Two years after the coup, Myanmar's junta fights opposition with fire
It's been two years since the military junta in Myanmar seized power, ousting the country's democratically elected leaders in a coup d'état. Since February 1, 2021, widespread protests have raged around the country and a fierce opposition movement has formed. But the junta is brutally repressing dissent. One of their tools has been fire, used to burn down entire villages and cut off supplies to the resistance – and crush morale.
Fire, an extreme weapon of war used to burn down homes, supplies and storehouses of food, has been at the forefront of the conflict in Myanmar. Since the 2021 coup d'état, the military junta has used it as it's faced off against the resistance: the People’s Defence Forces and allied ethnic militias.
The junta has been accused of grave human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrest, mass killings, sexual violence and torture. Activists say they’ve also been using fire to burn down buildings and villages that show sympathy to the opposition.
🔥Fires in Sagaing— Myanmar Witness (@MyanmarWitness) January 30, 2023
On 23 January 2023, SAC allegedly burned down 7 villages in Yin Mar Bin Township. Footage appears to show PDF troops extinguishing the fires afterwards.
FIRMS was able to detect fires in 5 of the 7 villages claimed.#WhatsHappeningInMyanmar#myanmar pic.twitter.com/WhYDolNE29
Tracking these fires is difficult, but NGOs and rights groups have begun documenting them. One of them, Myanmar Witness, has been using open-source tools to verify and record alleged arson attacks, creating a Fire Map to gather evidence of fires.
The map compiles instances of buildings and villages destroyed by fire. Each one begins with a claim from the media or eyewitnesses, which are then verified by analysts using real-time data from NASA and satellite imagery.
🔥Village burnt— Myanmar Witness (@MyanmarWitness) January 11, 2023
☑️Shan Kone, Bouk Thauk, Sagaing
☑️21 December 2022
3 civilians, including an elderly woman, were allegedly killed, with ~3,400 people left homeless by the attack.
Source https://t.co/rJfmkZNono#Myanmar pic.twitter.com/rA0lmqSFS0
In this episode of the Observers, we spoke to one of their analysts to learn more.
The military junta has been burning civilian properties dozens of times every month, at least since late 2021. And these numbers keep climbing. The military junta wants to instill fear in the local population that their shelter and their food are not secure if they side with the opposition.
One of the junta’s strategies is to create chaos in society. Fire creates possibly the highest level of chaos at the lowest cost for the military junta, from their point of view. It may be the most efficient strategy, which is why the military junta does it so often.
According to Myanmar Witness, fire incidents ramped up in December 2022 making it one of the worst months on record.
We collect, document and preserve, analyse and verify cases of human rights interferences, including cases of fires. So we monitor the open source content online on the internet, such as public posts on social media and articles on news sites.
We also use publicly accessible tools such as FIRMS, which is an online tool by NASA that provides information about active fires in near real time.
NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS) map uses heat and infrared sensors to indicate fires around the world within hours. This database, alongside eyewitness footage and satellite imagery can give Myanmar Witness enough evidence to hold the military junta accountable through reports and media engagement.
Other NGOs and international bodies are collecting evidence of international crimes committed by the military junta to present to the International Criminal Court.