Category Archives: Free Burma Rangers

Preserving the Video Archive of the Free Burma Rangers

FBR Videographer, Monkey (From Prayer for Peace)FBR Videographer, Monkey (From Prayer for Peace)

By: Mark Cooper

HRDI’s launch of the Free Burma Rangers Collection introduces the small, public face of a much larger partnership between the HRDI and the Free Burma Rangers (FBR). The twelve short videos on the site, ranging from five to ten minutes with two half-hour documentaries, total less than two hours of content. But this small selection represents the HRDI’s work over the past two years to ensure the long-term preservation and accessibility of the over 1,000 hours (and growing) of video documentation created by FBR during the past decade of their operations in Burma.

The partnership between the HRDI and FBR began in 2009 with the goal of digitally preserving FBR’s archival records and documentation, in particular their video materials. FBR trains, equips and supports humanitarian relief teams whose members come from many of the diverse ethnic groups within Burma. Since 1997, over 130 teams have conducted 400 relief missions into areas under attack by the Burma Army, providing aid to internally displaced peoples (IDPs) who have been driven out of their villages by the Burma Army.

Along with medical aid, clothing and educational supplies, each FBR team carries a small, handheld video camera for the purpose of recording the team’s operations, the living conditions of the IDPs, and evidence of human rights violations committed by the Burma Army. With so many teams operating concurrently, FBR produces an enormous wealth of video. To date, they hold over 1,200 MiniDV tapes, most of which contain a full hour of field documentation; few of these tapes have been backed up or digitally copied.

Digital Video Preservation: From Burma to the Archive
The task of digitally preserving FBR’s videos began with working through the quirks of capturing digital information encoded on physical tape media. I experienced this first-hand when I joined the HRDI team in July 2010 as a Graduate Research Assistant, continuing the work begun by my predecessor Nicholas Rejack (Read about his experiences on the project). In July, I traveled to the FBR offices in Southeast Asia, where I worked capturing video and inventorying the collection at my small desk crowded with three MacBook Pros, a tape deck, cameras, stacks of hard drives, and piles of MiniDV tapes to be captured, sorted or cataloged. Over the course of my six weeks on site I captured over 400 MiniDV tapes, totaling 5 terabytes of video.

Even under the best of conditions, MiniDV can be a finicky format. Capturing the same tape on the same equipment can result in often slight, but occasionally large, variations in quality. The challenges grow exponentially when the tapes have been carried through the extreme field conditions in the jungles of Burma, with each new tape seeming to present a new difficulty to resolve.  However, though the format presents its challenges, the preservation process is aided by metadata embedded within every frame of the DV video. Using programs like DV Analyzer from Audiovisual Preservation Solutions, error correction information can be extracted and analyzed to potentially identify whether errors stem from defects on the original tapes or from problems with the playback device. This can inform when performing a new capture could improve video quality, ensuring the best possible copy is preserved. In addition, every frame includes an embedded date and time stamp marking when it was originally shot, allowing for precise creation date metadata and for verifying and narrowing the date ranges written on tape labels.

Though the HRDI team has digitally captured a significant portion of FBR’s video archive, over 750 hours thus far, the challenges of long-term digital preservation do not end after a tape has been captured. Digital preservation is an ongoing process that aims to ensure the preservation of both the files themselves and the ability to read and interpret the information they contain. In this case, it involves not just maintaining the 1s and 0s of the video files but making sure they will continue to be readable in the future. The preservation process encompasses not just storage systems with significant redundancy and error checking, but also the maintenance of detailed technical metadata and ongoing monitoring of format obsolescence and evolution. Anyone who has struggled to find a working floppy drive to open an old document file, only to find the file format is no longer supported by current programs, understands the effect of a break in the preservation lifecycle.

The FBR Collection Online: A Look into the Archive
The online videos, each edited from raw FBR mission footage, provide glimpses into FBR’s video archive. Prayer of Peace: Relief and Resistance in Burma’s War Zones follows FBR teams operating in Karen State, Burma. The half-hour documentary is told through the personal stories of FBR team members and IDPs, including a medic, a team videographer and a father attempting to get medical care for his sick daughter. In Hiding: A Year of Survival Under the Burma Army (contains graphic content) depicts the lives of IDPs in the Karen, Karenni, Shan and Arakan States over the course of 2004-2005. It features documentation of villagers fleeing their homes and living in hiding, the devastating effects of Burma Army landmines, and testimonies from IDPs. The extensive preparation of FBR teams is detailed in Steps to Freedom (contains graphic content), which follows the teams as they train and enter attack areas across Burma.

The preservation of FBR’s complete archival record will be an ongoing project for the HRDI, as FBR continues to generate documentation on a massive scale. Advances in technology, such as FBR moving from MiniDV to file-based video recording, will present new challenges and preservation concerns. However, through this partnership, the FBR video archive will remain secure and provide one means through which the people of Burma tell their own stories, in their own voices. The videos will remain under restricted access to protect the safety of those depicted and not compromise FBR operations. They will be opened to researchers and documentarians at FBR’s discretion, and will be preserved for use by FBR and its partners to bring attention to the situation in Burma.

In Prayer of Peace, the FBR team videographer known as Monkey describes why he wanted to use a video camera. He says, “I started this work in 1998. At that time the Burma Army came and the villagers fled into the jungle. As they fled I took photos with a still camera. When people looked at the photos I couldn’t explain. I wanted the photos to open their hearts. I tried but the photos were not enough. I thought, if I had a video camera it would be better. Instead of me speaking for them they speak themselves.”

Mark Cooper is a second year master’s student at the UT School of Information. He is specializing in digital moving image preservation and recently interned at the Texas Archive of the Moving Image. Previously, Mark worked as a Producer / Director at Penn State Public Broadcasting, where his projects included feature documentaries on water infrastructure and domestic violence broadcast nationally on PBS.

Questions of Digital Witnessing, Community Engagement and Human Rights

Lydia French introducing panelists to Digial Witnessing audience

On March 2, 2010, the Ethnic and Third World Literatures Group (E3W) featured several faces of the HRDI in one of its Sequels Symposium precursor events, “Digital Witnessing: A Record of Human Rights and Wrongs” held in the UT Libraries Benson Latin American Collection Rare Books Room. The following post details this event and another pre-symposium panel focused on community engagement; these events are great examples of the activist scholarship and dynamic discussions on human rights occurring at UT.


By: Lydia French

In March 2010, the English Department’s Ethnic and Third World Literatures Group held two events in advance of their annual Spring SEQUELS Symposium. This year the symposium will feature E3W alumni Joseph Slaughter (Columbia University, author of Human Rights, Inc.) and Jennifer Wenzel (University of Michigan, author of Bulletproof). As such, the special events drew on the global themes of human rights, but with special emphases on (1) archiving and (2) community engagement/service learning.

“Digital Witnessing: A Record of Human Rights and Wrongs” featured human rights archivist T-Kay Sangwand, I-School graduate student Nicholas Rejack, and Texas After Violence Director Virginia Raymond, each of whom offered illuminating discussions of the praxis and ethics of collecting stories of trauma. In her presentation on the Human Rights Documentation Initiative, Sangwand highlighted the unique collaborative, technological, and narrative features of the project. Rejack discussed his own experiences working with HRDI partner organization, the Free Burma Rangers (FBR); last summer he traveled to the FBR offices in southeast Asia to transferr hours of video narratives onto a computer to be preserved, translated, and housed in the archive. Finally, Raymond, Director of HRDI partner organization, the Texas After Violence Project, spoke on the ethics of collecting and preserving stories of violence. Every individual involved in the process, she suggests, bears a responsibility to each other as well as to the narrators of the stories, the absent individuals involved in the stories, and the future generations who will hear them. Parsing the exact nature of that responsibility, though, is not so easy. Nevertheless, each of the panelists—indeed the philosophy behind the HRDI itself—recognizes the sensitive nature of collecting and preserving the voices of those so long silenced by the violence of trauma.

If there appeared to be tacit agreement among the audience and panelists of “Digital Witnessing,” one week later at “Service Learning: A Roundtable Discussion on Community Engagement” the discussion was a bit more contentious. This event featured panelists from across the university and in the community in capacities as diverse as graduate assistant instructors, not-for-profit directors, activists-turned-administrators, and so on. The roundtable aimed to explore the state of community engagement/service learning (even the nomenclature was/is a sensitive subject; most agreed that the terms have been evolving over several decades now, but generally service learning is seen as a narrow concept within the larger umbrella of community engagement) at the University of Texas and in general. Administrators, instructors, and community activists agreed that anyone who incorporates a community engagement component in their classroom and pedagogy needs to prepare themselves, their students, and the community partner well in advance of the project to avoid what one panelist called “drive-by” interactions, which tend not to benefit either the student or the organization. The instructor needs to have a sustained and mutually beneficial relationship with the organization(s) well before incorporating a project into his/her syllabus. Communication is key. All parties need to be fully informed of the needs of the community partner, the limitations of the classroom, and, honestly, the limitations and needs of the students in order to sustain a healthy relationship.

More contentious are the philosophies behind “service,” “engagement,” and “development.” Particularly in a climate where “service” to “underdeveloped” areas is garnering more and more institutional backing (i.e. it’s hip for universities), the event’s participants questioned the efficacy (and history) of sending thousands of students out as saviors for a community. The answers to one question in particular will illustrate the stakes of the discussion. When asked, when and why did the university start getting interested in community engagement, the following genealogies were offered:

  1. It was a reaction against the self-interested, resume-padding model of “student development” of the 1960s and ‘70s. It’s a move, today, toward greater social action.
  2. When the university wants to take land and/or resources from disenfranchised people in the community, it needs to mollify that community by offering its own resources: students. Power relations thereby get watered down to “diversity.”
  3. The university is under pressure, now, to compete with online universities and degree-granting institutions, so it needs to institute local programs.
  4. The need for engagement comes down from the legislature when the university becomes more selective. In other words, it’s a public institution, but it’s no longer admitting as much of “the public,” so the university must compensate by instituting programs to “serve” that same public.

The questions of power, representation, and discrimination implicit in each of these genealogies compel thoughtful response. As an instructor, I realized that the stakes of community engagement are far too high to approach it as simply another assignment; it demands great patience, understanding, and working relationships.

For more information on community engagement at UT, you can visit the following websites:

Bridging Disciplines Program

Practical Opportunities for Law Students

Volunteer and Service Learning Center

Lydia French is a graduate student in E3W and co-organizer of the annual E3W Sequels Symposium.

Working with the Free Burma Rangers, Summer 2009

Photo credit: Free Burma Rangers
Photo credit: Free Burma Rangers

Prepared by: Nicholas Rejack
with assistance from Christian Kelleher and T-Kay Sangwand

In the summer of 2009 I traveled from Austin to the offices of the Free Burma Rangers (FBR) in Southeast Asia equipped with a video deck, two Apple MacBook Pro laptops and twelve 500 gigabyte hard drives. Over the following six weeks, I conducted real-time transfers from miniDV video cassettes to the laptops running Final Cut Pro. The footage I captured documents a wide range of activity – ranger training, including rappelling down steep river cliffs and shooting rifles, joyful children’s programs with song and dance, surgery on landmine victims and the seriously ill, combat with the Burmese army, testimony from survivors, and scenes of jungle villagers in hiding.

Free Burma Rangers is a multi-ethnic, multilingual humanitarian group providing relief to refugees and documenting the human rights conditions in Burma. FBR trains rangers to enter the ethnic regions such as the Shan and Karen states to aid their people with food, medical support, education, hope, love, and defense, if needed. Over 52 full-time relief teams, each consisting of four to five men and women, operate in eight different ethnic states within Burma. The FBR office overflows with digital videotapes, CDs and hard drives filled with photos that are in dire need of organization and cataloging.

Out of FBR’s massive collection that consists of over 900 hour long tapes, I collected video from 172 different tapes, which amounts to 2 terabytes or nearly one week of video. The video transfer process required constant monitoring for quality control as the videos are often shut on rough conditions by non-professional videographers. Over the six week period, I had the opportunity to meet the founder of FBR and work with an excellent and devoted team who were often in and out of the offices either on training missions or going inside Burma. In addition, members of the international press, such as the BBC, and freelance documentarians frequently visited the office, often requesting my assistance with technical questions. Members of the international media expressed great interest in accessing FBR’s collected material to inform the world of the humanitarian crisis in Burma.

After returning to Austin I have continued to work on this project as a Graduate Research Assistant with the University of Texas Libraries Human Rights Documentation Initiative. One of my current tasks includes cleaning up the raw footage to create archival quality video files through QuickTime. Translation, editing, metadata collection and cataloging remain, in addition to incorporating more of FBR’s vast store of material.

Using the information found in FBR field reports, I will apply descriptive metadata to the videos and create interactive maps for access through the Glifos software. The material will be available online, initially for FBR use and eventually for public access. By partnering with FBR to preserve and provide access to their files, the UT Libraries will be able to aid in FBR’s programming and operations as well as serve as a resource for future human rights research. The files preserved at UT could potentially serve as evidence in prosecution of human rights violators.

A repressive military regime in Burma ensures that the outside world does not hear much news from this nation. In 2009 however Burma was in the news with increasing frequency, as the Nobel Peace Laureate and democracy advocate Aung Sang Suu Kyi, confined to house arrest for 14 of the past 20 years, was sentenced to another 18 months in August by the military government. Only two years after a widespread democracy protest, largely led by thousands of Buddhist monks, and one year after Cyclone Nargis devastated the region, leaving tens of thousands dead, the people of this ethnically diverse nation await 2010 elections, the first in nearly 20 years. Far from the capital of Rangoon, ethnic groups such as the Karen and Shan suffer as internally displaced persons (or IDPs in human rights terminology) in their own country as they flee from attacks by the Burmese army.

An FBR report from September 18, 2009 quoted the words of recently deceased Karen ranger, Di Gay Htoo,  “…when you tell the story of my people, please do not just talk about all the bad things that happen to us and our suffering by the Burma Army.” Through UT and FBR’s archival partnership, with the support of the Bridgeway Foundation, the courage, strength, and struggles of the people of Burma will also be known.

Nicholas Rejack is a second-year student in the University of Texas at Austin School of Information focusing on archives and digitization issues, specifically audio and video. He is a graduate of McGill University (B.A. Linguistics, 2007) and has worked at National Instruments, the Harry Ransom Center and the Coates Library at Trinity University. In addition to a strong technical background, he maintains active interests in travel and experimental music.