It had to happen. Nobody expected the Burmese junta to let the good times roll unimpeded once the rigged elections of last November were out of the way. But I’d thought the focus of their institutionalized paranoia would again be pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. I was wrong.
Instead, the authorities have arrested Australian publisher Ross Dunkley, who is anything but The Lady, and have thrown him behind bars in Rangoon’s Insein Prison, notorious among human rights activists for its atrocious conditions.
His February 10 arrest followed a story published by The Irrawaddy about an internal power struggle at the Myanmar Consolidate Media, which publishes the weekly Myanmar Times, a solid newspaper that trains journalists and focuses on news and current affairs outside of Burma. Local news is censored.
Dunkley is co-founder and one of two major publishers (the other is the owner of Swezon Media Group, Tin Htun Oo, a member of the ruling party who won a seat in the November general election representing the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party).
According to The Irrawaddy, Tin Htun Oo covets the position of chief executive officer and editor-in-chief, a move rejected by Dunkley and which has resulted in an acrimonious split between the pair. Further reports suggest that Tin Htun Oo has simply seized control of the newspaper.
Dunkley is also publisher of the Phnom Penh Post and has extensive media experience in Southeast Asia and Australia. I chatted with Dunkley last week, and he mentioned The Irrawaddy article and that he was returning to Burma, where he intended to state his case.
David Armstrong, Chairman of Post Media, which publishes the Post, said he was deeply concerned, and noted the arrest was linked to the dispute at the Myanmar Times. He added that some reports surrounding the reasons have been inaccurate. The arrest, he said, ‘coincides with tense and protracted discussions Mr Dunkley and the foreign ownership partners in the Myanmar Times have been conducting with local partners about the future direction of the publishing group, ownership issues and senior leadership roles—all this at a time of significant political and economic change in Myanmar.’
In Cambodia, the Overseas Press Club (OPCC) was equally concerned about the arrest, and fears it could be part of increased authoritarianism—a growing trend in many countries around the region—while free press advocates from across Southeast Asia and further afield are also worried.
Dunkley’s a tough bloke and will hopefully pull through this ordeal. He’s also a free trade advocate, and his arrest speaks volumes about the bullying of a junta that believes its November elections were grounds for the dropping of sanctions and its re-emergence into the wider world.The bicameral national Parliament has sat for the first time, which brought the new Constitution into effect and officially ended 50 years of military rule.
Aung San Suu Kyi has opposed the lifting of punitive measures, prompting Burma's state media to warn that Suu Kyi and her party will meet ‘tragic ends’ if they keep up their support of Western sanctions. By locking up Dunkley, the junta has hardly helped its cause. So it’s business as usual.