Skip to main content

Satellite Images Reveal More Evidence of Destruction in Burma

In 2007, satellite-image analysis by AAAS pinpointed evidence consistent with village destruction, forced relocations and a growing military presence at 25 sites across eastern Burma, bordering Thailand, where eyewitnesses had reported human rights violations.

A new follow-up analysis has now revealed likely destruction at an additional 25 locations in Burma, also known as Myanmar.

The AAAS Science and Human Rights Program, through its Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project, assessed before-and-after satellite images to corroborate reports of human rights violations against civilians in Burma’s Karen State as well as small areas of Shan State and adjacent Thailand.

Burma’s ruling military government, the State Peace and Development Council, “has waged a particularly active campaign of oppression against the Karen State,” says the AAAS report, released 5 November. In recent years, the ruling junta has stepped up attacks by reportedly burning villages, raiding food supplies, and burning farms. Thousands of Karen people have escaped into Thailand, but “tens of thousands more remain internally displaced in Burma,” where they may often be forced to work as porters or human landmine detectors, said Susan Wolfinbarger, AAAS senior program associate.

AAAS staff, working in cooperation with the U.S. Campaign for Burma, Amnesty International, and other groups, reviewed reports of civilian attacks in the Karen State from 2005 through 2010, based on information provided by the Free Burma Rangers and the Thailand-Burma Border Consortium.

Staff then compared on-the-ground reports with geospatial data and maps to identify specific villages and regions, and compared reported attack locations with high-resolution “before” images captured by satellites. Evidence of destruction could be identified at 25 out of 49 locations assessed by AAAS.
In October of 2006 (top), a village of substantial size is present at the coordinates Latitude: 19.04, Longitude: 96.88. By early 2009, all but two structures have been destroyed. Image was obtained based on reporting by the Free Burma Rangers.
Before Image: 28 October 2006 © 2009 GeoEye
After Image: 4 February 2009 © 2009 DigitalGlobe

In the vulnerable Papun District of Burma, for example, four sets of before-and-after images revealed the disappearance of village after village, along with clear-cutting of agricultural fields and the abandonment of an orchard, between 13 December 2006 and 8 February 2009. Similarly, AAAS staff identified many apparently destroyed villages in the Toungoo District, again by comparing 2006 and 2009 images. The association’s earlier image analysis in 2007 also had identified Toungoo District villages likely burned and bombarded by mortar fire as well as significant military activity.

Other areas of apparent destruction included the Myawadi district, in the southeastern portion of Karen State, where buildings appeared to have been obliterated and then reconstructed between 6 December 2002 and 10 March 2009.

The Thailand-Burma Border Consortium reported as of 2006 that an estimated 154,000 refugees had crossed the border from Burma into Thailand. To assess this report, AAAS staff obtained imagery of a camp called Mae La Oon in Thailand, adjacent to Burma’s Karen State, which was built in 2004 and reportedly sheltered 15,345 refugees in March 2006. Satellite images had earlier shown a “dramatic buildup of the refugee camp.” The follow-up analysis by AAAS revealed an additional 2.5% increase in the overall size of the camp, possibly indicating “a slow but steady influx of new inhabitants from across the border.”

The latest AAAS analysis of satellite images, offering one meter or better spatial resolution, encompassed 2956 square kilometers of eastern Burma and neighboring Thailand. Most images were obtained from two commercial satellite operators, GeoEye and DigitalGlobe.

In addition to Burma, the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program has assessed satellite images to corroborate eyewitness accounts of events in Zimbabwe and Darfur. The primary funding for this analysis was provided by the Open Society Institute, with significant resources also contributed by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.


View the 2009 Burma report from the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program.

View the program’s 2007 Burma report.

Visit Google Earth to view imagery used in the 2007 analysis and the 2009 analysis.

View the AAAS news summary of the 2007 Burma analysis.

Learn more about the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program