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.
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.
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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."
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.
"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."