Published on October 18, 2007
Editor and founder of the Irrawaddy magazine, Aung Zaw, could hardly sleep during September's military crackdown in Burma, and neither could his colleagues.
Over the last seven days of the month the Irrawaddy got 33 million visitors to its website, up from the 12 million it expects in any normal week. The system crashed and the office scrambled for two days to fix it. "My friends kept calling to make sure we were okay - they were scared that something might have happened to me", says Aung Zaw, talking in an interview with The Nation at its Chiang Mai office.
The Irrawaddy relies on citizen reporters inside Burma for its news as well as 30 paid staff. "While reports were coming in from Burma, we could hear gunshots and shouting in the background. Our sources were crying over the telephone, people here in the office, too," says Aung Zaw, adding that "it became easier to get people from inside Burma to talk to us: we have hundreds of contacts, among them businessmen, reporters, government officers, politicians, ambassadors, refugees, close aides to Aung San Suu Kyi and ordinary people".
Such a large number of news sources within Burma has given a window onto the frustration felt over recent events. When demonstrations began just a few weeks ago, the monks and other protestors were full of hope. "Before the military crackdown, the Burmese people were very optimistic, they wanted to see a big change," says Aung Zaw, "but now people are angry and don't see a way forward. They're pessimistic and as far as I can see it may lead them to come out on demonstrations again."
In 1962, the army in Burma led a coup against a democratically elected government. General Ne Win came to power, but has since been replaced by Than Shwe, 74, leader of the junta's State Peace and Development Council. From the economy through to the everyday life of citizens, the junta has maintained an iron grip on every aspect of life in the country.
Over the nearly 20 years since Aung Zaw left Burma, the military there has steadily gained in strength. Currently, Burma has around 450,000 soldiers in its army, ranking it as one of the ten largest in the world.
Studying botany in Rangoon, Aung Zaw encountered violence during the uprising in 1988. He was arrested on campus during one of the student rallies against the nominally socialist regime of Ne Win. The 20-year-old was imprisoned for a week in Rangoon's notorious Insein jail, where he was tortured during interrogation.
The seven days paled next to the nine years in prison his brother suffered, says Aung Zaw, but the experience served to shape his sense of identity and purpose. "We were proud to be in prison - if you look back on the history of Burma, General Aung San [the father of the nation] and just about everyone who's been involved in political protest and the student movement has spent time in prison."
On his release, Aung Zaw went back to working underground with other student groups, and took part in protests again in June 1988. Later that same year, after a tip-off from neighbours that the military was about to arrest him, he escaped Rangoon and left Burma in September.
Two years later, he founded the Burma Information Group in Bangkok to document human rights violations in Burma. In 1993, a 25-year-old Aung Zaw began writing political commentaries for The Nation, but also started the Irrawaddy magazine for a more in-depth coverage of Burma.
"I worked in a windowless room in Bangkok. I had nothing, no money, no equipment. The first donation I got was a computer without a monitor from a journalist friend from Singapore. I got started with a donation of US$100 [Bt3,140].
"It was a good thing I didn't start off rich. I started from zero, from nothing. That's why I'm very proud to be the founder of the publication. It's my baby."
Currently, the Irrawaddy is distributed free worldwide through funding mainly from the US and Europe. Copies from its monthly circulation of 3,000 are delivered to government policy makers, think tanks, NGOs, academics, and businesspeople all over the world. The magazine's coverage isn't limited to domestic affairs but includes Burma's relations with other countries in the region.
Looking back, Aung Zaw can see how his rebellious streak as a child shaped the adult he has become. His mother was an important inspiration and support. "My mother showed great courage. She gave us [Aung Zaw and his brother] guidance. She taught us not to be afraid."
Leaving Burma meant giving up any chance of seeing his mother, and though she passed away in 1995, Aung Zaw holds her close to his heart. The same goes for his fellow protesters. "I admire their courage. I'm very proud of them, especially the women. They're very brave, they face the risk of losing their kids and families."
While the political situation in Burma remains as it is, Aung Zaw and his fellow exiles can't return. But meanwhile, as a journalist he feels he is contributing to his countrymen's fight for freedom and retains hope that a light at the end of the tunnel will appear one day.
"How long and how far can the [the junta] go in their repression..? The Burmese people feel they are not alone and I think they'll keep pushing, keep going."
Special to The Nation
For footage of the interview with Aung Zaw visit http://blog.nationmulti-media.com/monnita.