WASHINGTON – Satellite photos showing the disappearance of villages and a buildup of army camps offer what researchers say is potential evidence of human rights abuses in Myanmar, the scene of bloody anti-government protests that have drawn tens of thousands of demonstrators.
At least nine people were killed in Myanmar on Thursday, when soldiers with automatic rifles fired into the crowds. Troops in riot gear also raided Buddhist monasteries on the outskirts of Yangon and beat and arrested dozens of monks, according to witnesses and Western diplomats.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, has become the focus of international pressure to curtail the violent repression of its citizens.
"We are trying to send a message to the military junta that we are watching from the sky," Aung Din, policy director for the U.S. Campaign for Burma, said Friday at a briefing on the photos.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science said it has compiled satellite images that provide evidence of village destruction, forced relocations and a growing military presence at sites across eastern Myanmar.
Lars Bromley, director of the AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights project, said he had received more than 70 reports of rights violations. He then sought before-and-after satellite photos of the regions from commercial firms.
"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. It's also a lush ecosystem where plants can quickly grow to cover burn marks and clouds and terrain often block satellite observation," he said.
Nonetheless, he said he was able to map the locations of 31 of the reported human rights violations.
"Eighteen of the locations showed evidence consistent with destroyed or damaged villages," he said in a statement. "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."
"These things are happening over quite a range, it's not just an isolated incident," Bromley said.
"We're not necessarily drawing conclusions about what happened to these villages, that comes form organizations we work with," he explained.
But, for example, there were reports of attacks on villages in April and satellite images showed the blackened remains of burned villages.
In addition, the photos showed several new villages near military camps, indicating forced relocations.
Bromley said that since the demonstrations began in recent days satellites have been turned toward the major cities, but he noted that this is the cloudy season.
"We are hoping for a gap in the clouds," he said.
Jeremy Woodrum, director of the interest group U.S. Campaign for Burma, said he considers the images good evidence of abuses.
"When you consider that a million and a half people have fled out of the area, I think it's pretty clear," he said. "Especially when combined with dozens and dozens of reports from human rights organizations."
Satellite images showed multiple burn scars in otherwise thick green forest in the Papun district and before-and-after images showed the removal of structures, consistent with eyewitness reports of village destruction.
Signs of an expanded military presence, such as the buildup of bamboo fencing around a camp, and construction of a satellite camp, also were identified, Bromley said.
Buildup of military camps and disappearance of villages and buildings were also documented in the Toungoo and Dooplaya districts.
The military took control of Myanmar in 1962 and since then had regularly clashed with pro-democracy groups. Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, a democracy advocate, has been detained by the military for years.
The current crisis began Aug. 19 with rallies against a fuel price hike. It escalated when monks began joining the protests.
President Bush announced economic sanctions against Myanmar on Thursday, and other countries have also condemned the actions.
First lady Laura Bush and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have previously condemned human rights violations in Myanmar.
In a plea to Myanmar's ruling military regime, Mrs. Bush said earlier this week, "I want to say to the armed guards and to the soldiers: Don't fire on your people. Don't fire on your neighbors." Her remarks were in a Voice of America interview.
AAAS, a nonprofit general scientific society, previously used satellite technology to seek evidence of destruction in Darfur and Zimbabwe. The latest research was supported by the Open Society Institute and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.