After Burmese troops fired on democracy demonstrators in August 1988, Aung Zaw, a student who had already been jailed for helping to publish pro-democracy pamphlets, fled into the jungle. Seventeen years later he has yet to return home. Aung Zaw, a pseudonym, is a senior member of a vibrant community of Burmese journalists in exile in neighboring Thailand. In 1992, he established the Irrawaddy newsletter on a shoestring budget of $2,000 with one desktop computer. Irrawaddy has outgrown its humble format and is now published as a glossy news magazine with a monthly circulation of more than 3,000 copies, many of which are spirited into news-starved Burma. “Then people were looking for something independent that wasn’t associated with any particular opposition group,” says Aung Zaw, who is also chief editor. “That’s what we deliver: In-depth, unbiased coverage of Burma affairs.”
Once the pioneer, Irrawaddy is no longer alone. In recent years more than a dozen Burma-focused publications have sprouted across Thailand, India, and Bangladesh. Many of the Thailand-based publications have an ethnic twist: Kao Wao, The Kachin Post, and The Shan Herald Agency for News all report in their respective ethnic dialects and focus on issues relevant to their home regions.
Exile-run publications fill an important news gap, particularly in Burma’s lawless ethnic territories. Some papers track abuses in the decades-old conflict between the military and ethnic insurgents. In ceasefire areas, exile publications focus on illegal logging, illicit drug production, and forced relocations of the local population. Barred from distributing inside Burma, all of the exile-run news publications rely on outside donor funding. The U.S. National Endowment for Democracy and the Dutch-run nongovernmental organization Noviv are among foreign donors that have pledged funds to Irrawaddy.
Exiled journalists from Burma, however, still stand on shaky ground, particularly in Thailand. Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has implemented a more conciliatory policy toward Burma than his predecessors, and the Burmese junta has publicly lobbied him to close exile publications in exchange for commercial concessions in Burma.