HRW: Satellite Images Reveal Maungdaw Fire-Damaged Villages

By Saw Yan Naing 31 October 2016

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said satellite images show three separate villages with fire damage in conflict-torn northern Arakan State and called on Burma’s government to allow an independent investigation on conditions.

HRW said images recorded on Oct. 22 show probable building destruction by fire in Maungdaw Township’s Kyet Yoe Pyin, Ngar Sar Kyu and Kyee Kan Pyin villages in a statement released Monday.

“Damage signatures visible in the imagery are consistent with the presence of large burn scars from fires in each of the villages,” said the statement.

HRW also said that thermal anomaly data collected by environmental satellite sensors showed multiple fires burning in the village of Kyee Kan Pyin on Oct. 9 and the village of Kyet Yoe Pyin on Oct. 14.

“Because of limits in the spatial resolution of available satellite imagery and dense tree cover, the exact number of buildings destroyed is uncertain, and the actual damage in Maungdaw may have been underestimated,” said the HRW statement.

Satellite imagery purports to show areas of fire damage in Maungdaw Township (Photo: Human Rights Watch)
Satellite imagery purports to show areas of fire damage in Maungdaw Township (Photo: Human Rights Watch)

HRW’s Asia director Phil Robertson said “these satellite images of village destruction could be the tip of the iceberg given the grave abuses being reported.”

HRW said that an independent UN-led investigation should ascertain the truth in allegations of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, arson, and sexual assaults and rape, as well as the initial attacks on border guard posts on Oct. 9.

U Zaw Htay, Burma’s President’s Office spokesperson, however, told media on Oct. 28 that the government officially invited representatives of the UN and the World Food Programme (WFP) on Oct. 24 to provide humanitarian assistance in Maungdaw Township.

“When they see what is happening there with their own eyes, they will know the true story,” said U Zaw Htay, adding that some Western diplomats were also invited.

A delegation of UN aid agencies and foreign diplomats accompanied by Burmese government officials visited the conflict-torn area Monday but it is unclear whether the delegation had full access.

Senior researcher for HRW’s Asia Division David Scott Mathieson said that the Burmese government is thwarting efforts to ascertain the truth about disturbing reports when it should be facilitating a proper investigation.

Mathieson said that until the Burmese authorities permit full access then almost any investigation will have limitations. Press and human rights groups are stymied by restrictions and are exercising restraint in reporting unverified cases of human rights violations by local activists.

“The conflict in Arakan State has entered a new, more complicated and bloody phase with armed attacks on security forces, which makes civilians even more vulnerable to abuses by militants and government soldiers and police,” said Mathieson.

On Oct. 9, gunmen attacked three border police outposts in Maungdaw Township near the Bangladesh border, killing nine police officers and looting weapons.

Soon after the attacks, Burma Army declared Maungdaw an “operation zone” and begun an operation to find the attackers and recover lost weapons. Extended curfews and travel restrictions on the local population remain in place.

Media and local rights groups have reported human rights abuses against the Rohingya during the government crackdown, including a report by Reuters that details the rape of eight women in Maungdaw Township’s U Shey Kya village.

Mathieson said that reports of rape during security operations should not be denied outright by the government, but should instead spark a commitment to a genuine investigation into the claims.

Without mentioning his name, Mathieson appeared to reference the official President’s Office spokesman’s obstinate denial as compounding the severity of the allegations.

“When you hear reports of rape you commit to investigate them, not stage cowardly attacks on social media against journalists who are reporting these allegations,” he added.