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 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.
The birth of an independent publication
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.
In 2000, Aung Zaw launched an online news service, providing daily and current news on Burma. Soon after its launch, the online version became widely popular and has since gained an increasing number of readers, as the service is regarded as one of the most credible news services on Burma. Irrawaddy continues to expand its coverage of the affairs of Burma and its neighbors. In recent years, The Irrawaddy has come to be respected as one of the best magazines covering Burmese issues. Commentaries, breaking news and analyses appearing in the magazine and online service are widely quoted and reproduced in regional publications and radio, and international TV stations such as BBC, CNN and CNBC Asia. The magazine is banned in Burma.
One of the aims of the publication is eventually to be able to operate in Burma, where it would not only publish the magazine but promote independent media.
Aung Zaw is now the editor and director of The Irrawaddy magazine, based in Chiang Mai.