Rakhine: Navigating the Information Black Hole

Christoph Koettl, Micah Farfour

Graphic produced by Amnesty International

The response by Myanmar security forces against armed attacks on several border police posts on October 9 has had a devastating impact on the Rohingya, an ethnic minority that has suffered decades of severe persecution in the country. Actions by Myanmar authorities have led to grave human rights violations, including unlawful killings and destruction of homes and property, among others, which Amnesty International believes may amount to crimes against humanity.

The government also sealed off the area, forcing the suspension of humanitarian aid and precluding access by journalists and rights monitors. Rakhine State thus has recently been described as an “information black hole.” However, such research challenges can be overcome and cannot be an excuse to ignore the dire situation. The widespread violations are often happening in plain sight, visible through satellite imagery and social media reports, which corroborate eyewitness testimony. What Amnesty International found in its most recent report, published today, is undeniable:

  • Analysis based on sub-meter resolution satellite images from November determined that over 1250 structures have been damaged or destroyed. In Dar Gyi Zar and neighboring villages, over 850 structures were found to be razed by burning between 10 November and 23 November. Also, in the Dar Gyi Zar area, imagery shows that probable newly harvested crops of the subsistence farmers were burned. Then on 29 November, an image finally captures two helicopters at a border guard post base near Wa Peik.
  • The evidence presented in the report suggests that security forces, in their response to the 9 October attacks, have perpetrated widespread and systematic human rights violations against the Rohingya. Security forces have been guilty of deliberately killing civilians, firing at random in villages, arbitrarily arresting Rohingya men, raping Rohingya women and girls, and destroying homes and property. The authorities also suspended humanitarian access to the area imperiling the lives of a population that was heavily reliant on such assistance prior to the attacks.
Map produced by Amnesty International

What follows are insights into how we used information and communication technologies (ICTs) to remotely research recent violations in Rakhine.

  1. Utilize open (geo) data
Screenshot from Google Earth, showing detailed village data from northern Rakhine State

First of all, it was important to find proper geographic data of villages in northern Rakhine State. Google or other standard online mapping platforms often have only sparse data from remote areas, such as Rakhine. Luckily, in this case the Myanmar Information Management Unit (MIMU) provided detailed geo-data that allowed populating GIS programs, such as Google Earth, with every village in Rakhine. This was our starting point to investigate reports of violations, which are naturally connected to specific places.

2. Remote Sensing

Along with other human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), we use as many sources of remotely sensed data as possible to understand the changes in a specific area and pinpoint specific locations in otherwise data poor areas. Satellite images are one of our standard tools to document human rights violations remotely, often in the most inaccessible areas. With the restrictions in Myanmar and knowledge of the ongoing human rights abuses, when sporadic reports of major attacks began to surface, we all turned to the data. HRW released a series of reports based on remote sensing analysis with evidence mounting in each release. We also began our own independent remote sensing analysis coupled with ground reports, photos and video.

A thematic change detection was conducted on two satellite images to determine changes in villages using 1.5 meter resolution imagery. Then, between 3 November and 23 November 2016, sub-meter resolution imagery shows over 1250 structures have been damaged or destroyed. Yellow dots on the map pinpoint each razed structure detected.

In this case, six satellite images — captured between 7 November 2015 and 23 November 2016 — were used to conduct spectral and visual analysis of changes in the villages over 125 square kilometers of northern Rakhine State. Before the first cloud-free medium or high resolution imagery became available, satellites were still monitoring the activities on the earth. VIIRS fire data was used to determine probable hotspots in the often rainy region. The first cloud-free satellite images after the reports of abuses were 1.5-meter resolution and a thematic change detection was run on two image dates — 23 October 2016 and 7 November 2015 — over 100 square kilometers of land. The results were later supported by visual analysis of 50 centimeter high resolution imagery from 3 November and 10 November 2016. High resolution imagery was also used to confirm reports of destruction in November over another 25 square kilometers of land in the Dar Gyi Zar area, north of Maungdaw town.

The analysis allowed us to identify patterns of burning, which pointed to targeted and systematic attacks by the military rather than random and haphazard attacks by supposed militants, as the government was claiming. We also found evidence to suggest the possible burning of harvest. It is unlikely that such burnings would be carried out by militants, given that most local people are small-scale farmers, and reliant on their harvest for food and income.

Imagery from 10 November 2016 highlights dark colored footprints of leveled structures in the Kyet Yoe Pyin area. © 2016 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

False color infrared and natural color imagery from 23 November 2016 shows razed structures in the Dar Gyi Zar area. False color infrared imagery shows burned areas in varying shades of gray. The red hue of healthy vegetation, often appears brown to black after being burned. Images © 2016 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

Probable burned harvest in Dar Gyi Zar village is visible in imagery from 23 November 2016. © 2016 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

Razed structures in Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son village. Images: © CNES 2016, Distribution AIRBUS DS, © 2016 DigitalGlobe, Inc. Slider: JuxtaposeJS

After the imagery analysis of the damage and destruction was complete, another image was captured on 29 November 2016. This image shows the border guard post base near Wa Peik. Two helicopters pads are located on the base and on 29 November, two helicopters were visible. With many reports of gunship helicopters firing indiscriminately over villages, this image provides irrefutable evidence that helicopters were in the region.

Two helicopters are visible at the Border Guard Post Base №1 near Wa Peik in northern Rakhine State. Many reports of attacks describe helicopter gunships being involved. © 2016 Terraserver, DigitalGlobe, Inc.

3. Social Media Content

The spread of misinformation is especially challenging during crisis situations, which are characterized by high information uncertainty. The situation in Rakhine is no exception. The standard misinformation in the context of Rakhine are images that (falsely) claim that Buddhist monks are burning Rohingya victims, including children — in fact, these images show the cremation of victims of the 2010 China earthquake by Tibetan monks. Such images are relatively easy to debunk, using a simple reverse image search. It helps that in this case the original images came from official photo agencies (originals from Getty and EPA. Caution: graphic).

We thus had to be as rigorous and diligent as with any other source. We have developed sound methodologies over the last years to verify digital content, which helped us to sift through the dozens of photographs and videos from northern Rakhine State. After we made sure that the content is not old or from other crisis situations, we attempted to geo-locate them. This proved extremely challenging, due to the lack of clear geographic landmarks, since we mainly had features such as ponds, trees or hills for orientation. However, we were able to build on the first two steps to determine the exact location of at least a few videos. After identifying the village under investigation from our geodatabase, satellite image analysis allowed us to narrow our search to burned hamlets within the village. In the village of Kyet Yoe Pyin we were able to match videos of a burned market and mosque with satellite images. What we found was consistent with testimonies we received from that village, strengthening our case.

ICTs increasingly allow human rights documentation in so-called “information black holes” from Darfur to north-east Nigeria and North Korea. Northern Rakhine State is no exception. These technologies become most powerful when well integrated with well-established, traditional human rights research. Our most recent Myanmar report is a prime example.