An unconventional investigation lifts the veil of secrecy to expose indiscriminate killings and terror tactics by Myanmar’s military rulers.

The video was startling: As a motorcycle carrying three men speeds down a city street in Myanmar, a soldier traveling in the back of a pickup truck opens fire. One man falls to the ground, mortally wounded, while the other two run away. 

Investigative reporters Robin McDowell and Margie Mason found that the video was one of many seeming to show the military firing at civilians indiscriminately in the wake of the February coup. But they also noticed something else: Security forces appear to not only shoot at civilians but also go out of their way to mutilate and drag bodies in the street in what seemed to be a way to terrorize the populace. The reporters wondered if this might be a broader pattern across the country. They teamed up with the Human Rights Center Investigations Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, to analyze thousands of social media posts and images online.

The resulting investigation showed how the junta in Myanmar was using the bodies of the dead and wounded as tools of terror in the words of human rights activists. The reporters and researchers at the HRC Lab, using satellite visuals, reverse image searches, and even a sun-shadow calculator were able to verify the exact time and location where the motorcycle shooting took place: 10:38 a.m. in front of a high school on Azarni Road in the southern town of Dawei. They found more than 130 other instances where the junta was using bodies to send a message. In addition, they found bodies were taken from families and cremated without their permission, autopsies performed without permission, and families forced to sign documents saying their loved ones had died of causes other than gunshots.

Essential to the investigation, Southeast Asia news director Kiko Rosario and his team secured permissions for videos and imagery analyzed for the story, and his knowledge of the region proved invaluable. Video journalist Manuel Valdes blended all of the videos that HRC Lab gathered from social media, with shots of the researchers demonstrating the cutting-edge techniques they used to reveal the military’s practices.

Investigating the story in this manner — analyzing video footage in such detail — broke new ground for the AP. The Best of the Week judges were impressed by the innovative way in which the team harnessed the expertise of the HRC Lab, expanding AP’s reporting capabilities on a story with severe restrictions of media access. The team’s piece, accompanied by Valdes’ video explaining how the visual investigation was conducted, received more than 53,000 views on AP platforms.

“Courageous people in Myanmar are taking videos of state-violence and sharing what they capture with the world,” said Alexa Koenig, executive director of the Human Rights Center at Berkeley, about the AP collaboration. “Our students and staff are finding and verifying this user-generated content to help journalists and other researchers amplify information about atrocities that would otherwise be carried out in secret and with impunity.” 

For their creative work in finding a way to analyze visual data from one of the world’s most secretive countries and bringing that together in a rich and compelling multiformat narrative, McDowell, Mason, Rosario and Valdes earn AP’s Best of the Week award.

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