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
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.
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
Aung Zaw is now the editor and director of The Irrawaddy magazine, based in Chiang Mai.