High-Resolution Satellite Imagery and the Conflict in Eastern Burma: Executive Summary

Executive Summary

In collaboration with several Burmese human rights groups, the AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project conducted analyses of satellite imagery in 2007 and 2009 to corroborate reports of attacks on villages in Karen State, Shan State, and Thailand that were carried out by the ruling military junta. Within the areas of imagery analyzed in 2007, the bulk of the sites (18) were removed villages or villages with removed structures, with other sites including military camps (4), possible forcibly relocated villages (2), and one refugee camp on the Thai border. A follow-up analysis conducted in 2009 found further evidence of destruction at 25 of the 49 locations examined.

Google Earth Layer 2007Google Earth Layer 2009

I. Introduction
II. Methods and Technologies
III. Results

IV. Challenges
V. Conclusion
VI. Further Resources

I. Introduction

Since 2006, the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program (SHR), through its Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights project, has been compiling high-resolution satellite images to verify and corroborate reports of human rights violations against the civilian population in Karen State and other regions of Burma. AAAS SHR is working with the US Campaign for Burma, Amnesty International, Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, the Free Burma Rangers, the Karen Human Rights Group, and the Thailand Burma Border Consortium on this initiative. Primary funding comes from the Open Society Institute, with significant resources provided by the MacArthur Foundation as well.

In Burma, also known as Myanmar, the ruling military government, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has waged a particularly active campaign of oppression against Karen State, located in the eastern part of Burma along the border with Thailand. In recent years, the SPDC has stepped up attacks by reportedly burning villages, raiding them for food, and burning agricultural fields during the dry season harvest. Thousands of Karen people have escaped as refugees over the Thai border, but tens of thousands more remain internally displaced in Burma, many often conscripted into forced labor acting as porters or human landmine detectors. The conflict is largely unreported in the general media and of low priority in most diplomatic circles. According to human rights organizations familiar with the conflict, this lack of international attention has allowed the ruling military government to carry out an unrestricted ethnic cleansing campaign.

II. Methods and Technologies

The U.S. Campaign for Burma assisted AAAS SHR in reaching out to organizations, such as the Free Burma Rangers, the Karen Human Rights Group, and the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, based in the region. These groups provided AAAS SHR with information concerning attacks on civilians in Karen State occurring from 2005 through the present, via email and through carefully documented publications accessible from their websites. Project staff reviewed these reports and compared them with a set of geospatial data and maps to identify specific villages and areas (Figure One). The attack locations were then compared with pre-existing high-resolution satellite imagery. Visual inspection of the imagery is the primary methodology in use, although more sophisticated methods are employed when necessary.

Figure One: All Karen State Case Study Areas

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AAAS SHR has obtained and analyzed high-resolution commercial satellite imagery covering an area of 2,956 square kilometers, mostly of Karen State, with small areas of Shan State and Thailand also included. This imagery covers 1,931 square kilometers on the ground, and 2,085 square kilometers were purchased from the archives, while 871 square kilometers were new collections ordered by AAAS SHR over the last year. By obtaining before-and-after image sets, AAAS SHR visually documented sites where human rights violations involving housing and infrastructure destruction have taken place. By comparing the newer imagery with images collected several years ago, features such as villages and structures that have been removed in the intervening years are relatively easy to identify. Likewise, new construction such as military camps, are also relatively easy to identify. According to reporting, military camps have proliferated in the northern Karen State in recent years. These are relatively easily identified in images as many of the camps exhibit layers of fencing around them.

AAAS SHR used several types of imagery in this analysis, each with one meter or better spatial resolution. Most of the ‘before’ and ‘after’ images were obtained from the two major commercial satellite operators, GeoEye and DigitalGlobe. The 2007 analysis relied heavily on the OrbView-3 satellite from GeoEye, which has now been replaced by higher-resolution sensors. Another of GeoEye’s satellites, Ikonos, is a multispectral (color) satellite with one meter panchromatic resolution. The QuickBird and WorldView satellites, both operated by DigitalGlobe, collect imagery with 60 centimeter and 50 centimeter spatial resolution, respectively. While QuickBird provides color imagery and is thus preferred for new image acquisitions, the black and white imagery of WorldView provides slightly sharper resolution, and was relied upon heavily for post-attack data. Due to its lengthy time in orbit, Ikonos has collected the bulk of archival imagery for Burma, and for this reason, most ‘before’ imagery was produced by this spacecraft. The final imager used in this study, KOMPSAT-2, is a recently-launched South Korean satellite, whose imagery is resold through the SPOT Image (http://www.spot.com). KOMPSAT-2 provides one meter multispectral imagery. All the satellite imagery used by AAAS SHR to analyze Burma is available online using Google Earth. Project staff produced these visualization layers using the regionator code made available through Google. Staff used ERDAS Imagine, ENVI, and Global Mapper software to process images and GIS software ArcView throughout the process.

III. Results

A. 2007 Analysis

Reporting from the field provided specific locations and dates of more than 70 attacks in Karen State and surrounding areas in mid-to-late 2006 and early 2007. Of these, AAAS SHR positively located 31 of the reported attack sites. A set of information on many attack locations without specific dates over the last several years was also obtained, and used to corroborate other reporting and delineate likely conflict areas and time periods. Within the areas of imagery analyzed, 25 sites of interest are presented in this report. The bulk of these sites (18) are removed villages or villages with removed structures, with other sites including military camps (4), possible forcibly relocated villages (2), and one refugee camp on the Thai border. In addition, the possible forcibly relocated villages are only a small sample. When areas proximate to an identified military camp in Papun District were reviewed to corroborate reports of forced relocation, 31 new villages were located that appeared between the image acquisitions of 2000/2001 and late 2006.

Specifically, in Papun District reports indicated that 33 miltary camps were built in the area in 2006 and existing camps were enlarged and used as bases for military operations and internment camps for forced labor. AAAS SHR image analysis located nine settlement areas that had been visibly disturbed, abandoned, or destroyed. In addition, a military camp and an auxiliary military camp were also identified in that district. Reports on Toungoo District indicate increased military activity in 2006 and 2007, including military camp development, and dam and road construction. Three settlement areas that had been visibly disturbed, abandoned, or destroyed were identified, as well as two military camps. Signs of settlement destruction and abandoned agriculture sites were identified in the Dooplaya District. In Shan State, where relocation sites are reported, three areas where settlements or structures had been destroyed or damaged were identified. Since 1996, nine refugee camps have been established along the border of Thailand. AAAS SHR analysis of one of these camps, Mae La Oon, shows dramatic build-up of the camp between 2002 and 2005.

B. 2009 Analysis

The locations of reported attacks were compared with existing archives of commercial high-resolution satellite imagery, the extent of which has substantially increased since AAAS SHR’s 2007 analysis. In total, ninety-one attack locations were provided; eighty-five by the Thailand-Burma Border Consortium and six from the Free Burma Rangers. After a thorough review of the available satellite imagery, a total of twenty scenes were ordered, which permitted the examination of forty-nine of these sites both before and after the alleged violence. Of the forty-nine locations examined, twenty-five contained recognizable evidence of destruction within two kilometers of the provided coordinates. In the remainder, typically only jungle or undamaged structures were visible. While seemingly low, a success rate of fifty-one percent is in fact quite satisfactory, and it does not necessarily follow that the remaining reports were erroneous. In an area such as eastern Burma, vegetation canopy can easily render even a substantial settlement completely invisible from above, and the continued violence in the region may create a strong incentive for some residents to ensure that their homes remain undetectable. Reconstruction of similar-type structures in the same location also has the potential to confuse the efforts of space-based damage assessments, as the resolution afforded by the current generation of commercial imaging satellites is often insufficient to distinguish the structural differences that exist between individual dwellings.

IV. Challenges

The process of precisely locating attacks based on reporting from human rights groups in the region is relatively laborious and difficult given the necessary translations and transliterations between local languages into the Latin (English) alphabet, as well as the general paucity of highly detailed maps and geospatial data for the region. In some cases, coordinate information was communicated directly by the sources in the region, greatly easing the process.

Using commercial imagery for conflict assessment in Burma faces numerous challenges. Burma is a mountainous, heavily vegetated region with frequent cloud cover. Such physiographic and climate characteristics, exacerbated further during monsoon season from mid-June to September, can combine to simply block observation satellites. The small feature size of the objects in question in Karen State, specifically homes and small farms often built along treelines or beneath canopy, can sometimes be a challenge to identify. Few archived high-resolution images of Karen State are available, making before and after comparisons more difficult.

The military tactics in use likewise hinder detection of their effects via commercial satellite imagery. Reports from Karen State indicate that villages are most often abandoned, not destroyed, with residents driven out. Identifying an abandoned village can be more difficult than identifying a razed village. Similarly, other reporting indicates mortar fire is common in the area. Scattered mortar fire, however, will have relatively small impact areas that may not be visible for long in the very dynamic ecology of the region. Lastly, much reporting indicates that the majority of attacks in Karen State are interpersonal in nature, often the killing of one or a few people, or rape and/or assault on a similar scale. Satellite imagery is not appropriate for analyzing such attacks.

V. Conclusion

Based on reports from human rights groups, AAAS SHR surveyed satellite imagery of Karen State, Shan State and Thailand to assess damage to communities affected by the Burmese government’s military campaign. Removed structures were apparent in 18 of the sites, while military camps and a refugee camp were also found. A second analysis conducted in 2009 found evidence of destruction at 25 locations, which largely corroborates reports from the Thailand-Burma Border Consortium and the Free Burma Rangers.

VI. Further Resources