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We Met the Secretive American Leader of the Free Burma Rangers

They have been described as Doctors Without Borders with guns. VICE News traveled to the Myanmar jungle to meet the group of Jesus-inspired warriors on a mission to help the victims of the country's civil war.
Image via AP/Free Burma Rangers

Dean Hartman closed his eyes mid conversation. Barely a pause and then his voice rang out, full of confidence and conviction, "God, I ask you to change the hearts and lives of those men and help me to love them." He opened his steely, battle-hardened eyes, and returned his attention to the interview. "Thank you for your question because it's helped me realize that I need to learn to love those men."


The men in Hartman's prayer were the brutes who, on January 19 this year, tortured, raped and beat to death two female Kachin teachers in Myanmar. The atrocity has been blamed on rogue soldiers in the Myanmar army. The Kachin people are one of several ethnic groups who have been fighting the government in its various incarnations since independence was declared in 1948 — a conflict which has been dubbed "the world's longest civil war."

Hartman's voice, with its non-specific American accent and clipped military intonation, remained calm as he described the horrors of the crime scene, his unflinching expression showing no trace of the anger his words conveyed. "Their fingers were all twisted and broken where they had raised their hands to protect themselves," he told VICE News. "Man, it makes me mad just talking about it. … I'd kill them myself if it wasn't for God's love."

'If you've aligned yourself with evil then at the minimum I'm going to help those you hurt. I might even stop you myself.'

Dean Hartman is a pseudonym. The secretive founder of the Free Burma Rangers — a group which has been described as Doctors Without Borders with guns — won't share his real name or let himself be photographed. "Every year the Burmese government tries to get us evicted from our base," he explained, preferring, like the ethnic armies, to use the country's old name — to them, the moniker "Myanmar" is a tool of tyranny. "I need to keep a low profile because I don't want to cause problems for our hosts."


When he was seven, Hartman's diminutive stature attracted the taunts and fists of boarding school bullies. He says he quickly learned to "hit hard, hit first" and soon dispatched his tormentors into the care of the school nurse. By the age of 23, he was leading a battalion of 40 soldiers on missions in the Panamanian jungle. After a distinguished career in the US Special Forces, he left the army and enrolled in seminary school to become a Christian missionary.

Now 54, Hartman has combined his two passions in the FBR, a group of Jesus-inspired warriors on a mission to help the victims of the Burmese civil war. "I'm the ruler of righteousness with God's authority," he said, eyes blazing. "If you've aligned yourself with evil then at the minimum I'm going to help those you hurt," he paused, becoming quieter. "I might even stop you myself."

After leaving the army, Hartman's days were filled with theological lectures at seminary school. Until he got a phone call from his father, a well-known missionary in Thailand, who told him that the leader of the Wa people, an ethnic group native to northern Burma, had seen a picture of him in his green beret and asked for him to come and teach them survival and military skills. Hartman prayed and boarded a plane. The roots of the Free Burma Rangers unfurled that day.

FBR medics work to save a wounded person. (Photo by Nathan Thompson)

The conflict between the Burmese government and various Ethnic Armed Groups (EAGs) has burned and waned for over six decades. Hopes were high in 2013 when ceasefires were agreed across the board but lasting peace has proved elusive. "The top level of the army and government recognizes the legitimacy of the EAGs as political entities," said Ashley South, an expert in Burma and co-author of a recent report for the UN Refugee Agency. "They are not sympathetic but they are willing to negotiate." The report) paints a stark picture. "The implementation of a [ceasefire] has slowed significantly since mid-2014," it reads. "It remains to be seen whether and how a political settlement can be achieved."


While the situation for many ethnic groups has improved since the negotiations, fighting is still common in the Kachin and northern Shan states, where an estimated 98,000 people have been displaced by violence since June 2011.

In his role as a medic for the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), Eliya Samson treated everyone from bloody landmine victims to children infested with parasites. He met Hartman in 1997 while searching for his wife in an Internally Displaced People (IDP) camp after their village had been torched. Samson and Hartman formed the Free Burma Rangers together. "Right now the KNLA and the Burmese army have a ceasefire," Samson said in between spits of bright red betel nut and tobacco juice. "The government wants to beat us down and control us but we want a federal system — part of Burma but autonomous."

Hartman and Samson developed the FBR program together. Training lasts two months and covers everything from dentistry to swimming. "We give activists the skills to live and move in the jungle," explained Hartman. "We teach them to avoid contact with the Burmese army and head to the worst areas and provide humanitarian assistance." Today, FBR has 75 teams of five people working in the conflict zones in Myanmar. Each team of five consists of a team leader, medic, videographer, photographer and counsellor.

The group is not without controversy, however. Questions have been raised over the fact that some Rangers carry guns — though the organization does not arm them, weapons are not forbidden. And over the fine line the group often seems to tread between humanitarian work and providing military support — offering training and logistical help to the ethnic armies.


The FBR denies that it is its mission to fight the Burmese army, however, insisting that most of its members are unarmed. But it acknowledges that carrying weapons enables teams to defend internally displaced people or themselves if they come under attack.

Hartman told VICE News: "We don't encourage the teams to carry guns and we advise them to avoid the Burmese army, but we're not pacifists and we understand that our teams may need to defend themselves.'' Asked what the FBR's view was if its military support — for example, training in orienteering — was used to attack the enemy, he said: "We just train them, what they do with the training is their issue."

But that alliance also makes them a target. The FBR website carries an "In Memoriam" section, dedicated to those who have died in the course of their work. Some of them were killed by the Myanmar army.

One of their most important roles, however, is to document human rights abuses visited upon the people in IDP camps. The inhabitants exist with no employment, education and basic healthcare and are vulnerable to exploitation, even slavery. "Forced labor is huge problem for people in Shan state," said Kya Bon La Hi, a leader in the Wa resistance army and Free Burma Ranger. "The government doesn't recognize our right to exist and when they burn a village the people there become like ghosts with no official existence; the army scoops them up and uses them as beasts of burden."


FBR member Thi Naing shows off his "Never Surrender" finger tattoo. (Photo by Nathan Thompson)

Thi Naing, a staff sergeant in the Arakan State Army, has been seconded to FBR. "I want my people to be free from fear and have self-determination," he said. "We have no human rights, the government openly abuses villagers and they are trying to build a gas pipeline through our land with no consultation or offer of compensation."

Ethnic armies from around the world are now being drawn to FBR's flame. In the scorched Nuba Mountains of Sudan, FBR-trained teams serve the people in IDP camps. "We were invited by the Nubans to go to Sudan last year," said Hartman. "We gave them training, equipment and inspired them to fight for good in the world."

Now the peshmerga army of Kurdistan wants a piece of the FBR program. Hartman recently returned from Kurdistan and happily showed pictures of his trip, naming the heavy artillery and pointing out the black flag of the Islamic State. He plans to return later in the year to do a full training session.

It was dinner time at FBR headquarters. Some of the ethnic fighters had changed into traditional dress - bright red and blue woven shirts and sarongs. Hartman and FBR staff discussed the case of the brutalized girls with a human rights organization over speaker-phone. Behind them, a friend nursed a baby monkey rescued from forest poachers. Hartman's wife, Peg loaded the table with vats of chilli and salsa. Before eating, Hartman bowed his head and prayed. "God please bless us and let us enjoy the food and help our journalist friend to tell the truth."

Follow Nathan A Thompson on Twitter: @NathanWrites