Human Rights program. “It’s also a lush ecosystem where plants can quickly grow to cover burn marks.”

AAAS mapped the locations of 31 reported human rights violations, and then through satellite image analysis pulled together physical evidence to corroborate the reports at 25 of the sites. “Eighteen of the locations showed evidence consistent with destroyed or damaged villages,” Bromley said. “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.”

Satellite images also revealed burn scars in an otherwise lush forest, consistent with reports of villages in Papun District that were burned on and around April 22, 2007. Before-and-after satellite images showed that several structures had been removed, “consistent with eye-witness reports of village destruction,” AAAS reported in a news conference today.

For instance, one “before” image shows a small settlement on May 5, 2004, while the “after” image on Feb. 23, 2007, shows all structures removed, consistent with reports of military attacks at and near the village of Kwey Kee. Another image shows multiple burn scars on June 24, 2007, corroborating reports that a settlement there was burned in April.