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Satellite Data Raise Fears Myanmar’s Army Setting Towns Ablaze

A screenshot of thermal anomaly data showing fire activity in Thantlang town, Chin State, Myanmar on October 29, 2021.  © 2021 NASA FIRMS

New satellite data analyzed by Human Rights Watch corroborates images and videos streaming out of Myanmar’s Chin State showing towns once again on fire.

Human Rights Watch reviewed thermal anomaly data collected by an environmental satellite sensor (VIIRS) that detected the presence of multiple active fires in Thantlang town in Chin State in northwestern Myanmar. The thermal anomalies were detected for the first time on October 29 at 12:29 p.m. local time. The readings are consistent with reports of fires burning buildings during the day, depicted in photos and videos circulated around this time by the media and human rights groups. More than 12 hours later, additional thermal anomalies were also detected, consistent with reports of fires at night.

The military spokesperson, Gen. Zaw Min Tun, claimed without offering any evidence that, after clashes with soldiers, the Chinland Defense Force-Thantlang set houses on fire as they left. The media outlet Myanmar Now quoted a spokesperson for the armed group who blamed the military for the damage, saying soldiers were burning houses for “no reason.” Myanmar’s military has a long history of widespread arson attacks, such as those on ethnic Rohingya villages in Rakhine State in 20122016, and 2017, and has made similar claims many times before to deflect blame.

Thantlang has been nearly completely uninhabited since September after its population, estimated to be around 10,000, fled mostly to other parts of Chin State because of ongoing fighting between the military and anti-junta militias that are part of a growing network of so-called People’s Defense Forces (PDFs). Parts of the town were reportedly previously damaged.

On October 29 the international humanitarian organization Save the Children released a statement saying their office in Thantlang had been damaged, and raised concerns that the fires risk “destroying the whole town and the homes of thousands of families and children.”

The laws of war applicable to armed conflict in ethnic minority areas of Myanmar prohibit deliberate, indiscriminate, and disproportionate attacks on civilians and civilian property. Intentional destruction of civilian property not being used for military purposes violate the laws of war and may amount to a war crime. A credible and impartial investigation of alleged war crimes is urgently needed, and those responsible should be held to account.

The United States and Swedish governments have condemned the attacks on Thantlang. But governments and the United Nations should demand that humanitarian agencies have unhindered access to provide aid to affected communities, call for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to be allowed to investigate the sites, and impose coordinated sanctions against those implicated in abuses.

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