What one of the world's most repressive dictatorships could not silence, the global recession and shifting donor policies finally did. The Irrawaddy, considered the most influential English-language magazine covering events in military-ruled Burma, indefinitely suspended publication of its print edition this month because of financial difficulties. "It is a sad and painful decision, but we must be realistic," Aung Zaw, the founder and editor, tells TIME. He vowed to press ahead with the magazine's growing website, but added that it has been a struggle to increase revenues from online publishing.
Burma is an extremely closed society, and despite a flourishing of local private publications in recent years, journalists and media within the country operate under a strict and punitive censorship regime imposed by its military rulers. The Committee to Protect Journalists, an international organization, reported that 13 journalists are now imprisoned in Burma, the fourth highest number in the world, and second in Asia behind China. The Irrawaddy, founded as a newsletter in 1993 by Burmese exiles who fled a military slaughter of pro-democracy activists in 1988, provided a window into an opaque country and a military elite shrouded in secrecy. "It was an important resource and quite reliable," says Bertil Lintner, a Thailand-based author and analyst on Burma.
Lintner says that following November's elections, the first in Burma in two decades, some international donors started cutting funds to exile groups on grounds that real change is finally taking place within the country and resources should be shifted there. "That's a lot of hype. Nothing has really changed," Lintner says. The elections were regarded by most democracy advocates and many Western governments as rigged and a sham designed to preserve military rule. But Lintner says donors are fearful that by continuing to support exile groups they will antagonize the generals and lose opportunities to launch projects and programs within Burma. Aung Zaw says some donors also cited tighter budgets because of the global recession as the reason for a cutback in funding.
The Irrawaddy's print circulation was tiny only 5,000 copies each month, 700 of which were clandestinely circulated within Burma and so it was reliant on funds from Western donors. Nonetheless, it was read by policymakers in the diplomatic community, international organizations and the international media, expanding its importance and influence beyond its numbers. Most readers, however, were members of a globally dispersed community of Burmese exiles. The magazine's online Burmese- and English-language editions received a combined 9.1 million visitors in 2010, according to Aung Zaw.
Not all the visitors, however, were supporters. The website has weathered three massive cyberattacks during the past three years. Aung Zaw says evidence points to the military regime as the orchestrator of the attacks, though they were launched from cyberaddresses mostly in China, but also in Australia and the U.S. "It shows we are doing something right. Our materials are subversive to the regime," Aung Zaw says.
Members of the junta, however, were also among the magazine's readers, the founder claims, adding that government officials have told him they include Senior General Than Shwe, the aging head of the military government. "They hate us, but some admire us," he says. "On the other hand, the regime will be happy to hear the news [of our suspension]." Nonetheless, Aung Zaw and his staff, which has numbered as many as 60 in the past, remain determined to keep reporting and even relaunch a print edition at some point. "One day, hopefully soon, I hope to bring this publication to Burma."