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Human Rights Watch Analyst On The Violence In Myanmar


Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for standing up to the military government in Myanmar on human rights abuses. But now that she is in the government, she has remained relatively silent about the systematic attacks on one minority group in that country. They're called the Rohingya, and Myanmar's government refuses to recognize them as legal citizens of the country, even though they have lived there for generations. Those who have fled across the border into Bangladesh tell stories of systematic rape, murder and arson. Aung San Suu Kyi's critics want her to speak out. Here's her fellow Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus speaking to us via Skype from Bangladesh.

MUHAMMAD YUNUS: She is in power. People elected her to see that the law and order prevailed in the country, citizens are protected, human rights are respected. And also she's a Nobel Peace laureate. So she has a moral responsibility, political responsibility and all the responsibility as a human being.

MARTIN: A new round of violence began after Rohingya insurgents launched a coordinated attack on Myanmar police posts and even an Army base in August. Richard Wier is an analyst with Human Rights Watch, and he has worked in Myanmar. He's been analyzing a series of satellite photos over the past few weeks, and I asked him what they reveal.

RICHARD WEIR: After the violence broke out on August 25, what we started seeing was thermal heat signatures - that environmental satellites designed to pick up forest fires were indicating that there were large fires burning in northern Rakhine State.

MARTIN: So what did it mean when you saw those indications? I mean, you say that's where fires are happening. Do you know that that corresponds to where villages are?

WEIR: Right. So we saw the indications that there were burnings, and we matched those with known locations, known GPS coordinates of villages in those areas. And we can't say for sure that those villages are on fire or that anything has been destroyed. But what we saw subsequently after clouds broke - because it's monsoon season...

MARTIN: Which would make it difficult, but you're saying...

WEIR: It makes it very difficult to see. So far we've only seen two of the 21 different sites that we've detected large fires. And in both of those sites, massive destruction.

MARTIN: And when you say massive destruction, how much detail can you make out from these satellite images?

WEIR: Well, we can see what the town looked like beforehand and the destruction afterwards.

MARTIN: And there are no people in any of these images.

WEIR: Not anymore, no. And in one village, Chein Kar Li, which is a Rohingya village, we saw 99 percent of the town destroyed. That's 700 buildings. In another part, in Maungdaw Township, in northern Rakhine State, we saw 450 buildings destroyed in what is predominantly a Rohingya neighborhood.

MARTIN: You have staff who are trying to follow as best they can the situation from Bangladesh on that side of the border. What are those people telling you about the situation?

WEIR: Right. Well, we haven't been able to get access to northern Rakhine State, and, really, no one can. So we go to Bangladesh. And, unfortunately, the stories that we're hearing now are the same stories that I heard when I was in Bangladesh after the outbreak of violence in October 2016, which is that the security forces are burning down villages, they're shooting people indiscriminately as they enter villages and they're using weapons like mortars and machine guns to fire on villagers.

MARTIN: Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Prize winner, has said that there is a campaign of misinformation happening about this situation and the fight against the Rohingya, specifically mentioning fake news photographs. Presumably she's talking about the satellite images that your organization has been reviewing. How do you respond to that?

WEIR: Well, I would say that there has been some misinformation, but that's why we don't take anything at face value. That's why we take testimonies from Bangladesh. That's why we take our satellite imagery. So while the satellite imagery itself doesn't allow us to draw any real conclusions, it's part of a broader picture.

MARTIN: Richard Weir is an analyst with Human Rights Watch. Thank you so much for coming in.

WEIR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.