"Kachins are in serious threat of losing their homeland": Ryan Libre

Ryan Libre, an American photojournalist from Northern California is organizing photo exhibitions around the globe about the life of Kachin ethnic people in northern Burma . He was interviewed by KNG by email on his journey to Kachin State and his work.
Ryan Libre is currently based in Japan and Thailand and has been living in Asia for 9 years and has travelled at least three times to Kachin State for making documentaries which highlight the ethnic people’s life and that of the armed group the Kachin Independence Organization/Army (KIO/A).

He held a Photo Exhibition in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Thailand (FCCT) from April 2 to May 30 on the topic “Portraits of Independence:  A Look Inside the Kachin Independence Organization”.  In Tokyo Nikon Salon-Japan, he held the exhibition “Portraits of Independence Inside the Kachin Independence Army” from April 27 to May 3.

Libre who has a degree in Peace Studies from U.S. Army Research Institute- Absence Without Leave (AWOL) and is a member of On Asia the leading source for Asian stock photography, plans more photo exhibitions about Kachins. There will be another show on August 8 to 14 at Osaka Nikon Salon- Japan.

KNG: Tell me about your journey in brief (including date-when you got there and how long you spent there) to Kachin State and how did you get those photos.
Ryan: I've been to Kachin state three times now, twice from China and once from Yangon (Rangoon).  My last trip was in January this year.  I've stayed for 14 weeks altogether so far.  

How about your trip as such your security, relationship with the Burmese military junta? How did they treat you?
When I went through Yangon to the junta controlled parts of Kachin I was followed by spies and my hotel was broken into and my computer searched.

Why are you doing this job?
I met a group of students in Thailand one day who I was told were Burmese.  So I went up to one and said “Hello, you must be one of the Burmese students."   She replied politely but firmly, “I’m not Burmese, I'm Kachin."  It sparked my interest and my curiosity just keeps growing.

I'm also working on this because I think their story is very important and more people should know about it.   That fact that they are all so friendly also makes it easy for me to keep wanting to go back.  

The main purpose of your work?
I want to try to spark some interest in people about their stories.   If enough people get interested I hope it will help the Kachin in some way.  Volunteers, international aid, a more serious stance against the junta and for meaningful state governments.  But if those things happen it will take a lot of people doing a lot of work.  Again the only thing I can hope to be is a little spark to start a fire.   

How many times have you done your photo exhibition regarding Kachin State after you came out of Burma?
Once in a university in California, Once in a Cafe in California, at the FCC in Thailand and at the Nikon Salon in Shinjuku (Japan).

In which country did you have photo exhibitions and what is the response from the audience?
There have been very different audiences,   so there are a huge variety of responses.  Most recently at the Nikon Salon many Japanese who read the news daily and consider themselves well informed people asked me “Why have I never heard of this before?"  Most major media just focuses on Aung San Su Kyi vs the junta and many people believe that is the only issue in Myanmar now.

The Kachin refugees who came to the show had a much different reaction. They connected with the photos much like someone looking at a family album.  One woman told me she felt "excited, sad, curious, afraid, hopeful and nostalgic" It only recently occurred to me that part of my job with these photos is to connect Kachins outside with Kachins inside.  But now I see that is also a very important thing these photos can help with.  

Do you have a plan to hold more photo exhibitions in the future about Kachins?
Yes, many more.   Next is the Osaka Nikon Salon in August.  After that nothing set in stone yet, but lots of possibilities.  I hope these photos can travel everywhere where there are large Kachin populations.  

It can connect those Kachins to their homeland, and help the community they live in better understand them.  Also I especially would like to show it in many ASEAN countries. I think they have the best chance to influence some kind of positive change in Myanmar.  

I need the help of the Kachins and anyone else reading this to find more good venues to show these photos.  A gallery, a university, a cultural event, a NGO office with lots of visitors, a cafe, a restaurant, an UN office or anywhere that a lot of people come on a regular basis.

Do you have a plan or want to go again to Kachin State in the future?

Yes,   I hope I’ll be going back to Kachin for many years to come.  Every time I go back my understanding deepens, my relationships deepens and so do the photos.    

I'm looking for a long term grant to help with this. I got some travel funding from three different sources for my other trips.  Mostly "the market" doesn't support long term projects like this anymore.  They need funding beside the small fees for editorial photos to continue.  

Can you tell about the situation of Kachin State and Kachin people in political, social religious, economic and education sectors?
Well there are two Kachins in my opinion.   Free Kachin and junta controlled Kachin.
When I went to Myitkynia (capital of Kachin State) I could understand the overall situation of the Kachin much better.

When I arrived in Myitkynia I tried to speak Jinghpaw (Kachin language) to people at the train station and downtown but none understood Jinghpaw.  It was all Burmese, Chinese and Indians.  It was also hard to find real Kachin food downtown. That made me realize the Kachins are in serious threat of losing their homeland.  

I see the Kachins are fighting in three major fronts, Political, Cultural and Health. The KIO (Kachin Independence Organization) and all Kachins need to keep vigilant on all fronts.  Socially the Kachins are quite strong.  Their clan system of kinship keeps them close and strong.  But the junta's best skill is perhaps dividing and conquering.  With the border guard issue they have already caused some factions among the Kachin cease-fire groups to deepen.  

Considering all the difficulties the Kachins are facing I'm impressed with the level of success they have achieved in Health care and Education.