Burmese democrats are today marking the anniversary of 8 August 1988 (8-8-88), the highpoint of a large-scale uprising against a one-party state in which hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets and forced the regime’s strongman, Gen. Ne Win, to resign. The hopes of the demonstrators were dashed five weeks later, on 18 September 1988, when the military staged a coup that left 3,000 dead.
To commemorate this sad annivsary, Reporters Without Borders is publishing an interview with the editor of the Burmese exile news magazine Irrawaddy, Aung Zaw, who was forced to flee abroad after the September military coup.
Founded in 1993 as a monthly news magazine by Burmese exile journalists in Bangkok and named after Burma’s biggest river, Irrawaddy has become an essential source of independent news and information about the political and human rights situation in Burma.
Its journalists have never stopped exposing the regime’s despotism and corruption, and the violence it uses in an attempt to silence dissidents.
After 17 years of existence, the magazine is now available online in both English and Burmese but the print version has not been abandoned. Newsletters are distributed to subscribers all over the world and are printed clandestinely in Burma.
Like all of Irrawaddy’s founders, Aung Zaw took part in the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations. “I was a student at the time. My comrades and I participated in this political movement, which was without precedent in Burma. I rubbed shoulders with many leading figures from the Burmese pro-democracy movement during the demonstrations. I soaked up the ideas of these respected journalists and writers. Unfortunately, after the military coup in September of that year, I had to leave Burma. We created Irrawaddy in exile in Thailand. Many former political prisoners soon joined us.”
Tell us about the composition of Irrawaddy’s staff and how it functions?
Aung Zaw: Irrawaddy has its headquarters in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, and employs 35 people, including journalists, video-reporters, photographers, web designers and administrative staff. Our journalists often go to the border to cover Burma-related events.
We also have correspondents in Burma or on the border between Burma and Thailand and Burma and India. A small team of journalists works for us from Burma, enabling us to gather news and information from inside the country as it is happening. The reprisals they could incur force them to work clandestinely. One of our journalists was sentenced to seven years in prison in 1995 just for doing his job as a reporter. We also get information from sources who work for the regime or who are close to it.
Irrawaddy is interested in all subjects – economic, political, social and cultural – both in Burma and the rest of Asia. We provide a lot of coverage of what is happening in Thailand. And we report the persecution and discrimination against Burmese refugees who live in the utterly lawless areas along the border with Burma.
It would be impossible for us to work in the same way inside Burma. There is too much censorship in Burma. Also, many of our journalists are former political prisoners or former students who were pro-democracy activists. They would undoubtedly be arrested if they went back.
Who are Irrawaddy’s readers?
Aung Zaw: Irrawaddy is read by millions of people all over the planet, mainly thanks to our website and our blog. Our articles are read by people in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, all the countries of Southeast Asia and Burma.
We publish in Burmese and in English. Our readers include not only Burmese exiles (Irrawaddy is very popular with the Burmese diaspora) but also NGO workers, the personnel of UN agencies and embassies, government officials, university academics, human rights activists, news media and journalists.
Although censored by the Burmese government, our articles are read in Burma by both the opposition and junta members. The Burmese can also follow our reporting on the satellite TV station DVB, which broadcasts our daily news bulletins (Dateline Irrawaddy), our interviews (Face to Face) and documentaries. Radio Free Asia also broadcasts a weekly political analysis and discussion programme that we host. We are happy to cooperate with media that pursue the same goal as we do, which is to offer independent and freely reported news and information to our fellow citizens in Burma and to the international community.
On the Internet, our readers can circumvent government censorship by using proxies. More than 35,000 Burmese visit the Irrawaddy.org website from within Burma each month. Copies of Irrawaddy are also distributed in certain embassies in Rangoon.
What impact to you think Irrawaddy and all the other Burmese exile media are having on the Burmese authorities, Burmese society and the international community?
Aung Zaw: We are convinced of the importance of the service being provided by Irrawaddy, the other exile media, and the Burmese-language services of media such as the BBC, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. The BBC and VOA, for example, played an essential role before 1988 by informing the international community about what was happening in Burma.
Nowadays, although based in Thailand, Irrawaddy is playing a key role in creating the Burmese society of tomorrow, as are all the Burmese exile media. We are also proud of contributing to the education of young journalists in Burma and refugees along the border.
Change will obviously be slow, but I am convinced that the independent work of Burmese journalists and the way it forces Burmese society to think and to discuss issues will give rise to divisions within the military regime and will lead Burma towards more transparency and democracy.
The Free Burma VJ campaign and Best Friend Library (a non-profit information centre and library) organized a special event at the Sangdee Gallery in the Thai city of Chiang Mai on 6 August to mark the 23rd anniversary of the pro-democracy uprising in Burma. There were approximately 90 participants who were provided with information about the campaign launched by the media in exile Democratic Voice of Burma, for the release of 17 of its video journalists (VJ) who are currently detained in Burma.