An Eye in the Sky on Burma

Burmese soldiers
Left, a satellite view of a village fire in Burma. Right, Burmese soldiers block a road in the city center of Rangoon, Burma.
Left, Digital Globe; Gabriel Mistral / EPA
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On Friday Burma began to go dark. After days of the largest street protests since 1988, the ruling military junta cracked down, confronting and firing on civilians, reportedly sealing thousands of monks inside their monasteries. Lines of communication into the country were apparently being cut, with Internet cafes closed and web sites shut down, leaving Burmese exile groups and reporters starving for information.

But while the junta can control the street, the monasteries and even the Web, they can't control the sky. On Friday the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), working with Burmese groups, released a new analysis of high-resolution satellite images that pinpointed evidence of human rights violations in the eastern Burma. For the first time in Burma, scientists were able to use orbital satellites to confirm on-the-ground reports of burned villages and forced relocations of civilians by the military. The technique has already been used to document human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and Darfur, but in Burma, a closed country that often seems like a modern-day version of Orwell's 1984, it's almost like turning Big Brother against itself. "We are sending a message to the military junta that we are watching from the sky," said Aung Din, policy director for the U.S. Campaign for Burma.

Here's how it works: AAAS researcher Lars Bromley took field descriptions from Burmese groups of more than 70 incidents of human rights violations that took place between mid-2006 and early 2007 in the Burma's eastern Karen State, where a rebellion against the government has been simmering for over 50 years. Those reports included mortar attacks against civilians and forced marches, as the military fought to establish total control over the area. But while the junta's brutality is well known, confirming individual reports inside Burma has always been difficult, thanks in part to the dense jungle that covers much of the country. "In Darfur, if a village is wiped out you can see traces of it for years to come," said Bromley, the director of the AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights project. "In Burma the vegetation will grow over in a year or so."

AAAS took the incident reports and combed over commercially available satellite images of around 2,000 sq. km of the country, searching for before and after pictures that would visually confirm what the human rights groups were telling them. The satellites can see objects as small as 60 cm across, and in 31 out of 70 attempts, researchers were able find physical evidence — village houses that had disappeared, the sudden appearance of military camps — that corresponded with the reports. "As these attacks take place, there's often denial from the military government," says Bromley. "If you can put together an image of the aftermath of an attack, it discredits that denial."

With the Burmese junta trying to shut the country down tight, such long-range observation is more important than ever. Bromley told reporters that the AAAS had ordered up new images from Burma's major cities, Rangoon and Mandalay, over the past few days, as the military cracked down on protests and that they expect to analyze the new data soon. "We've been cut off from Burma, so we're trying to monitor the situation through the satellites," said Aung.

The question now is what effect these pictures will have. Aung and his fellow exiles hope that the satellite evidence will help persuade China and Russia to stop blocking United Nations Security Council action against the junta. It's a long shot, but with a military cordon drawing around Burma, every scrap of data will help.