When Burmese exile Aung Zaw, founder of the newsmagazine the Irrawaddy, went home for the first time in 24 years, he expected attention. Since he fled to Thailand in 1988, the erstwhile student protester has become one of the most admired exiled journalists. What he didn’t expect, though, was adulation from immigration officials. “Inside the airport, a young immigration officer smiled as I gave him my passport,” he writes in an essay about his homecoming. “Meanwhile, the people waiting in line behind me grew impatient as they were made to wait until my friendly interrogation was finally over.”
A year ago, talk of a “friendly” interrogation at Rangoon’s airport might be interpreted as a dark joke. But Burma is changing, fast.When a nominally civilian government came to power last year, few had faith that reform was on the way. Since then, President Thein Sein has taken real steps: freeing political prisoners, signing peace agreements with ethnic rebels and loosening the state’s grip on the press. In August, the Irrawaddy became available online in Burma for the very first time. “People are more open to talk about politics,” Aung Zaw tells TIME. “They don’t have the fear, they are more hopeful.”
In some ways, these are good days for Burma’s exiled journalists. Based in Chiang Mai, a sleepy city of ancient Buddhist temples in northern Thailand, the Irrawaddy saw its Burmese-language website get a record 222,270 unique visitors in January, up nearly 40% year on year. Burma is now home to the outlet’s second biggest audience after Singapore, with 42,250 monthly visitors. A wall featuring the Irrawaddy’s past covers in its small offices above a Thai-massage school bears testament to the coverage that’s made the publication vital reading over the years. “Where are sanctions taking Burma?” asks one from May 2001. “Burma’s long road to reconciliation,” reads a January 2004 issue.
Meanwhile, Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), which produces three hours of daily satellite TV, as well as radio and online content, from a small three-story office on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, is also flourishing. DVB estimates it now reaches 5 million to 10 million people across its various platforms, with its Burmese-language website getting 20,000 visitors a day and the English section pulling in 8,000 more. “They are very popular in Burma,” says Thiha Lynn, 28, who last year opened D-Lo, a Burmese restaurant in Chiang Mai where exiled journalists gather in the evening to eat beef curry and salads of pickled tea leaves. “It’s important. Government media and TV still don’t show the news, just how they want things.”
Indeed, journalists are still wary of the state. Burma’s military rulers have a long history of persecuting independent reporters and ranked among the world’s five worst jailers of the press for the past four consecutive years, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Despite unprecedented reforms in 2011 and promises of a new, less restrictive media law this year, the country’s censorship rules remain among the strictest in the world, and foreign and exiled media personnel are still denied working visas. “Even if the media laws are amended, we can expect to face both soft and self-censorship in the future,” says Thiha Saw, chief editor of a Burma-based news weekly called Open News. “We need the Burmese exile media to tell the truth and print the stories that journals inside Burma cannot.” Burma’s President Thein Sein on Thursday vowed to build on the sweeping reforms it began last year. “There are a lot of open-minded people at the censorship board who realize that they have to abolish [it],” said Aung Zaw following lengthy meetings with Ministry of Information officials.
So what’s next for exiled media? Some will move back to Burma, others are waiting to see what happens next. Mizzima, a Burma-focused news agency founded in India in 1998 with offices in New Delhi and Chiang Mai, has decided to move its operations to Burma and participate in meetings organized by the government to redraft the country’s media laws. Founding editor Soe Myint is reticent to discuss its current legal status and office locations, but insists the outlet wants to be part of the process from inside the country. “We believe that with the openings by the government, we are able to work,” he said in a phone interview from Rangoon. Khuensai Jaiyen, editor of the Shan Herald, a newspaper reporting on Burma’s Shan minority, said he plans to send a third of his staff into the country, adopting a “one foot in, one foot out” strategy. “It’s not the time to put all the eggs in the basket,” he said.
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The mainstays of the exiled-media scene, the Irrawaddy and DVB, have adopted a similarly cautious approach. Although Aung Zaw has been to Rangoon and a couple of reporters are heading into the country on assignment, there are no plans for relocation. “After 2015, we will know which direction the country’s going and how safe we are,” he says. DVB announced this week that its exiled reporters would be granted visas to carry out assignment inside the country for the first time since the organization was founded nearly two decades ago. The move follows meetings Wednesday between chief editor Aye Chan Naing — who was visiting Burma for the first time since fleeing in 1988 — and Information Minister Kyaw Hsan. But staff remain fearful of returning. “We’re still DVB. I don’t dare to go yet,” said a 30-year-old TV producer who reports anonymously because she still fears retribution for her work.
In some ways, rapprochement threatens the very existence of exile media groups, most of which rely on donor funding. Among journalists in Chiang Mai, there is a pronounced fear that the promise of reform will cause donations to dry up. “Exile media are trying to redefine themselves, and their future will depend on a continuation of democratic reform,” says Lars Bestle, head of the International Media Support’s Asia program, which funds outlets like Mizzima. Some donors, like the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which spends around $750,000 on independent multilanguage media in Burma across print, radio, online and TV, are convinced of exiled media’s continued need wherever they are based. “Burma’s still a military-dominated state, and there’s still a role for the exile media,” insists Brian Joseph, NED’s senior director for Asia. He says exile outlets can — and should — still play an important role in the overall development of independent media in Burma.
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But funding is already a problem. Take DVB. In 2010, 16 donors stumped up $4.5 million. Last year, that dropped to $3.2 million from 13 donors. This year may be worse, thanks in no small part to an embezzlement scandal. (Last year, the company was forced to bring in PricewaterhouseCoopers to investigate evidence that two managers siphoned off $370,000 for personal use.) A crucial annual donor meeting is scheduled for next month in Bangkok. Managing editor Khin Maung Soe is optimistic. “Some donors like to think Burma is changing very quickly and want us to move back, but the problem is, the government is not happy to allow us,” he said, adding without irony, “Who will cover corruption while censorship still exists?”
Across town, the Irrawaddy is also struggling to secure its $1 million annual budget. It published its final quarterly magazine last month and is now online only. Staff numbers have been cut from a 2011 high of 65 to the current 45. The editor thinks they can meet 80% of the previous year’s budget in 2012. Beyond that, its donor-dependent business model looks vulnerable. Both the Irrawaddy and DVB confirmed they have attracted investment interest from within Burma. “I’ve had offers from tycoons, they want my brand” says Aung Zaw. “There are people who talk to me — ‘How much do you need?’ I’m offered a chopper, three of four vehicles … But I don’t make [a] decision. I don’t want to lose our independent voice.”
Aung Zaw hopes to raise funds by boosting business coverage and, hopefully, revenue from online advertisers and individual donors. He insists Irrawaddy is not for sale. “The most immediate question,” he said, “is how to sustain this mission in a different time.”