A Modern Tale of Chivalry
April 2009

by Luiz Maximiano

January 2009 marked the 60th anniversary of a conflict in Burma (Myanmar) that has been going on almost unchecked by the international community throughout. Hundreds of thousands of Karen farmers have fled their homes to seek refuge from the madness of the military junta that controls the country; others have lost their lives as victims of the government's campaign of brutality. Troops have continued to invade and burn villages, keeping the population in terrible fear in order to maintain the government's grip over a rebel province that insists in seeking independence. For most of the people, there's little help at all since the majority of international relief NGOs have left Burma in recent years or have no access to the hot zones of this conflict. But there's one unique group that displays great courage and a willingness to help the weak: its motto is "never surrender" and it is formed almost entirely by native Burmese volunteers who hold on against all odds hoping to live up to their idealistic motto.

© Luiz Maximiano/WpN
Sado, 54, is an FBR (Free Burma Rangers) leader and a 25-year veteran of the war between the Karen state and the Burma Army. The Free Burma Rangers today consists of 48 multi-ethnic teams of local young volunteers that are trained in the mold of the U.S. Army Ranger Battalion but they are not meant to fight or attack. The FBR have become one of the most reliable sources of information about human-rights abuses deep inside rural areas in Burma. In Karen state, they work alongside the KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army). Nov. 24, 2008.
I first heard of the Free Burma Rangers, or FBR, in 2006 and quickly tried to contact their founder, an ex-Major in the U.S. Army Special Forces who won't reveal his real name for security reasons. He now co-leads, together with other Burmese "Rangers," a significant force inside Burma bringing medical help to far-flung communities and providing some level of documentation of the Junta's human-rights abuses.

Two years after hearing about them and initiating a conversation with the "Tha-U-Wah-A-Pah" (The Father of the White Monkey, in Karen), his code name, I found myself escorted by two Rangers, hiking for four days from a neighboring country through the magnificent but unfriendly mountains of Karen State. We evaded both land mines and Burmese Army patrols. I was counting every step up the mountain as a small victory because the 20kgs (44 lbs.) of my gear seemed to weigh 10 times more and my lungs could barely keep up. We were headed to their training camp inside Burma to witness the formation of new FBR teams that soon afterwards would go on missions bringing food and medical help to internally displaced people not only in Karen State but also in other provinces that currently live under some kind of military repression by the Junta.

© Luiz Maximiano/WpN
Free Burma Rangers volunteers training on Nov. 21, 2008. The FBR was founded in 1997 by an ex-Major in the U.S. Army Special Forces. Their main goal is to be the first form of response when the Burma Army attacks a village and to document it. In case of being caught up in the middle of an attack, they are not allowed to flee until every villager is safe even if this costs them their own lives.
On completion of six weeks of a hard-core and physically demanding training while living in tiny bamboo huts and on a meager diet of rice and vegetables, teams of five people – two medics; one videographer, equipped with a little compact digital camera; one counselor and one security guard - would face weeks of long hikes covering many kilometers, visiting as many places in need as they could. Whenever news of a newly attacked village arrives, brought by neighboring villagers, the team sets out in its direction with medical assistance and food, no matter how far. They also attend to villagers that were displaced previously and now live in a different location – most of the time a new village built under precarious circumstances in the woods.

© Luiz Maximiano/WpN
Free Burma Rangers volunteers training at an undisclosed location deep inside Myanmar on Nov. 17, 2008. January 2009 will mark 60 years of war between the Karen people and the Burma military regime, which still controls the rest of the country and holds more than 2,000 political prisoners to this day.
The Rangers, even with all their military vocabulary and protocols, are not an army or another guerrilla group. They follow a very interesting code of conduct that says they are never allowed to attack. Some of them will carry guns but they can only defend themselves in case of an attack. If they are giving care in a village and an attack begins, they are not allowed to flee until the last villager running into the bush is safe. They are expected to stay between the villagers and the attackers, trying to hold them off as long they can, even at the cost of their lives. It happened before. Once. A team of five armed with pistols managed to hold the Burmese Army long enough to guarantee that every villager had safely run into the woods, then escaped themselves. During the Rangers' 12 years of existence some didn't have the same luck and died because of injuries, land mines or malaria--the biggest killers in the Burmese jungle.

© Luiz Maximiano/WpN
Free Burma Rangers volunteers training on Nov. 21, 2008. The Free Burma Rangers today consists of 48 multi-ethnic teams of local young volunteers that are trained in the mold of the U.S. Army Ranger Battalion but they are not meant to fight or attack.
It was this quietly heroic element of the Free Burma Rangers that fascinated me: their active quest for justice and peace in a region where good intentions save no one. I wanted to understand their drive, especially in a conflict where so many players are noted for being deeply immersed in some level of corruption: profiting from other people's misery and thus causing frustration and perplexity for the few who really want to see peace and a better future for all ethnic groups in Burma. The 60 years of war have exhausted both sides in this conflict. There is no sight of hope or peace in the near future.

The refugee camps along the border with Thailand keep growing at an exponential rate while the international community verbally condemns the Junta but takes no action that could actually bring an end to this long and sad war.

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© Luiz Maximiano

Luiz Maximiano, 30, is a Brazilian photojournalist based in Amsterdam, Holland. Nominated for the Joop Swart World Press Photo Masterclass and for the PDN's 30 and a participant of the Eddie Adams Workshop and Missouri Photo Workshop, he won the Canon Prize 2006, a portfolio award given to photojournalists under 30 in Holland. Exhibited at the Gijón International Photojournalism Festival in 2008, his work has been published in major publications such as Time magazine, Der Spiegel, Le Figaro, USA Today, Panorama, L'Espresso, Internazionale, The Guardian, Die Welt and others. He is represented by World Picture Network (WpN).

Luiz's Web site: http://www.luizmaximiano.com

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