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Satellites focus on abuses in Myanmar

Satellite images provide evidence from above that Myanmar's military-led government has engaged in a long campaign of destroying villages and relocating villagers, researchers reported Friday.

Satellite images provide evidence from above that Myanmar's military-led government has engaged in a long campaign of destroying villages and relocating villagers, researchers reported Friday.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, publisher of the journal Science, worked with human rights campaigners as well as commercial satellite providers to follow up on reports of abuses. The results of the yearlong study were released even as a fresh wave of dissent and bloody repression swept over the isolated Asian country, also known as Burma.

The Myanmar project follows up on similar "before-and-after" satellite imagery focusing on alleged human rights abuses in Sudan's Darfur region, Zimbabwe, the Balkans and Guatemala, also conducted through AAAS' Science and Human Rights Program.

"The imaging initiative is an excellent example of how science and technology can be applied to help expose human rights violations," the program's director, Mona Younis, said in a statement.

The images and additional information would be distributed to U.S. lawmakers next week, and would also go to the United Nations as well as members of the U.N. Security Council, said Aung Din, policy director for the U.S. Campaign for Burma.

During a teleconference with journalists, he said he hoped the evidence would send a message to China in particular, leading to a harder line against Myanmar's military junta. He also hoped the images would affect events in Burma itself.

"We are trying to send a message to the military junta that we are watching from the sky," Aung Din told the journalists.

The imagery focused on areas cited by human-rights monitors with the Free Burma Rangers, the Karen Human Rights Group and the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, primarily in eastern Myanmar's Karen State, said Lars Bromley, director of the AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights project.

Human-rights groups say that more than 3,000 villages have been destroyed in an effort to crush opposition to the junta. Civil unrest in Myanmar has created 1.5 million refugees and 500,000 internally displaced people, and 1,300 political prisoners are in jail, according to human-rights reports.

In the Karen border region, the junta is said to force ethnic minorities to abandon their homes, and use scattered mortar fire to intimidate those who try to grow crops.

Sifting through satellite picturesThe AAAS project, backed by the Open Society Institute and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, started with more than 70 reports of human rights abuses reported from mid-2006 through 2007. In 31 cases, the sites of the alleged abuses could be matched up with specific locations on the ground.

Researchers combed through archival satellite imagery to find pictures predating alleged incidents of village destruction and forced relocation. Fresh imagery was commissioned to see how the landscape had changed after the reported events. The images came from GeoEye's Orbview satellite (which recently went out of commission) and its Ikonos satellite, as well as the QuickBird satellite operated by Digital Globe, Bromley said.

"The goal of all of this was basically to come up with a set of before-and-after image pairs," Bromley told reporters.

At 25 sites, researchers saw physical evidence in the imagery to corroborate the claims of abuses, Bromley said.

"Eighteen of the locations showed evidence consistent with destroyed or damaged villages," Bromley said in a statement prepared in advance of Friday's teleconference. "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 Myanmar."

Looking for burn scarsIn one case, satellite analysts focused on village sites that were said to have been burned down in Myanmar's Papun District on or around April 22. Although no "before" imagery was available for those sites, a satellite picture taken in June shows the scars of burned land in the midst of thick green forest.

"That was an instance where we were specifically looking for the black burn scars," Bromley told reporters.

In yet another case, the satellite imagery supported claims that a military camp was built up and that village building were burned at a site north of the Papun District, in the Toungoo District, AAAS said.

Bromley and Aung Din said the human-rights violations have been documented by on-the-ground imagery as well as the satellite pictures, but the ground-level images were not released in the AAAS report. Bromley stressed that the satellite images, which show what happened to the buildings but not to the people inside, could not by themselves prove that human rights violations had occurred.  

"We're not necessarily drawing conclusions about what happened to these villages," he said. "That comes from organizations we work with."

As Myanmar's crisis continues, satellites will continue to monitor the situation, Bromley said.

"I'd say roughly every day one of them is going to be overhead," he told reporters.