The Observers

Myanmar Witness verifies citizens’ photos and videos to document human rights concerns

Myanmar Witness uses open source tools like Google Maps to authenticate videos and photos from anti-coup protests.
Myanmar Witness uses open source tools like Google Maps to authenticate videos and photos from anti-coup protests. © Google Maps/Observers

Nine months after the coup d’état in Myanmar, thousands of photos and videos have emerged on social networks documenting the military government’s response to widespread protests. A project called Myanmar Witness aims to archive and verify these images so they can be used as potential evidence in future human rights proceedings. 

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On February 1, 2021, armed forces arrested Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi and took over the country. Protests erupted and were violently repressed by the military government, which has been accused of numerous human rights abuses, ranging from burning down villages to using heavy weaponry against civilians.

Smartphones and social media have been a key part of the protest effort, but sharing sensitive videos can be dangerous. These circumstances prompted a group of online investigators to work together to allow Myanmar's citizens to anonymously submit photos and videos online, so they can be archived and verified.

Launched a few months after the coup, the project was named Myanmar Witness. It’s part of the Centre for Information Resilience, an organisation dedicated to promoting democracy and fighting disinformation. 

According to Schi (not her real name), one of the investigators working with Myanmar Witness, the project is particularly important due to the many dangers civilians face to document the military’s actions.

Journalists have been detained. So, citizen journalists are really important in this coup. They are still sending us that kind of useful information. But there might be some privacy or security problems if they post those kinds of videos or photos on their own social media. It can be very risky, not only for us but for their family and their relatives. 

But with Myanmar Witness, we can investigate, we document. There are ordinary civilians who [...] send us what was happening around them.

The project’s director of investigations, Benjamin Strick, walked us through some of the team’s recent investigations, explaining how they were able to verify the authenticity of these photos and videos. Watch the latest episode of The Observers above to see another example.

October 29, 2021, Thantlang: Using satellite imagery to map fires

Chin State, in northwest Myanmar, is a hotbed of resistance. It’s home to the Chin National Front, an ethnic armed group that has been clashing with the military – alongside other local militias – since May. The junta has responded to this resistance with force, opening fire on towns in the region, shelling residential areas and deliberately setting homes on fire

On October 29, the Myanmar Witness team began receiving videos claiming to show fires in the town of Thantlang, in Chin State. They set out to confirm that the videos were really taken there.

They started by looking at Google Earth satellite imagery of Thantlang. They were able to match up features like roads and the general shape of the town seen in the video.

Satellite imagery of Thantlang, Myanmar.
Satellite imagery of Thantlang, Myanmar. © Google Earth

Looking from another angle, the investigators lined up the mountains seen in the video with the mountain range outline on Google Earth.

They could also match up a road leading into the town that was visible in both images.

A similar road appears in satellite imagery of Thantlang, Myanmar (left) and videos showing fires from October 29 (right).
A similar road appears in satellite imagery of Thantlang, Myanmar (left) and videos showing fires from October 29 (right). © Myanmar Witness/Google Earth

To confirm the date of the fires, the Myanmar Witness team turned to NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS) which maps fires around the world. They saw that the heat signature above Thantlang on October 29, 2021 matched the videos.

A screenshot of NASA’s FIRMS database shows the heat signature over Thantlang, Myanmar on October 29.
A screenshot of NASA’s FIRMS database shows the heat signature over Thantlang, Myanmar on October 29. © NASA FIRMS

Myanmar Witness has not independently confirmed who started these fires, or how, but local media and activist groups say that military shelling is to blame. 

“The manner in which the fire was burning indicates that it was not just the incendiary rocket fires but also deliberately torching of houses and structures manually,” said the deputy executive director of The Chin Human Rights Organization.

This is not the first time that a military attack has destroyed buildings in Thantlang. On September 18, the military bombarded the town and burned down 18 buildings, after resistance forces said they had killed 30 soldiers. Most of the town’s residents fled after this attack, so no casualties have been reported after the October 29 fires.

More than 160 houses and two church buildings in Thantlang burned down on October 29.  Thantlang residents in exile watched their homes burning in videos of the event shared widely online and in news reports. 

October 9, 2020, Yangon: Tracing misinformation and out-of-context photos

While many of the images and claims that Myanmar Witness receives are true, some are false, misleading or taken out of context. This is why investigators conduct a verification process with all the images they archive.

One of these out-of-context images surfaced in July, when the Covid-19 epidemic was taking a serious toll on Myanmar. A Twitter post with a photo of military personnel holding oxygen tanks claimed that the government was stealing medical supplies for their own use.

A screenshot of a tweet posted on July 12, 2021 claiming to show soldiers “robbing oxygen” for their own use in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
A screenshot of a tweet posted on July 12, 2021 claiming to show soldiers “robbing oxygen” for their own use in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. © Twitter/Myanmar Witness

Myanmar Witness used a reverse image search (click here to find out how) to find the source of the image. It turns out to be from a news article from October 9, 2020, months before the military coup in Myanmar. The article explains that the soldiers in this picture weren’t taking the oxygen tanks – they were donating them. 

An article from media source Yangon Nation uses the same picture of the soldiers, explaining that they were delivering the oxygen tanks in October 2020, months before the coup occurred.
An article from media source Yangon Nation uses the same picture of the soldiers, explaining that they were delivering the oxygen tanks in October 2020, months before the coup occurred. © Yangon Nation/Myanmar Witness

According to Strick, debunking images is just as important as confirming them. “This kind of information is important because when trustworthy journalists and news agencies retweet this or post about it, it can sometimes destabilise their credibility,” he explained. “Then people that are against these journalists and their reporting can attack them and claim that they're posting fake news.”

April 9, 2021, Bago: Comparing photos of heavy weapons with Google Street View

The military government has also been accused of using heavy weaponry against protesters and civilians. One of these allegations came from Bago, a city near Yangon, in early April. A monitoring group reported that more than 80 people were killed by security forces in Bago during a protest on April 9, when the military allegedly used heavy weaponry, like rifle grenades, to shoot indiscriminately.

The Myanmar Witness team received a photo of a used round from a military weapon, along with a claim the image was taken in Bago after these attacks. See how they were able to confirm that the photo was indeed taken in Bago in this week’s episode of The Observers (video above).

A photo provided to Myanmar Witness showing a used artillery round allegedly fired by the military in Bago on April 9.
A photo provided to Myanmar Witness showing a used artillery round allegedly fired by the military in Bago on April 9. © Myanmar Witness

Myanmar Witness’s team has collected thousands of images since the February 1 coup. In addition to verifying and archiving these images, the team aims to provide an educational platform, holding workshops to teach others how to verify images online and protect their digital privacy.

To learn more, visit their website