Civilian Harm The impact of military operations in North-West Myanmar
20 Sept 2022
Part One: Military-made fires blaze through burmese villages
Man-made fires continue to blaze through Burmese villages, leaving destruction and misery in their wake. Since the 1st September 2021, Myanmar Witness has been monitoring and documenting fires across the country and presenting this information in the Fire Map. By doing so, it has been possible to identify trends and hotspots within Myanmar. This led Myanmar Witness to carry out a deep dive into the North-West of Myanmar, where hundreds of fires were reported.
Figure 1: Myanmar Witness’ FireMap
In the latest report, Myanmar Witness revealed evidence of man-made fires and the destruction of villages along routes taken by the military, between September 2021 and May 2022. The report indicates the severe civilian impacts of military operations in Sagaing (စစ်ကိုင်းတိုင်း), Chin (ချင်းပြည်နယ်) and the northern area of Magway (မကွေးတိုင်း).
This short article will provide an overview of Part One of the report, focussing on the use of fire. To read an overview of Part Two - on the killings of multiple individuals across the same region and associated with the same military operations - look on the Myanmar Witness website. To read the full report, download the PDF.
Figure 2: Geographic boundaries of Sagaing (စစ်ကိုင်းတိုင်း), Magway (မကွေးမြို့) and Chin (ချင်းပြည်နယ်).
Report Key Findings - Military Operations, Fires and the Destruction of Communities
Between September 2021 and May 2022, Myanmar Witness recorded 205 reports of homes and communities that were deliberately set alight in this region. The vast majority of these were attributed to the Myanmar military. By cross-referencing claims with satellite imagery and geothermal imaging data, Myanmar Witness has been able to verify or partially verify 172 of these reports. Time-mapping shows that the location and concentration of these fires correlated with troop build ups and the movement of military convoys in the north-west of Myanmar.
Myanmar Witness has monitored military activity and the human rights situation in the north-west regions of Myanmar, following the warning issued by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on 8 October 2021 of substantial military deployments in these areas. Several news outlets and pro-democracy sources have stated that these military developments were part of a military operation called ‘Operation Anawrahta’ (အေနာ်ရထာ စစ်ဆငေရး), launched in Chin State (ချငးြပညနယ) in early autumn 2021. According to pro-democracy sources this was allegedly followed by ‘Operation Alaungmintayar’ (အေလာငးမငးတရား စစ်ဆငေရ) in Sagaing (စစ်ကိငးတိငး) from late October 2021. However, there appears to be no official declarations by the Myanmar military which refers to these two specific operations or that calls them by these names.
According to the Asia Times, a key objective of the offensive was to capture Camp Victoria in Thantlang (ထန်တလန်မြို့) township. Camp Victoria is the headquarters of the Chin National Army (CNA), which – while small and militarily inactive in recent years – has retained a core of trained personnel. The camp was opened to the People’s Defence Forces (PDF) post-coup as a site to train against the Myanmar military.
Additionally, the military allegedly sought to gain control over two major supply routes for the Myanmar military in Chin State (ချင်းပြည်နယ်): the Kale-Falam-Hakha road, and the Kanpetlet-Mindat-Matupi road (Figure 3 and 4).
Figure 3: Two major supply routes in the Chin area, Kale-Falam-Hakha road, and the Kanpetlet-Mindat-Matupi road.
Figure 4: Two major supply routes in Chin in relation to one another throughout Chin.
This reports has also tracked the impact of another military offensive, which has been termed as Operation Alaungmintayar (အလောင်းမင်းတရား စစ်ဆင်ရေ) online by news sources and social media users. Similarly, this operation name has not been declared by the Myanmar military, however there were increased attacks in the Sagaing (စစ်ကိုင်းတိုင်း) region at the end of October 2021.
During this period, there were reports of repeated cuts to the internet and phone lines (Myanmar Now; Myanmar Now) which disrupted communications in the area and restricted the emergence of evidence of possible human right violations. Myanmar Witness has also identified the dissemination of propaganda, most often around the north-west regions, in the form of airdropped and hand-distributed pamphlets. The pamphlets contained disparaging messaging against the PDF coupled with pro-SAC sentiment in Myanmar. This is covered extensively in a recent Myanmar Witness report: Using Pamphlets for Propaganda, Misinformation, Intimidation and Division.
Myanmar Witness was able to verify or partially verify fires in the three north-west regions where these military operations were occurring between September 2021 and May 2022. This has revealed a clear pattern of fires within the areas where the military was operating.
The following three maps reveal the locations of these fires across three time periods:
September - November 2021
December 2021 - February 2022
March - May 2022
Figure 5: Verified or partially verified fires in the three regions observed during September, October and November 2021.
Figure 6: Verified or partially verified fires in the three regions observed during December 2021, January and February 2022.
Figure 7: Verified or partially verified fires in the three regions observed throughout March, April and May 2022.
Myanmar Witness documented interconnected trends related to the military’s alleged use of fires against communities in Myanmar:
First, military convoys passed through villages as part of military operations, leaving burnt buildings in their wake.
Second, the military deliberately entered and set fire to communities in retribution for the perceived anti-Security Administrative Council (SAC) stance of their inhabitants.
Destruction of homes linked to military convoys
While footage is limited, Myanmar Witness has documented numerous claims, and on occasion been able to verify, the presence of military convoys in, or in close proximity to, communities where buildings have been burnt. The report presents a detailed case-study showing the movement of military convoys and reports of fires and attacks on communities in and around Chin State.
For example, on 2 March 2022, in Chin (ချင်းပြည်နယ်), Myanmar Witness verified pictures showing military convoys moving through Dokthek (ဒေါထက်ရွာ) village, while structures in the village were in flames (Figure 8). By cross referencing the alleged date with FIRMS, it was possible to show that there was a fire in this village on 2 March 2022.
This is just one example taken from the report. To see a detailed breakdown of the military convoys movement and its impact on communities in the region, download the full PDF.
Figure 8: SM3011; Verified image of a large Military convoy moving through Dokthek (ဒေါထက်) village in Falam Township (ဖလမ်းမြို့နယ်), Chin (ချင်းပြည်နယ်) at 22.804994, 93.565967, while structures are on fire.
2. Destruction of Anti-SAC Communities by Fire
Myanmar Witness has documented numerous reports of arson attacks against civilian homes and infrastructure by the military across communities in north-west Myanmar, allegedly in retaliation for pro-democracy protests and PDF activity.
The report presents two detailed case-studies showing the widespread and systematic destruction of homes in Thantlang and Taze townships – two areas known as centres of resistance to SAC rule. Further evidence of this trend is presented in Myanmar Witness’ recent report, Burning Myanmar.
The destruction of Thantlang
Myanmar Witness has identified repeated fires in Thantlang (ထန်တလန်မြို့), Chin State (ချင်းပြည်နယ်). Large-scale fighting around Thantlang (ထန်တလန်မြို့), begun in August 2021 and intensified around September. By September, reports suggested that the city was mostly abandoned.
Figure 9: 24 separate fire hotspots detected by FIRMS from 24-29 November 2021 in Thantlang (ထန်တလန်မြို့). Satellite imagery from Google Earth, edited by Myanmar Witness to include icons.
Figure 10: Verified Image of Thantlang (ထန်တလန်မြို့) burning on 24 November 2021, with the location from Google Earth.
While reports do not suggest widespread physical danger or injury to individuals as a result of these fires, residents have lost their homes and possessions. Whole communities have been affected every few months. This makes the prospects and likelihood of return more challenging.
By May 2022, Myanmar Witness had gathered information about the destruction of over 1,015 structures in Thantlang, as shown by Figure 11. The coloured icons display the following information:
The yellow icons denote destruction from September and October 2021.
The red icons denote November and December 2021.
The purple icons denote January and February 2022.
The pink icons denote May 2022.
The brown icon denotes destruction which occurred within an unknown time frame.
Figure 11: QGIS Map of the total individual visibly destroyed or heavily damaged structures in Thantlang (ထန်တလန်မြို့) utilising footage from September 2021 - 26 May 2022. There are around 1,015 individual icons in this map.
In recent months, Myanmar Witness has also documented a much smaller number of reports of attacks against villages alleged to be aligned to the SAC or pro-SAC Pyu Saw Htee militias, in what appears to be retaliation for military or pro-SAC militia violence in the area. This is illustrated in a case study on Pale Township and will be explored in more depth in Myanmar Witness’ forthcoming report on pro-SAC militias.
To read the full case-study, and the two other detailed case studies investigated, download the full PDF.
Through a detailed investigation, this report demonstrates the grave civilian impacts of military operations in north-west Myanmar. The widespread destruction of communities along military routes represents a worrying trend. The use of fire to destroy communities, quell rebellion and halt dissent has been reported in many locations across the country, and is particularly acute in the North-West.
Many trends documented in this report have been seen across the country more broadly, for example, see Myanmar Witness’ published reports: Burning Myanmar, Moso Village Christmas Eve Killings, and Using Pamphlets for Propaganda, Misinformation, Intimidate and Division.
To read a summary of Part Two of the report - on the violent deaths of multiple people, as well as the escalatory impact of excessive military violence on conflict dynamics within Myanmar - go to the reports page of the Myanmar Witness website. To read the full report, download the PDF.
Myanmar Witness continues to document and investigate evidence of possible human rights abuses in Myanmar. These findings will be made available on the Myanmar Witness website, as and when they are completed.