Uneven frontiers: Exposing the geopolitics of myanmar’s borderlands with critical remote sensing

Mia M. Bennett, Hilary Oliva Faxon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


A critical remote sensing approach illuminates the geopolitics of development within Myanmar and across its ethnic minority borderlands. By integrating nighttime light (NTL) data from 1992–2020, long-term ethnographic fieldwork, and a review of scholarly and gray literature, we analyzed how Myanmar’s economic geography defies official policy, attesting to persistent inequality and the complex relationships between state-sponsored and militia-led violence, resource extrac-tion, and trade. While analysis of DMSP-OLS data (1992–2013) and VIIRS data (2013–2020) reveals that Myanmar brightened overall, especially since the 2010s in line with its now-halting liberaliza-tion, growth in lights was unequally distributed. Although ethnic minority states brightened more rapidly than urbanized ethnic majority lowland regions, in 2020, the latter still emitted 5.6-fold more radiance per km2. Moreover, between 2013 and 2020, Myanmar’s borderlands were on average just 13% as bright as those of its five neighboring countries. Hot spot analysis of radiance within a 50 km-wide area spanning both sides of the border confirmed that most significant clusters of light lay outside Myanmar. Among the few hot spots on Myanmar’s side, many were associated with official border crossings such as Muse, the formal hub for trade with China, and Tachileik and Myawaddy next to Thailand. Yet some of the most significant increases in illumination between 2013 and 2020 occurred in areas controlled by the Wa United State Party and its army, which are pursuing infrastructure development and mining along the Chinese border from Panghsang to the illicit trade hub of Mongla. Substantial brightening related to the “world’s largest refugee camp” was also detected in Bangladesh, where displaced Rohingya Muslims fled after Myanmar’s military launched a vio-lent crackdown. However, no radiance nor change in radiance were discernible in areas within Myanmar where ethnic cleansing operations occurred, pointing to the limitations of NTL. The diverse drivers and implications of changes in light observed from space emphasize the need for political and economically situated remote sensing.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1158
JournalRemote Sensing
Issue number6
StatePublished - Mar 2 2021


  • Borders
  • Critical remote sensing
  • Geopolitics
  • Myan-mar
  • Nighttime light
  • Southeast Asia


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