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How ‘Myanmar Witness’ proved a deadly air strike denied by state-owned medias

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A number of photos and videos that circulated on social media and were picked up by pro-democracy media outlets show the aftermath of an air strike on the village of Ka Nan, in the west of Myanmar on January 7, 2024. While the state television outlet claimed that reports of the air strike were “fake news”, a visual investigation published by “Myanmar Witness” documented the attack and proved the Myanmar Air Force’s involvement. Seventeen civilians are believed to have been killed.

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A civil war between the ruling junta and armed ethnic groups has been raging in Myanmar since the military coup that took place three years ago on February 1, 2021. Human rights organisations have repeatedly denounced the Myanmar Air Force’s bombing of civilian infrastructures like churches and schools – but these air strikes continue. 

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However, these air strikes are rarely as well documented as the strike that took place on January 7, 2024 in Ka Nan. The Three Brotherhood Alliance, made up of a number of ethnic groups, has, since November 7, controlled this village located in western Myanmar near the Indian border. Since October, the alliance has been carrying out a counter-offensive and taken back several strategic areas from the Myanmar Army.  

Images of the attack on Ka Nan and lists of the names of the civilians killed started to circulate on social media in pro-democracy groups on January 7, 2024.

A photo of some of the destruction resulting from the air strike carried out by the Myanmar Army on January 7, 2024 in Ka Nan, Myanmar. The image was posted the same day on the Telegram channel of the humanitarian group “Free Burma Rangers”. © Free Burma Rangers
A photo of some of the destruction resulting from the air strike carried out by the Myanmar Army on January 7, 2024 in Ka Nan, Myanmar. The image was posted the same day on the Telegram channel of the humanitarian group “Free Burma Rangers”. © Free Burma Rangers © Free Burma Rangers

 

State television outlet MRTV claimed that reports of the attack were nothing but “fake news” shared by “subversive media outlets”. 

Investigators from Myanmar Witness were able to use images and videos of the attack posted online to document with precision how it unfolded. They attribute the attack to the Myanmar Army in a report published on January 30, 2024. Myanmar Witness is a project run through the ”Centre for Information Resilience”, a UK-based NGO.

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How Myanmar Witness proved the involvement of the Myanmar Air Force

Fifteen seconds in to a video published by Khit Thit Media, an independent news agency in Myanmar, you can see a black mark in the sky. Then, you can hear the sound of a plane, followed by the sound of a detonation. Then, the person filming the video points the camera towards a number of injured people and shows bombed out buildings.

 


This video was posted on Facebook on January 7, 2024 and was filmed the same day in Ka Nan, Myanmar. © Khit Thit Media.

 

This video contains “open source proof” that enables investigators to determine the nature of the attack. For example, this footage proves that there were planes from the Myanmar Air Force on site, says Matt Lawrence, director of Myanmar Witness. 

 

In the case of the Ka Nan strike, state media claimed no aircraft flew over the area that morning. However, Myanmar Witness identified and geolocated footage of a Q-5 ground attack jet in the sky above Ka Nan village moments before the sound of an explosion. Ka Nan is within range and the flight time needed from Tada-U military airbase, where four Q-5 ground attack jets were visible on the runway shortly before the attack.  

 

In Myanmar, only the Myanmar Air Force has access to Chinese-made Nanchang Q-5 ground-attack aircraft, the plane visible in the video. 

There are also references to planes passing above villages located nearby on Burmese Telegram channels that follow the movements of military aircraft.

In a better quality version of the video shared by Khi Thit Media, obtained by Myanmar Witness, you can more clearly see the unique shape of a Chinese-made Nanchang Q-5 ground attack aircraft. © This photo montage was put together by Myanmar Witness. It includes a reference image from the “Blueprints” website, which has schematics of military planes.
In a better quality version of the video shared by Khi Thit Media, obtained by Myanmar Witness, you can more clearly see the unique shape of a Chinese-made Nanchang Q-5 ground attack aircraft. © This photo montage was put together by Myanmar Witness. It includes a reference image from the “Blueprints” website, which has schematics of military planes. © Myanmar Witness

Satellite images taken at 9:43am on January 7, 2024 show four Q-5 ground-attack aircraft on the runway at the Tada-U military air base, located 300 km from Ka Nan. It looks like the planes were being fuelled when the images were captured. Myanmar Witness reported that  that there is likely a connection between these planes being fuelled and the attack, which took place at 10:30am. 

Destruction of civilian infrastructure

Myanmar Witness also geolocated the buildings visible in different videos of the attack, like this church.

Here, Myanmar Witness has geolocated the Saint Pierre Church, which was damaged in the strikes, on this map of Ka Nan (23.805503, 94.143868). The team at Myanmar Witness examined a number of photos and videos of this church, which show external damage as well as blood in the interior. However, the state media outlet MRTV claimed that the church in Ka Nan was not hit during the strike.
Here, Myanmar Witness has geolocated the Saint Pierre Church, which was damaged in the strikes, on this map of Ka Nan (23.805503, 94.143868). The team at Myanmar Witness examined a number of photos and videos of this church, which show external damage as well as blood in the interior. However, the state media outlet MRTV claimed that the church in Ka Nan was not hit during the strike. © Myanmar Witness

Then, the team at Myanmar Witness compared satellite images of the village taken before and after January 7:

From high-resolution satellite imagery we found evidence of discolouration and destruction in and around Ka Nan of a nature that is consistent with an air strike – especially the areas surrounding the church and school. Comparison with imagery a few days earlier allowed us to identify the damage highly likely resulting from this specific incident.  

If you compare the satellite images of the village of Ka Nan taken between January 3 and 8, 2024, you’ll see that the surface of the buildings has changed between these two dates, a sign that the buildings have been physically altered. © Images provided by Sentinelle-2.
If you compare the satellite images of the village of Ka Nan taken between January 3 and 8, 2024, you’ll see that the surface of the buildings has changed between these two dates, a sign that the buildings have been physically altered. © Images provided by Sentinelle-2. © Myanmar Witness

 

Myanmar Witness also analysed the orientation of the shadows in the videos. Using the website Suncalc, which indicates the position of the sun for a given time and place, they determined when the videos of the attack on Ka Nan were filmed – around 10:30 am. This corresponds to the time given by the media outlets that reported the strike. 

Social media users also circulated several images showing injured people as well as dead bodies after the attack. Pro-democracy media outlets also published lists of victims, including children. A reverse image search showed that there was no trace of any of these images on line before January 7, 2024.

Myanmar Witness managed to confirm the identity of one victim – a woman wearing orange who appears in several images, seemingly lifeless.

These photos show a woman wearing orange. She appears in several of the photos geolocated by Myanmar Witness, in several different sites in Ka Nan. The sources are indicated for each image. “Source privée” (private source) is used when the NGO has decided to protect the anonymity of the witness for security reasons. © Montage by Myanmar Witness
These photos show a woman wearing orange. She appears in several of the photos geolocated by Myanmar Witness, in several different sites in Ka Nan. The sources are indicated for each image. “Source privée” (private source) is used when the NGO has decided to protect the anonymity of the witness for security reasons. © Montage by Myanmar Witness © Myanmar Witness

 

The team of investigators also geolocated images showing blood.

These are screengrabs of a video broadcast on social media. Myanmar Witness geolocated the video to where it was filmed in Ka Nan.
These are screengrabs of a video broadcast on social media. Myanmar Witness geolocated the video to where it was filmed in Ka Nan. © Daw Na News

In the case of the Ka Nan airstrike, the open source evidence is clear: imagery posted on social media and geolocated by investigators shows extensive destruction to civilian infrastructure in Ka Nan village, including a church, a high school and homes. 

We’ve seen this again and again in Myanmar, with airstrikes damaging or destroying education facilities, hospitals and places of worship.  

Matt Lawrence, of Myanmar Witness, says he hopes that the strike that took place in Ka Nan on January 7, 2024 will highlight the Myanmar Army’s continued use of these illegal strikes:

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‘Myanmar’s military has overwhelming air superiority’

Lawrence continues:

Research published by Myanmar Witness last year found that air strikes were a near-daily occurrence in areas where the fighting is worst, such as Sagaing. Civilians are left living in a state of fear over when the next attack might strike – this has become a part of their everyday lives. 

Myanmar’s military has overwhelming air superiority, in the form of combat jets and ground attack helicopters. This domination of the sky serves as a method of intimidation and fear, particularly when facing an opponent which, at most, has access to short-range drones.  

 

Myanmar Witness told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that they didn’t have solid evidence for a motive for the air strike that devastated Ka Nan on January 7. 

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