Sunday, May 23, 2010

People in media : Aung Zaw, editor and director of The Irrawaddy magazine

Aung Zaw, notorious promoter of investigative journalism platform

I often covered and reported in Burma, also known as Myanmar, since mid 80's through difficult and dangerous journeys, crossing borders, mountains, rivers, seas, in harsh conditions to sojourn with warriors, refugees and resistance. I witnessed their harsh daily realities under the iron glove of the military regime, exposed the realities of the jungle based narco-traffic syndicates and human trafficking.

Among many favorable encounters, I met The Irrawaddy. Thanks to well-known Burma journalist-expert Bertil Lintner whom we also invited for a media event in Japan about the reality of this isolated nation between China and the Indian Ocean and thanks to Lintner, reality is better known. Not without dangers.

As many, I acknowledged the quality of The Irrawaddy (as I did with the former version of the "Far Eastern Economic Review") for it is an example of independent, decentralized, quality newsroom top-level magazine working on Burma and Asia region. The Irrawaddy is headquartered in Chiang-Mai, North Thailand.

Not always easy reporting. Burma is an important crossroad of interests, violence, between East and West, each side looking for supremacy of this mountainous isolated and rich territory living under repression. Often reported by the international media about activists such as Nobel Prize Aung San Suu Kyi, or the saffron Monks. All repeatedly exposed their "crying freedom" to an hearing impaired foreign community. But one did listen. His name is Aung Zaw, he is the Editor of the Irrawaddy.

"In 1988, Aung Zaw was a student activist who joined the massive democracy uprising in Rangoon that year. At the time, he was studying botany at Rangoon Hlaing Campus, also known as Regional College Number 2. A year earlier, he and a group of other students had set up an underground network to organize general resistance to authoritarian rule, and the economic and social hardships it was inflicting on the country.

He was arrested on the Rangoon University campus during one of the student rallies against the nominally socialist regime of Gen Ne Win. He was 20. He was detained for a week in Rangoon’s notorious Insein prison, where he was severely tortured during interrogation.

After release from prison, Aung Zaw and his student friends continued to work with other underground student groups. He again took part in student protests when the university campus was reopened in June, 1988.

Tipped off by neighbors, who told him military intelligence officers would soon come to arrest him at his house, he escaped from the capital. From June to September, he hid in remote villages in the countryside, sometimes joining anti-government rallies which by then had spread throughout the country.

He left Burma after the military staged a coup in September that year. Two years later, he founded the Burma Information Group (BIG) in Bangkok, Thailand, to document human rights violations in Burma, including the unlawful detention of members of the democratic opposition and other dissidents and ethnic groups. BIG released several reports on the Burmese situation. It was an independent information group, not affiliated with any political organization. BIG provided news and information to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch Asia and other human rights agencies, as well as Bangkok-based newspapers such as The Nation and The Bangkok Post.

In 1993, Aung Zaw began to write political commentaries for The Nation and Bangkok Post newspapers. He later became a regular correspondent for The Nation. He contributed Burma-related articles and commentaries for the paper until 1997. His articles also appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal, Bangkok Post, and other regional publications. From 1997 to 2005, Aung Zaw worked as a super stringer for the Washington-based Radio Free Asia.

While writing for the Nation in late 1993, Aung Zaw, then 25, launched The Irrawaddy newsmagazine in Bangkok, covering Burma affairs. The English-language, bi-monthly magazine focused solely on developments in Burma.

The Irrawaddy became the first independent news publication not associated with Burmese political dissident groups in exile and in Burma. The magazine subsequently became a monthly publication. It sought to promote press freedom and independent media, and has gained a reputation for balanced, unbiased and in-depth reporting.

Since 1999, the magazine’s coverage has expanded to include other countries in Southeast Asia undergoing transitions to more democratic forms of government. Nevertheless, the magazine has retained its main focus on Burma.

The magazine is a non-profit publication, distributed worldwide to Burma activists groups, NGOs, UN agencies, diplomatic missions, campaign groups, scholars, individuals and institutions with an active interest in Burmese affairs and Southeast Asia.

In 1995-6, The Irrawaddy relocated its office to Chiang Mai, northern Thailand." End of quotes.

Reporting New Realities in Asia: The Ethnic factor

Journalists of Asia recently gathered late April 2010 for the 2nd International Media Conference in Hong Kong. The theme was about "Reporting New Realities in Asia and the Pacific," set by the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Centre.

Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy magazine, said that the prejudice and self-censorship prevailing among journalists about ethnic groups are very real issues. "For our part, we try to bridge this gap by hiring as many ethnic minorities in our staff as possible, not as a token but because it is necessary to give them a voice through the media. The media play an important role in correcting misperceptions and biases... The Burmese media are newbies when it comes to covering the ethnic issue. There is a general lack of understanding among Burmese about ethnic issues and reports are very limited."


Many of Burma's ethnic groups, such as the Karen and Kachin, have long been engaged in separatist movements and comprise 40 percent of the whole Burmese population. For Thailand-based researcher and coordinator of the Canadian International Development Agency's human rights programme, South-east Asia Regional Cooperation in Human Development, Ahmed Abidur Razzque Khan, the media have also turned a blind eye on the plight of the Rohingyas a Muslim ethnic group in west Burma.

"Mae La" refugee camp, Karens try to keep their music alive

"The Burmese and even the Thai media have generally ignored the Rohingyas and have not really gone beyond their reporting of the hundreds of refugees found afloat at sea by Thai authorities in 2008," says Khan. Since then, there have not been any reports about them anymore.

The Rohingyas are not recognized by the military government as Burmese citizens. For the past 20 years, hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas have fled to refugee camps in both the Bangladeshi and Thai borders. Reports say that even at the camps, the Rohingyas suffer from persecution and appalling living conditions.

Karen girls with necks coiled in rings of brass

* The Irrawaddy is Burma's largest river and most important commercial waterway crossing North to South of Burma towards the Andaman sea.

Sources :
and Reporter's notes

VDO of the Shwedagon Pagoda, the Golden Pagoda, in Rangoon / Yangon) by Irrawady multimedia news.

"In January 1946, General Aung San addressed a mass meeting at the stupa, demanding "independence now" from the British with a thinly veiled threat of a general strike and uprising. Forty-two years later, on August 26, 1988, his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi addressed another mass meeting of 500,000 people at the stupa, demanding democracy from the military regime and calling the 8888 Uprising the second struggle for independence."

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