Burma’s River of News
The Irrawaddy, Vol. 14, No. 2, March 2006, Chiang Mai Democracy in the fledgling republic of Burma was brought to a halt 44 years ago, when the military took control of the country in a coup. Since then, the political situation in the Southeast Asian nation has played like an endless video loop of oppressive ...
The Irrawaddy, Vol. 14, No. 2, March 2006, Chiang Mai
The Irrawaddy, Vol. 14, No. 2, March 2006, Chiang Mai
Democracy in the fledgling republic of Burma was brought to a halt 44 years ago, when the military took control of the country in a coup. Since then, the political situation in the Southeast Asian nation has played like an endless video loop of oppressive stagnation. Tyrannical generals use violence and intimidation to cling to power; pro-democracy opponents languish in Gulag-style prisons; like-minded regimes in Beijing and Pyongyang keep the country afloat with military and financial flows; and Western and Asian governments are at odds on what to do. Inside Burma, officially known as Myanmar, the domestic press is censored and controlled by the state. And for the international media who occasionally take notice, the story is sadly the same as five or even 10 years ago. Recent political events only confirm the status quo. The military junta has rejected new international calls to release pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, ignored a push by the Bush administration to bring it before the U.N. Security Council, and rebuffed diplomatic pressure from its neighbors to move toward democracy.
So how do you cover a story that doesn’t change? The monthly news magazine The Irrawaddy has found a way to penetrate the hermetically sealed country by relying on an underground network of contacts and informers. "They cover everything from politics to music to social life," says Roby Alampay, executive director of the Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance. "It’s a slice of what life is like in Burma."
It’s not easy to find that slice. Burma rarely grants visas to Western journalists, and foreign media within the country can only hire local journalists (who are targets of intimidation). So it’s something of a mystery how The Irrawaddy, which is based across the border in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, keeps churning out exclusives on power struggles within the junta, armed minority rebel groups, health issues such as HIV/AIDS, and the mood of the revered Buddhist clergy, to name but a few key issues. "We send people in (clandestinely)," says Aung Zaw, the founder and editor of the magazine. "We use Western sources, too." They usually pose as tourists, and if caught, they are usually expelled.
The Irrawaddy also has multiple sources — from academics to monks to sympathetic civil servants and military personnel — who are scattered throughout Burma and turn over information and documents. "Despite the fact that we can’t physically be there," says Aung Zaw, "there’s a lot of information coming out of Burma these days." The risks are high. Ten years ago, a Burmese friend of Aung Zaw’s was caught sending him information and sentenced to seven years in prison.
The publication has come a long way since Aung Zaw created an amateurish, four-page newsletter 14 years ago. Today, The Irrawaddy, which is named after the river where Burmese civilization began, is a slick, glossy, color magazine with an international circulation of 3,000. That number may sound low, but its impact is high. "Because so little is known about what takes place inside the country," says John Brandon, director of international relations programs for the Asia Foundation, "The Irrawaddy is invaluable for outside observers who want to gain a nuanced sense of what is taking place inside." Aung Zaw makes sure that heavy hitters in foreign governments, the United Nations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) receive copies. "The key is they’re reading the magazine," he says. "I don’t think they agree with us all the time, but they can’t ignore us." The magazine is published in English — a deliberate strategy to reach the widest possible audience about Burma’s plight. Its Web site, www.irrawaddy.org, is in English and Burmese and garners an impressive 47,000 unique visitors each month. The junta, which monitors e-mail and Internet content, has banned the site, but Burmese can still access it using proxy servers. In addition, 500 copies of the magazine are surreptitiously brought into Burma each month and distributed to diplomats living there.
Burma’s junta has labeled The Irrawaddy a tool of the West. The magazine is a nonprofit that survives on grants from international groups such as the National Endowment for Democracy and financier George Soros’s Open Society Institute, plus a handful of European governments and NGOs. Its staff of 24 includes Thais and Westerners, as well as exiled Burmese. Many of the Burmese reporters are former activists at risk of arrest if they return. But Aung Zaw emphatically denies any bias. The Irrawaddy staff is forbidden from belonging to any Burmese opposition group, which has created some resentment within the community of activists, intellectuals, and former student leaders based in Thailand. On several occasions, other publications have implied that it is "dissident media" or an "anti-Burma magazine." The Irrawaddy is quick to remind them that it is independent.
Certainly, the magazine publishes articles that often portray the ruling junta in a bad light. But Aung Zaw points out that it also prints negative stories about the numerous exiled pro-democracy groups and armed independent movements that base themselves in Bangkok and along the Thai-Burmese border. "We’ve written critical articles about Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy," he says. "We are independent Burmese journalists. It’s not our job to bring down the government — that’s [the pro-democracy groups’] business."
Although it’s true that The Irrawaddy criticizes all parties, it does largely maintain an understandable anti-junta stance. Take, for example, the magazine’s March edition. In the cover story, titled "The Rise and Rise of Burma’s Military," the magazine provides in-depth analysis and fresh reporting on the stability of the junta. Despite infighting among mid-level officers and low morale in the ranks, the military, led by the indefatigable Gen. Than Shwe, is not about to loosen its grip on power. Aung Zaw makes a compelling case but falls victim to his habit of peppering what was supposed to be an objective news story with statements such as, "The lives of ordinary Burmese people have not improved in any discernible way," without any socioeconomic data to support them. The magazine’s analysis is spot on, but the staff’s enduring anger against the junta is still present in its pages.
For now, Aung Zaw and his staff have enough on their plates just being Burma’s foremost independent news source. They have endured threats from the junta, harassment from Thai authorities, and financial constraints in putting out the magazine. But they make no apologies for their product. "We don’t distort figures on killings or the HIV/AIDS [epidemic], but the junta still hates us," Aung Zaw says. "That’s not our fault. It’s their fault." Which makes The Irrawaddy’s reporting something refreshingly new about Burma.
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