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Banged up in Burma

By Philip Coggan - posted Friday, 17 February 2012

On the evening of 18 January, 2011, Ross Dunkley, publisher and editor of the Myanmar Times, dropped into the 369 Club in downtown Yangon. There's not a lot of night-life in Yangon and the 369 is about as good as it gets. There Ross met Khine Zar Win, aged 29, whose occupation was later described as "sex worker" – less delicately, a prostitute.

Ross took Khine Zar Win home around midnight – his place. After that, accounts diverge. According to Ross, she was behaving strangely and he told her to get back in the car so he could drive her to the road at the end of the lane, where she could find a taxi. She refused and he had to force her. Halfway up the lane she jumped out and refused to get back into the car. Ross drove home and Khine Zar Win asked local house-guards to call a taxi.

According to Khine Zar Win, Ross drugged her, assaulted her, and held her captive for three days.


She lodged a complaint with the police.

In the early hours of the 19th the police came to Ross's house with Khine Zar Win and took a statement. Later they interviewed witnesses at the 369 club and the security guards from the laneway, all of whom backed Ross's version. Khine Zaw Win was tested for drugs, although not until several days later – and she showed positive for amphetamines. The police came back with a search warrant and searched the house for drugs, but failed to find any. On January 23 they called Ross in to give a further statement. There was no further activity, although at some point – just when is not clear – Khine Zar Win attempted to withdraw her complaint.

On 7 February 2011 Ross flew to Japan to address the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. He talked about the new hope for Burma following the elections of the previous November and the installation of a new civilian government, of the harm done by sanctions, the opportunities for foreign investment, and his plans to hold an investment conference under the aegis of Myanmar Consolidated Media, the parent company of the Myanmar Times.

He returned to Burma on 10 February and was arrested at home the same day. The next seven weeks he spent in Yangon's notorious Insein Jail.

One keeps running across certain adjectives when reading about Ross Dunkley. Perhaps the most common is "controversial", followed closely by "brash", tied with "Australian". The controversy stems from the fact that this is a foreigner running a newspaper in Burma. Myanmar Consolidated Media in fact runs four publications: the weekly Myanmar Times in English and Burmese, and two magazines. The Burmese edition of the Times is the largest-circulation newspaper in the country, and the most professionally produced. It owns some very attractive real estate, has the best printing presses in the country, and employs over 350 staff, with offices in Yangon, Mandalay, and Nyapyidaw, the Burmese Canberra. No other privately-held newspaper has a comparable scope.

Dunkley's success annoys the Burmese opposition in exile no end. Aung Zaw, publisher and editor of the Chiang Mai-based Irrawaddy Magazine, had a famous public confrontation with Ross in Bangkok in 2002, Aung Zaw accusing the Myanmar Times of showing too much deference to the military junta, and Dunkley rather undiplomatically drawing attention to the Irrawaddy's reliance on U.S. government cash. (The Irrawaddy is partially funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, a private, non-profit organization supported by the US Congress).


Relations have not improved since. In an opinion piece in the Irrawaddy on 14 February, days after Dunkley's imprisonment, Aung Zaw wrotethat the Myanmar Times was established as "a public relations exercise by Khin Nyunt [Ross's first patron and once-time Prime Minister and head of Military Intelligence] to polish the image of the military government"; Myanmar Consolidated Media's special privileges, "gave Dunkley's newspaper a leg up on all other independent publications in Rangoon." And, of course, a considerable leg up on the Irrawaddy, which is not available at all inside Burma.

Aung Zaw went on: "Dunkley has never made a concerted attempt to use his priviledged (sic) position among the Burmese journalistic community to advance the cause of press freedom in the country… [I]t is not the imprisoned Australian editor who should be lauded and receive sympathetic international attention at this time. The real heros (sic) that deserve our focus and support are the journalists who, while caring nothing about personal economic profit, take risks every day to fight for a free press and the right of the Burmese people to receive accurate information about their country and government."

Aung Zaw has a point: is the Myanmar Times doomed to be a tool of the junta? Ross is certainly aware of the problem, and appears to regard it as a challenge: "We push the boundaries every week and take our chances when we can get them," he told an interviewer in 2010. And the record suggests that he does. The November 2010 elections may have been bogus – a "transition from direct to slightly more indirect military rule," in the words of Burma expert Bertil Lintner - but they were news, and the Myanmar Times covered them professionally, giving extensive coverage to independent candidates as well as those from the military-backed front party.

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About the Author

Philip Coggan has been a diplomat and subsequently a journalist based in Southeast Asia. He has been a full-time writer since 2006 and is about to bring out his first novel, a comic crime-mystery set in Phnom Penh. He blogs at Philip Coggan's Blog.

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