TODAY -

Speaking Truth to Burma
- The junta cannot be allowed to win its war against the journalists who resist its tide of lies -

Aung Zaw *

It's a sad thing to watch your country die a slow death. This is what is happening in Burma today, and like millions of other Burmese living in exile, I am alternately depressed, disgusted and outraged by what I see. It is as if the blood that was spilled when the current military junta seized power in 1988 has never stopped flowing.

Elections held late last year - Burma's first in more than 20 years - were an attempt to staunch this hemorrhaging with a flimsy gauze of lies. It was no coincidence that the country's ruling generals announced their plans to hold these elections soon after brutally cracking down on the "Saffron Revolution," the monk-led mass demonstrations of September 2007. Something had to be done to erase the unsightly images of blood-soaked bodies.

Although a handful of overseas "Burma experts," junta apologists and well-meaning but uninformed humanitarian aid workers will tell you otherwise, Burma is not on the road to recovery after the beating it received over the past two decades. Any impartial Burmese will tell you that the country is still in the throes of social and economic decline. The junta's new era of "disciplined democracy" only forestalls the next political crisis or outbreak of ethnic-based civil war.

As painful as it is to know all this, however, there is no sense averting our eyes or burying our heads in the sand. Indeed, the evidence that Burma is bleeding to death is all around us, in the faces of the estimated two million Burmese who have fled to Thailand to escape persecution or poverty.

Luckily, millions of Burmese both within Burma and around the world are fighting back. As the editor of The Irrawaddy, a magazine that is named for a river that is symbolic of Burma's long and often tortured history, I have tried to fight back in my own way, by joining forces with other exiled journalists to resist a tide of lies with a river of information about what is really happening inside the country.

We make no apologies for believing that journalists must tell the truth, and not simply present different versions of the facts put out by various interested parties. We don't take sides on the basis of political affiliation - we have found fault with Burma's pro-democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, and her party, the National League of Democracy, as well as with the junta and a host of other stakeholders - but we will always come out on the side of those with the courage to speak the simple, honest truth.

It hasn't always been easy. Recently we came to the difficult decision to end publication of our print magazine - our signature product since our founding in 1993 - to commit more of our limited resources to reaching wider audiences both inside Burma and abroad. In addition to our Burmese - and English-language websites and blog, we are producing a television program for the Democratic Voice of Burma and a radio program for the Washington-based Radio Free Asia.

For all these efforts, The Irrawaddy depends on support from international donors. This means that we have always had more than our fair share of financial ups and downs. Overall, though, we have continued to grow, from two or three reporters barely getting by on a couple thousand dollars in 1993 to a staff of around five dozen now, with reporters both inside and outside Burma working on a budget last year of nearly $1 million. While we acknowledge that we are far from financially self-sufficient, we have always guarded our editorial autonomy, and most of our donors have respected this.

Recently, however, we have seen disturbing signs that some in the donor community are abandoning our side amid the junta's war of attrition against its critics and opponents. Last year one of our donors circulated an email to fellow donors, without our knowledge, announcing that it had decided we were no longer worthy of its support. The email accused us of being a "donor stooge" - language that echoes that of the regime's official mouthpieces, which were quick to pick up this "news" and declare our imminent demise.

We are not alone in feeling the chill from some donors who have decided their money would be better spent within Burma. While we continue to enjoy solid support from most of our long-time donors, there is a dangerous trend among some others to buy into the junta's line that assisting exiled civil society groups and refugee organizations is merely prolonging Burma's conflict. The elections, they say, point the way forward.

Do they really believe this? It's difficult to imagine any intelligent observer of the situation inside Burma today actually accepting the notion that the election was anything other than a complete farce. And yet, incredibly, some in the West are now criticizing us for our "negative" take on the elections and our efforts to expose some of the shady junta-affiliated organizations now posing as potential "partners" for international donors. It is perhaps the ultimate irony of Burmese journalism that some of my colleagues inside Burma - where draconian censorship is the norm and reporters are routinely locked up - commiserate with me for having to be a bearer of bad news that some in the "free" world simply don't want to hear.

Journalists inside Burma know, but can't report, that the recent wave of "privatization" inside Burma is nothing more than the formal transfer of the country's wealth to a few dozen junta cronies or relatives of top generals, and not a sign of economic reform. And so it falls to us to reveal, for instance, that for every major investment these self-styled entrepreneurs make, hundreds or even thousands of people are summarily evicted from their homes. No inside media will report that the generals' sons and daughters confiscate state-owned prime spots and buildings in Rangoon, for instance, or that junta cronies are stashing millions of dollars in Singaporean banks and buying expensive condominiums overseas.

The generals would like to think that our days are numbered, but they are wrong. It is not funding from the West that sustains us, but the desperate desire of the people of Burma to hear the truth told about their country. As long as the regime continues to deny them their right to know, our own struggle will continue.




** Mr. Aung Zaw is founder and editor of The Irrawaddy magazine. He received the Prince Claus Award for Journalism in 2010.. The sender can be contacted at kim[at]burmacentredelhi[dot]org . This article was posted on February 02, 2011.

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