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
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A year before, with an old PC and $100 in savings, Aung Zaw had launched The Irrawaddy from his cramped, windowless room in a rundown Bangkok hotel. Named after Burma's largest river, it debuted as a four-page news bulletin. He made several hundred photocopies and distributed them to advocacy groups and embassies.Skip to next paragraph
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"In my simple English, I wrote a project proposal [to an aid agency] asking for $2,000 a year," recalls Aung Zaw, who frequently punctuates his sentences with exclamations. "For several months, nothing! Then they called me and said, 'Can you ask for more?'" He laughs.
But Aung Zaw turns somber in his reminiscences.
His mother, a teashop owner, never got to read the magazine, he laments. She was crushed to death by an Army truck in Rangoon not long after The Irrawaddy launch. "In a letter she wrote me before her death she said, 'We will reunite soon!' " Aung Zaw says. "But I couldn't even attend her funeral."
A slender man with feline features, Aung Zaw sports the kind of ponytail you see on portrait painters in the artistic enclaves of Chiang Mai. His bookshelves groan under works by Turgenev, Chekov, and Camus – testaments to his membership in a literary circle back in Rangoon.
Yet his bohemian exterior masks an imperious resolve: "The day I started The Irrawaddy I declared my independence from party politics."
That didn't please all in the factious Burmese émigré community. Nor has the independent-minded editor made friends by investigating controversies about exile groups, like their alleged extrajudicial murder of suspected government spies along the Thai-Burmese border.
"I'm not very diplomatic when I write," Aung Zaw explains. "But our job as journalists is not to bring down the government but to seek the truth objectively."
Still, objectivity can be a challenge. After his release in 1999, Kyaw Zwa Moe joined his brother in Thailand, working his way up from office boy to managing editor at The Irrawaddy. In 2005 he studied journalism on a scholarship at the University of California, Berkeley.
"I hate those ... generals," he concedes. "But I've learned that you do a disservice to people by [countering propaganda with propaganda]."
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The New Light of Myanmar, meticulously catalogued in The Irrawaddy's library, is a Rangoon-based government daily. It's propagandists periodically congratulates "newly trained" journalists for answering the call of duty.
Kaung Set isn't a journalist the junta has in mind. The journalist writes for government publications by day and, using that pen name, secretly works for The Irrawaddy on the side.
"Journalism is an unknown concept in Burma," says Kaung Set during a visit to the magazine's offices here before slipping back into Burma. "Whenever I write I'm thinking constantly how I can get past the censors – even if it's only about fashion."
While soldiers beat, shot, and arrested monks and peaceful protesters in September at the Shwedagon Pagoda, the country's holiest site, The Irrawaddy correspondent surreptitiously took photos and e-mailed them to The Irrawaddy – facing 20 to 30 years in prison on charges of sedition, if caught.
"If we don't do it, no one will know what's happening to us," the reporter stresses. "For us, truth is more precious than gold."
Last year, an Irrawaddy contact was sentenced to seven years in prison. Yet messages and photos keep pouring in.
A new e-mail pops up on Aung Zaw's computer. Its attachment is a handwritten letter penned in squiggly Burmese script. Desperate to tell his story, a Burmese man had it scanned and sent to the editor from a secure Internet connection.
"The flow of information is unstoppable," Aung Zaw says. "It's very hard to remove the mountain, but we've started shoveling."