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Exclusive Iv. With Exiled Burmese Editor Aung Zaw

Scoop Exclusive:

Exiled Burmese Editor Aung Zaw on journalism, geo-politics and his brutalised country

Burmese journalist Aung Zaw printed the first copy of Irrawaddy magazine on a black and white photocopier in Bangkok 15 years ago. The English-language monthly is now distributed around the world and read by politicians and decision makers in the US and Europe. Zaw has been editor since the magazine’s inception and now employs a large team of journalists. Many are Burmese exiles like himself and, like Zaw, many fled to Thailand after the military junta cracked down on the democracy protests of 1989. Spike Mountjoy and Joseph Barratt caught up with Aung Zaw at the magazine’s busy headquarters in the Northern Thai city of Chang Mai. They began by asking him about the challenges of getting information out of Burma.

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Aung Zaw editor of Irrawaddy magazine

Read an abridged version of the interview here, or listen to the full version below.

Aung Zaw: There are a lot of people here [he gestures out to the newsroom] working with the stringers and the sources inside Burma; calling them everyday, meeting them in person, when they come here or when we go there. We can’t go there ourselves so we send the stringers, the correspondents, inside the country. We meet people on the border areas and also people come out and meet us.

Every day we get new stories through email, talk with them by phone, verifying sources, check with the sources, that’s what we do, our top priority is to seek the truth, not for the regime change, that's not our business. To make it clear, we are the same as any other media or publishing group in the world. Our ultimate goal is to tell the truth not to distort the truth.

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You need to verify a lot because there are a lot of rumours, a lot of half baked stories, that come out anytime any day, we are very careful. That’s why the credibility we have built up over the last 15 years is very high. I cannot let loose, it's like a bullet train - within a split second it could run away from you, once you start to publish false news and rumours. We are very honest with our readers to make correction, fact checking. We are very careful - that's why we are at the top. I will safely say, proudly say, that we are at the top because we maintain our integrity and quality control.

“Citizen Reporters”

Scoop: Are most of your stringers qualified, trained journalists?

Aung Zaw: Well, qualifying or disqualifying I couldn't tell you, you make a judgement for yourself. I think they're all trained journalists, yes we do give them training people who come out, get training - come out and go back. Everyone has a month or two intensive training, some people went to Berkley, studied and came back.

Scoop: So you don't use citizen journalists as much as some of the broadcast media coming out of Burma?

Aung Zaw: I don't know. It is a very tricky term, to call them citizen reporters. Who calls them citizen reporters/citizen journalists? We trained journalists do. I don't think they are calling themselves citizen reporters. When we are receiving tens of thousands of images I don't see anybody saying, "I am a citizen reporter - I am sending you news, I am sending you images”. No, I think these are just names we are calling them. Actually Irrawaddy was one during the crisis that gave them the name citizen reporters and journalists.

In my office I can safely say that we [staff reporters and citizen reporters] are friends, I don't think there is any hostility. There are some other agencies that see citizen reporters with a question, "are they doing news, are they professionals?” Of course not. But if you look at Katrina, if you look at 9-11, if you look at the London bombings, if you look at the September uprising in Burma, if you look at the Tsunami, I don't think any established international media are prepared to be there – because they don’t have any idea if something’s going to happen in the World Trade Centre, at Phuket beach.

All the citizen reporters were there, they sent in some images which were not very good - not as good as a trained photographer. If he or she were there he or she would take great pictures but if you look at the London bombing, when the double-decker was blown up, that picture went everywhere throughout the world. That was not taken by a professional photographer, it was taken by an onlooker who shot it with a cell phone. The BBC made a judgement – it has news value. The same thing in the streets of Rangoon, the photos are alright, usable, run-able, authentic, genuine, that's why CNN and Al Jazeera, Irrawaddy - we all use them because we don't have anyone there.

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Rangoon before the cyclone

Talking freely – communications and the uprising

Scoop: Did you have any trouble with your reporters being arrested or losing equiptment during the uprising?

Aung Zaw: No, no they were fine, they were fine – we're very careful not to talk too much about them because I don't want to . . . we've got to protect them up most. They are risking their lives and they're doing a great job – staying there, working for us, travelling a lot, sending images, sending stories to us – working very hard.

Scoop: I understand some stringers had their mobile phone accounts disconnected during the uprising – Did that then make it much harder to get information out?

“I remember people were crying because when they started shooting on the streets of Rangoon we got live phone, and then those that receive the information are just stressed out, you can see tears in their eyes, as the recorder’s rolling.”

Aung Zaw: People are very, very, very careful, but people are very, very, very, very brave. I got mixed feelings during the crisis. I remember people were crying because when they started shooting on the streets of Rangoon we got live phone, and then those that receive the information are just stressed out, you can see tears in their eyes, as the recorder’s rolling. You can see people crying. On the other side they're talking to you 'they started shooting' I thought very, very brave that they sent us live coverage, and then later by memory stick, and then the phone went off, disconnected.

So afraid to use a cell phone you cannot call, sometimes with the G-Talk some of the days, even the last two or three weeks some of the days they say ‘today's not safe, not talk today . . . it's not safe anymore.’ Because it is not like here, we are not sitting in their homes. People go into the internet cafe and looking over shoulders while they're typing something. It's not their homes not like you and me. Imagine how they do it. It's difficult, very difficult for them. They came out recently and I met them in person, bloggers, citizen reporters. I was very impressed, the technology they've been learning, the proxy settings, the energy to learn. But they don't trust anything, even the g-mail, they think it has been decoded. One told me "the password has been changed". And then the trainer, who is non-Burmese couldn't understand, how could the Burmese officials enter the password and then change everything and disconnect it.

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The result of an attempt to access a restricted website (ie; gmail) inside Burma

So I think there has been a counter attack in policing and watching, very serious counter survalliance on citizen reporters and cyber residents coming into force, that’s how I feel it. But there are still a lot of loopholes there. If there are no loopholes we won't be able to talk. We have been able to talk a lot, every now and then. The phone is hopeless. I can make a phone call now right now and I talk to someone, particularly those very well known journalists living in Rangoon who talk. I speak to one almost every day. They are very careful, they know the phone is being tapped and listened in to. We use language that is vague or ambiguous but sometimes we talk very openly about how we feel, what we think of these policies – analyse. Sometimes you are talking at the wall you feel like you are three people talking on the phone, it's not just two person, because one is listening. But sometimes he lets it go, you couldn't help, because you got to talk - you talk. How many people killed for instance, you know, not normal situations. You got to talk. You got a raid, you got to make a phone call, 'how many people arrested? It's taking place at that location, how many were killed?’ This is using a landline that’s been tapped but we don't have a choice. I have a choice, but these people have no choice – they are taking a risk.

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Tatmadaw is the Burmese armed forces

Scoop: Do the Burmese authorities act on this information?

Aung Zaw: If they're going to arrest they're going to have thousands of people. Let me tell you – people have been very, very outspoken over the last five months. People talk, people talk, without their names people talk so openly, it's unbelievable the amount of communication, the amount of information that people dare to share with you.

Scoop: Have you found it more difficult to get news out of Burma since the September uprising?

Aung Zaw: It's the same. We’ve got more news, but in terms of internet speed it's getting slow. They reduce the bandwidth so it is harder to send images and photos from inside, but you can still get lots.

Scoop: Do you think the regime is scared of communication?

Aung Zaw: I never see the regime as very talkative [laughs] or a good communicator. They are incommunicado as always for the last twenty years. Likewise they also don't want other people to be too talkative.

In 2004 when Prime Minister Khin Nyunt was removed they shut down everything first - then they arrested. They stop everything first then they contain him. Are they afraid of communication? I would say it is unstoppable, it is out of control. Yes, to some extent they could control but it is inevitable it is going to open, it's going to expand. Whatever way they can the Burmese people are going to communicate, inside, outside, among each other, I don't think they could control it, no way.

Scoop: Do you think that the demonstrations in September have had any kind of lasting positive consequences?

"Whoever came out on the streets, challenged the military, proved those apologists – those who think that Burmese people are cowered into submission, who thought that this government has total control, who thought that this democracy is over - all of them wrong. That, I think, is the lasting positive result, that Burma and Burmese people got with their sacrifice."

Aung Zaw: Well I think in terms of immediate change no, we want to see change in the country and we want to get some result because of this bloody crackdown right, because of these lives, people, being lost. And we are sure that they deserve more, the people. But in terms of lasting positive result – it is whoever came out on the streets, challenged the military, proved those apologists, those who think that Burmese people are cowered into submission, who thought that this government has total control, who thought that this democracy is over - all of them wrong. That, I think, is the lasting positive result, that Burma and Burmese people got with their sacrifice. Because the apologists of the regime, inside and outside the country, governments in the region, beyond the region, who supported the military, engagement, trade, completely failed to listen to the voices of the Burmese people. Now they came out and they were all shocked, they all changed. A lot of people changed I think. A lot of people who belonged to that camp changed. The refrained from making silly statements and started looking.

But who’s reading?

Scoop: Is the sole purpose of the magazine to seek out the truth, as you said
Earlier, or does it also have a practical political application inside Burma?

Aung Zaw: This uprising, this bloody crackdown, this massacre, how we shape it, I mean we are not only the news provider but also we are giving policy guidance to international players on Burma. You know the White House reads our stuff, those in Brussels, those in New Zealand, I mean policy makers, ambassadors, whether you love it or hate it, you got to read it - you got to read it because you want to know what's going on. It provides you the analysis, not only news but in-depth analysis, editorials, what should be done in Burma, we do give guidance so people can form opinions on Burma. That’s the role we play, we shape the opinions of the international movers and shakers, including those in the White House, Laura Bush, your Prime Minister, recently we wrote an editorial about her. So that is what we
do – policy on aid, policy on sanctions, policy on humanitarian assistance and ASEAN engagement.

Scoop: Compared to other media organizations focussing on Burma you have quite a small audience or readership inside the actual country . . .

Aung Zaw: Our target audience is not inside our target audience is outside. Because Irrawaddy is sitting here going there - going there means North America, New Zealand, Australia, South East Asia and Europe – that's our targets. If people there [in Burma] read it either online or in print, that's fine. Now, over the last five years, it's going inside also. We have solid copies through the two embassies in Rangoon, the UK and US embassies. They all reach to the readers. Even if you can deliver one copy in Burma, you know what people do? They copy it and they read it – Xerox machines. We got over 600 copies going inside that means 600 people receive it, then they copy it.

We have website updates every day and we got 39 million hits after and during the crisis. Before we got 12 million hits with 80 000 unique visitors a month. But during it peaked at 39-40 million, it's going down now 25-20 million, it's now going like that. I don't think it's going back to 12 million, it will be 20 million hits a month, it's likely to increase more. We have over 180 000 unique visitors. That's a lot, that's a lot. The top country is North America, the second country's always changing, sometimes European countries or Australia, surprisingly Thailand is always hanging around third, or second sometimes.

Helen, Kordia and the Junta

Scoop: We read your editorial about Kordia [A New Zealand state-owned company involved in telecommunications development with the Burmese government]


“In 1988 I was there, I was a student activist, we couldn't send anything outside a lot of people got killed, 3000 got killed . . .but no-one knew.”

Aung Zaw: I think the editorial, written by the editorial members here, is about showing the two sides. Burma has been banished by sanctions. I make clear that the generals deserve punishment, no argument about it, but Burmese people who suffer under the government for so long – they deserve better treatment. Not only to feed their tummy, but also they need to develop a lot in terms of the individual, to confront . . . to challenge the military. Because the military want us to be poor and uneducated so they can control the society and populations. I don't want to see that, the more they destroy us the more we got to get educated. I'm not talking about going to Harvard or Berkeley, I'm talking about individual civil society groups. They all work better if they go equip with cell phones, communications, if you look at the immediate cost after the September uprisings, if there's no cell phones, if there's no memory sticks, if there's no computer or internet connection, you wouldn't know, I wouldn't know anything about what happened on the streets, its very important. In 1988 I was there, I was a student activist, we couldn't send anything outside a lot of people got killed, 3000 got killed . . .but no-one knew. But now we got three days of shooting, two days of shooting, we got over one thousand, thousands of images come out, why? Because technology made a fundamental change – transferring the images – that's why the argument is ‘don't shoot the messengers’.

It's important, but also the Prime Minster, Helen, she shouldn't come out with a niave assumption that ‘oh we got more cell phones, we got more computers so that people are able to provide information.’ If you look at that it is very superficial. It's right, its not wrong, but the government is also able to cut down the communication. They did, they cut down the whole thing, they black out the whole country and they killed the people, and they still could. It could still happen. Australia used to train human rights officials. They tried. Actually a lot of people give them a warning, careful - don't be to nieve! You think that they are going to change? You think that the leopard will change its spots? But a few years later the [Burmese] government came out and attacked Aung San Suu Kyi. So hell broke out, and where are the trainees, where is the respect for human rights? Don't be to nieve. But at the same time, yes people need help.

Scoop: If they had asked you before they had gone ahead with the construction what would you have advised?

Aung Zaw: I shouldn't say, I won't dictate. I would say, think twice. I would say think carefully make an informed decision about what should be done with Burma. And also timing is different. Right after the killing, are they going to invest? If there is no crisis, take out the crisis are they going to invest I think that would be less controversial. But nowadays it is very controversial because of just only five months after the killings and your going to do investment there?

"Helen, she should look at the broader picture – read our editorial."

Helen, she should look at the broader picture - read our editorial, she might have done it now, but my point is put things in perspective, otherwise she will look bad - she's fine actually, in terms of standing on Burma policy in the past, but if she start defending the company decision without taking consideration of the other aspects of the problems in our country then she look bad, she should take a very balanced approached.

Referendum on the constitution – a road-map dead end?

Scoop: Are you optimistic about the upcoming referendum on the constitution?

Aung Zaw: No. I remain very sceptical. I remain very pessimistic. By nature I'm a very sceptical person – that's why I became a journalist.

Scoop: Do you think it is a public relations stunt?

Aung Zaw: No, it's not. You can take it in a different direction, you know, their hands are forced, they are forced to make a decision. But still this is the road map, if you look at the seven-point road map this is part of it. They are not sidestepping – they are not changing anything. They are going their way, they are following it step by step. So there’s nothing that we can be optimistic about. Only to remain very sceptical, to be watching what will happen you know. But the government has been forced to make a decision, which is a good thing if you know how to exploit it, how to take advantage, or if you really know the soft spot of the government, if you know where to hit, if you know where to attack, if you know the weakness – then you can really attack the enemy, But if you don't have any idea, then you’re losing. That's why I think inside and outside forces that want to see change, they’ve got to find a way out, if they think this is a soft spot, this is the area we got to hit, then go and hit it – have a one united policy. I think a lot of people outside of Burma who are very well meaning on Burma, including maybe the New Zealand Government, have no clue, have no united policies, they all talking different policies and the government in Burma, and the military, is able to exploit all of us because they know that we don’t have one united policy for how to deal with the regime, the regime's able to exploit it, between ASEAN and the West, between China and ASEAN, between China and America, between EU and America, so they able to exploit all of us.

Scoop: That is hard to overcome, people have different ideas about how to bring about change, and different interests.

Aung Zaw: It's always going to be that way, it's not going to change, the Whitehouse will take a very harsh stance – megaphone diplomacy sometimes – some people will be very different.


Scoop: You said before that you make a bit off subscriptions but you also need some NGO's to help out with money, you were saying the Whitehouse and the politicians in the UK also read your paper – do you get money from those countries as well?

Aung Zaw: We have to depend on foundations, I don't think we can survive on subscriptions. Since day one we have had many small grants. Not from the White House, no way. But from the National Endowment for Democracy, NED, you can check their website, they're one of the biggest supporters of the Burmese democracy movement. So we got money from them, also from the EU, not from New Zealand, not from Australia, not from China, not from Russia. Not from Cuba. Irrawaddy is non-profit, we have maybe six or seven donors who share the core funding, that's how we survive.

Burma, Democracy and the US

Scoop: Why do you think the US is such a strong supporter of the Burmese
democracy movement?

Aung Zaw: Burma is not Iraq, Burma is not Afghanistan, or the US. You can take a very high moral ground when talking about Burma, it's very clear-cut from the stand point of human rights and democracy.

"OK fine we disagree with the US but if you take out the US who's left? You have China, you have Russia selling nuclear reactors, France with Total . . . if there is no US, take it away, what do you have; China? India? – no friend left.”

We don't have suicide bombers, we don't have a jihad, we don't have extremism, we are pretty much a mellow, Buddhist, democracy-loving people. You can take a stance on Burma, pretty soft. Last year the Whitehouse has taken a very serious look, started thinking seriously about the reasoning, about how to bring about change. Which may be a good thing. Because there are a lot of criticisms about the US, we all know it, not just on Burma but all foreign policies. OK fine we disagree with the US but if you take out the US who's left? You have China, you have Russia selling nuclear reactors, France with Total, [French Oil company with heavy investment in the country] you got ASEAN. So I think in that case the US is playing a positive role, whether you disagree or not with Iraq policies or Afghanistan.

Scoop: It seems many other US policy actions have strong self-interest at the heart of their motivations. Is this so with Burma?

Aung Zaw: I think Burma has been very, very easy - but also it has been very helpful, you won't believe it if you are a very strong critic of the US, but it has been very helpful because if there is no US, take it away, what do you have; China, India – no friend left.

Scoop: Perhaps they're looking to the future to a potential strong democratic ally in the region when the regime is gone?

Aung Zaw: Lets put aside conspiracy theory, we can think as long as we want about this - pulling the tail of China, the dragon tail, because Burma is south. So far I think it's pretty good. In the past there was a lot of lip service by the US administration, I don't think I was very happy. But I think it has become very consistent, which reinforced the new inspiration for change, its also counter balanced those who want to advocate constructive engagement it's also counterbalanced those who want to just do nothing, counterbalanced those who are wishy-washy because the US is watching. There may be a new president next year, sure, but Burma policy won't change. Whoever comes into power it's not going to change, it's going to be stronger.


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