ne day before Myanmar’s parliament was set to certify the results of the 2020 democratic election, on Feb. 1, 2021, a military coup swept over the country, arresting members of the ruling political party including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. The military declared the election results invalid and promised new elections would take place after a year-long state of emergency was lifted. Thousands of citizens took to the streets to peacefully protest the theft of their democracy, prompting the military to respond with increasingly oppressive tactics, including detaining and eventually killing their own citizens.
Meanwhile, thousands of mostly young people began travelling to Myanmar’s jungles seeking military training from the country’s various ethnic armed organizations. This created a network of loosely affiliated armed resistance groups that have become the People’s Defence Force. Backed by the country’s government in exile, these freedom fighters have staged increasing attacks on the military as they fight an uphill battle against a superior force.
In 2021, Canadian documentary photographer Bryan Dickie travelled to one People’s Defence Force training camp to learn everything he could about who these volunteers were. His book, People’s Defence Force, features profiles of 35 citizens uprooted from their lives and thrust into a battle for their country’s future, because they could not choose to do any less.
Photojournalist Nick Lachance asked Dickie about photojournalism and his experiences with the People's Defence Force. This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Nick: Who are you in this creative space? Where do you fit with photography, photojournalism and documentary photography?
Bryan Dickie: When I was young, photography was never the thing. I wanted to be a soldier – I wanted to be a Navy SEAL. When I was around 15, a friend showed me what punk music was, and since then, I switched gears pretty hard. I started reading Noam Chomsky and distanced myself from soldiering and military things. But I was still interested, not necessarily in war, but in events that changed and shaped the world. Around the same time, I really wanted to be a videographer, until I learned how much video cameras cost. So, I made the decision to be a photographer instead. I just wanted to travel and see the world. I decided to go on a trip to Asia by myself where I’d travel to a bunch of countries and try to tell stories. This was in 2010 when Burma was just opening up so I decided to go there on a whim. I was lucky enough to be there when Aung San Suu Kyi was being released from house arrest. I got to photograph that and talk to her and from there I just fell in love with the country. I kept going back and I reached out to the community here in Toronto, I made a bunch of friends and 12 years later I'm still talking about Myanmar. So, I guess that's my story of how I became a photographer.
Nick: How many times before this project have you gone back?
BD: Whenever my bank account let me. For the past ten years, I was always working to get back there and to tell as much of that story as possible. The story of Myanmar, it has so many different puzzle pieces, and once you tell one puzzle piece, the story blossoms into something else. In 2014, I made a book called Little Pieces. I had become embedded with three different ethnic armed organizations and tried to tell their stories and the story of how Burma is such a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious country that has a lot of the strife going on in it.
Nick: For this project, you did everything. You shot it, you did all the interviews, designed it. How long did it take?
BD: The whole trip took about six weeks. I was there with the guys for about three of those and the other three weeks was quarantining and just kind of getting into the place. Putting the book together was about six months.I had to kind of keep an eye on the COVID situation because it was really bad in Myanmar and Thailand, especially on the border at the time. But I guess I have a lucky horseshoe and everything kind of worked out. COVID dipped down and the fighting dipped down. I got a plane ticket two weeks out, went in there and then kind of did my thing. As I was leaving, the fighting got really, really bad and COVID got really bad again. It was quite a lot of work because it was all shot on film. All of the portraits are medium format film and all of the insert shots are 35mm. I think there's like 4 digital photos in there.
Nick: Was that creative choice part of a security concern? Unless you got caught by the military?
BD: Not really, I'm a huge fan of slow journalism and all of my personal projects I shoot on film. I’ve read about Tim Hetherington’s experience using film during the Liberian civil war and I like the idea that by slowing down he was catching different moments, like that one photo of a soldier kissing his wife goodbye before he goes to the front. That image is seared in my mind. Everybody else just had these photos of kids with guns in the jungle. And the first time I went over to Myanmar, that's basically all I shot and Vice gobbled that up really quickly. Then I thought, what am I doing here? Did I really tell a story or did I just glorify what was happening over there? So, I really wanted to switch gears, which was I feel the right move for the story, but the wrong move for my career because editors don't necessarily like those photos. They want to try and tell as much information in one image as possible. But that's not really what I wanted to do. So, that's why I published the book in 2015, because I knew that nobody was going to put a long format story out there.
Nick: So, for your current book, how did you get in contact with these fighters?
BD: I've been with the Myanmar community or Burmese community for about eight years in Toronto and I've always been photographing them and they've always kind of known me as the token white guy that's always around. So, I’ve built relationships. My best friend is this 80 year old Chinese Burmese guy, and we just hang out every week and just talk about Burmese politics. A lot of people have friends and family fighting right now so I didn't even have to ask, people approached me because they knew the kind of work I did and what I wanted to do.
Nick: What’s striking when you look through the book is just how young almost everybody is. Most of them don't have any military training, where do they feel like they stand with their end goal, how achievable do they feel this is?
BD: When I first got into the camp, I thought, “They have so much passion, they're going to win this war in six months.” Every one of them that I spoke to said that they are reserved, that their life is already over. Every one of them expressed that their life doesn't matter and the life of the next generation mattered. They had all said that they're going to give their life for this country and that they were okay with that. As time went on, my feeling that war would be over in six months drastically changed because I saw that motivation isn't the thing that wins a war. It’s geopolitical partners, it’s access to weaponry and training, and I realized that all of these people are just teenagers from the city that don't know necessarily how to hold a weapon or live in the jungle. I think for the most part, the soldiers understood that they had an incredibly uphill battle to fight, but none of them seemed weary about that.
Nick: Can you say how many people were in the camp you were in?
BD: There were 300 soldiers at that camp when I was there. It's a bit of an octopus or a spider web where that camp has a bunch of camps around it, and it’s the main supply camp for the area. So, they were trying to grow a web to make more and more camps to create that area into a PDF zone. Also, that camp had already trained a thousand soldiers, some of them would be the underground soldiers that would be trained for two weeks and go directly back to the cities and do guerilla work. If I remember correctly there were 800 regular soldiers who had received three months training in that area.
Nick: And, that's just one camp. There's a bunch of other ones, all loosely connected, if I'm correct in my understanding?
BD: Very, very loosely connected. This was kind of a grassroots anarchist movement where PDF forces just sprung up everywhere. Since Myanmar’s independence this is the first time that everybody's pointing in the same direction and it's against the military. There's something called the NUG, the National Unity Government. They're kind of the political wing of the People's Defense Force, and they're separate entities. There’s been some tension, but now they are working together and the NUG is funding the PDF and getting them weapons, and you’re starting to see all the PDFs work as a single unit. However, each PDF is being trained by a different ethnic armed organization, and a lot of those ethnic armed organizations have been fighting each other for quite some time. So, again, it's a very precarious situation. They are all fighting together right now, but what happens if they win?
Nick: Yeah, can you build a cohesive government or do they split into a bunch of other little civil wars?
BD: Well that's what's been happening in Myanmar for 74 years, since the four months after they got independence. In Shan State, which is the biggest state, their military is not forming a people's defense group. Anybody that goes there for military training gets enveloped into their Shan State Army. And everybody is very scared about that. There are so many different actors. You can split it down ethnic lines, you can split it down cultural lines, you can split it down religious lines. There's even different Shan groups fighting one another.
Nick: Are you still in contact with anybody featured in the book?
BD: Yeah, I was just talking to a couple of guys the other day, and sadly there are multiple people from the book that have been captured by the military. There's people that have been executed, and there's people that have been assassinated. Two guys are very close friends of mine, and I'm actually trying to get one guy’s wife and child into Canada through the refugee program. We would call each other on a weekly basis, call each other brother. It was a very hard project because of that.
Nick: Was there any one person or a few people that stood out to you the most?
BD: That’s an easy question. It's just one that is hard to talk about. The guy that's on the last page, his nickname is Scorpio and he was my contact. Scorpio and I became really, really close. I met his wife and three kids. We’d talk every night. He's just a regular guy. He had connections in the military and connections in the government where he could have waited out the entire thing with his family and kept them safe. But he decided to go to the jungle. Two weeks after I left, I got a message with a photo showing him and one of my best friends in the camp with their hands behind their backs. It was photos of them being arrested by the military. He's currently being tortured. He was able to get a message to me from a jailer. He said, “you need to publish my face, you need to publish my name, because I want the world to know what happened to me, because I'm about to die.” The name he wants out there is his PDF serial number, SC-101045. Everybody knows what his serial number is, but they don’t all know the government has him. Now they will. I'm currently working with some friends to get his wife and children relocated to another country.
Nick: God, that's really awful. I guess you don't know what's happening with him after that last message?
BD: The last thing I heard is he's being used as a guide, so he'll be put in front of the military kind of like a minesweeper and they'll ask where the camp is. He's probably not going to give up the location, which means he's just going to get a bullet in the back of his head. We have no idea if he’s still alive.
Nick: So this kind of ties into another question. Scorpio’s saying, get my face out there, get my name out there. Tell people what's happening. How hard has it been to get publications to pay attention to what's happening in Myanmar, to want to write about these freedom fighters? What's your experience been with that?
BD: I'm going to have to be very diplomatic here. Getting the Western media to talk about something that doesn't have necessarily too many connections to the West is almost impossible. There are a few Asian publications that are curious about it, but I've had publications tell me that because of who I am I'm not the right person to tell this story. That gets into a whole different ball of wax. I think that there is a valid argument there 100 per cent Maybe they don't know my background with the country though. European papers are more willing, but in North America, there's basically no interest. I've told multiple photo editors, I do not want to be paid for this. I just want the stories published.
Nick: Are you going back?
BD: Of course, I think I'm connected to Burma for the rest of my life. Right now, I'm taking the first kind of break that I've ever taken in my career. This really fucked me up mentally. Like, really badly. I'm not a really fun person to be around these days just because I got so connected with those dudes. And everybody the entire community here keeps on asking me, when are you going back? But I think that for me to be effective I need to take a little personal time, I got so connected to the people there. I need to kind of work through some stuff before I go back.
Nick: I hope you have access to proper support. I think that as documentarians and journalists we take a lot on and we care a lot. And there's not a lot of proper support in our industry because most of us are freelancers.
BD: I've reached out and I have a pretty strong circle around me. It would be kind of easy for me to think that things are par with the course and everything, but to take a second and be like, all right, maybe I need to take some time for myself… that’s been the only hard thing, like kind of realizing it myself. But I live in Canada and I have an amazing support group around me, an amazing family, an amazing wife. So yeah, I'll bounce back.
Copies of People’s Defence Force can be purchased at www.bryandickie.com and 100% of their proceeds go to support Myanmar freedom fighters.
Bryan and a colleague are currently planning to head back to Myanmar in February 2023. They will be making a documentary about the People's Defence Force.