A Burmese dissident magazine based in Thailand relies on thousands of Burmese contacts reporting from inside the sealed country
Chiang Mai, Thailand
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.
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