For most of its life, the Irrawaddy Magazine has covered Myanmar from a distance. It was launched in 1993 by a group of exiles living in Thailand. At the time it was impossible for them to report openly in their own country, which is also known as Burma. Things have changed a lot there in the last year, though, and this weekend, for the first time ever, copies of the Irrawaddy's magazine will hit the streets of Myanmar.
It's a significant moment for Kyaw Zwa Moe, the English-language editor for the Irrawaddy "I look forward to seeing our readers inside the country reading the Irrawaddy magazine for the first time in public, legally. That will be a very exciting and wonderful moment for me," he said when I visited him this week at the Irrawaddy's office in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
And he insists that this new edition keeps the tone that had them banned for so long in Myanmar. "We haven't changed anything in this issue," he said. "This is as critical as ever of the government authorities. We try to disclose what we have seen, what we have thought about any issues inside the country."
They do take up prickly subjects—ongoing ethnic violence in the west of the country, fragile ethnic peace in the east, and Myanmar-China relations. The cover shows Barack Obama with his arm around Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader whose picture is now ubiquitous on the country's newsstands—a fact itself unthinkable a few years ago.
Also unthinkable until recently was media of any sort – exile or otherwise – reporting openly in the country. For 50 years the landscape was dominated by state mouthpieces like the New Light of Myanmar, and weekly newspapers under the heavy hand of the censorship office.
But reporting was happening everywhere when we I was there last week. In fact many desks in the Irrawaddy's Chiang Mai office are empty because much of its staff has moved to Yangon, Myanmar's largest city. "I think now we have 20 people in a small office. The office is quite crowded," Kyaw Zwa Moe says, laughing.
A visit to Mizzima another exile publication on the other side of Chiang Mai, found a similar skeleton crew holding down the fort. They said they'd gone from 30 staff here and in India to nearly double that in Yangon. Both publications say they're still testing the waters. Myanmar's government press office stopped pre-publication censorship in August, but watchers say there's a ways to go between here and press freedom.
"All these periodicals still need licenses," says Thiha Saw, a long-time journalist in Yangon and member of a new civilian-led press council. "And every license needs to be renewed at the end of the year. So if they don't like you or your paper, they maybe say, 'Sorry, we can't renew your license – [we're] revoking your license.' Or say suspend your license, 'Your license will be suspended two months, six months'–whatever. The law is still there—the censorship is gone but the old law is still there."
Others worry that media—particularly returning exiles—are tempering their voice in the interest of getting along with the new government.
There doesn't seem to be that much self-censorship, though, in Burma. The week I was there, papers ran regular, graphic images from a government crackdown. On my last day I was surprised to see one go after what people had told me was the last taboo—government corruption.
Kyaw Zwa Moe got a taste of the new in-country media landscape in April. He was back for the first time in 12 years to report on Aung San Suu Kyi's campaign to represent a small township outside of Yangon. He estimates that the night before the election there were 150 journalists covering the event.
He was glad to see this freedom among journalists, and among people he interviewed too.
"They were also quite outspoken at the time, even the old people," he remembers "Actually I still remember I did interview one old woman, she said she was the oldest lady in village. She was also quite outspoken, she said she voted for Aung San Suu Kyi." Now Irrawaddy, Mizzima, and other media companies face a pressure that's new in Myanmar, but familiar elsewhere: trying to turn a profit in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
Newspapers in Mandalay running photos of a government crackdown at a copper mine near the town of Monywa, and Aung San Suu Kyi speaking there soon after the crackdown. (Photo: Bruce Wallace)
Kyaw Zwa Moe, English Edition Editor of the Irrawaddy, with copies of the new edition of the magazine--the first that will be openly distributed in Myanmar. (Photo: Bruce Wallace)
Many desks at the Irrawaddy's Chiang Mai office have been left empty as staffers relocate to Yangon. (Photo: Bruce Wallace)