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The Irrawaddy: All the news that Burma deems unfit to print

A Burmese dissident magazine based in Thailand relies on thousands of Burmese contacts reporting from inside the sealed country

By Tibor KrauszCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 7, 2007

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Aung Zaw got his first taste of publishing two decades ago in the kitchen of his family's home in the old Burmese capital of Rangoon. A student of botany protesting his country's jackbooted military regime to the alarm of his mother, Aung Zaw began producing samizdat leaflets at night on an antiquated printing cylinder operated as if rolling dough.

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Arrest, torture, and a stint in jail followed. As the Burmese pro-democracy uprising of 1988 was being crushed by the ruling junta and thousands were being killed, Aung Zaw, disguised as a monk, escaped through the land-mined jungles of Burma (Myanmar) to Thailand. Here, he made a discovery – the "magic of the fax machine," as he puts it. Presently, he was back in business, dispatching reports about his compatriots' plight to human rights groups.

Now, a mere fax seems ancient beside the top-notch office tools of Aung Zaw's current project: The Irrawaddy. Based in Thailand, the English-language print and online newsmagazine offers coverage of Burma and its iron-fisted military junta. The once penniless refugee now oversees a $500,000-a-year media operation, funded largely by European Union governments.

Aung Zaw crosses his arms and claps himself on both shoulders, saying, "A heavy responsibility weighs on these." Then gesturing around the newly furbished newsroom in this city in mountainous northern Thailand, he adds: "I never thought I'd come so far!"

Burma's secretive generals probably wish he hadn't.

The Irrawaddy's reporters draw on a clandestine network of sources several thousand strong across tightly policed Burma, from shop owners to disgruntled officials who communicate via phone, e-mail, courier, and meetings snatched at border crossings. The journalists also parse the regime's propaganda statements for insight.

Earlier this year, Aung Zaw obtained a secret video of the wedding of strongman General Than Shwe's daughter – an alleged $300,000 affair bankrolled by arms-dealing and drug-trafficking cronies. The leaked video enraged impoverished, long-suffering Burmese citizens, most of whom languish on less than $1 a day.

In September when Buddhist monks, riled by skyrocketing prices, took to Rangoon streets in silent protest, Aung Zaw began working the phones frantically. For days, he says, he was interviewing and being interviewed (by foreign media) often simultaneously. When the crackdown began, he recalls. "We were speaking to a stringer on his mobile. Just then the soldiers started shooting protesters."

Such immediate access made The Irrawaddy's website, constantly updated daily in both English and Burmese, a must for people seeking news from the hermetically sealed country. Hits on the site, says office manager Win Thu, jumped threefold to 39 million a week ... until a cyber-attack brought it down for days.

"Censorship in Burma is tighter than ever," says Zin Linn, a former political prisoner who works as media director for a shadow government of Burmese exiles in Bangkok. "But The Irrawaddy is on the side of truth and dedicated to finding out facts on the ground. Often, people from Burma ask me what The Irrawaddy says is happening in their country.

• • •

In 1994, Kyaw Zwa Moe was serving a 10-year sentence in Rangoon's notorious Insein Prison. His crime: posting antigovernment notices in his high school's lavatories as a 16-year-old student. Political prisoners were forbidden to read anything except propaganda sheets. "They wanted to imprison our minds," notes Kyaw Zwa Moe, now The Irrawaddy's managing editor. Yet he kept returning with relish to a screed denouncing a Burmese émigré in Thailand for publishing "lies." The "traitor" was his older brother, Aung Zaw. "I knew immediately," he recalls, chuckling, "if the government was denouncing him, Aung Zaw was on the right track."