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What Ross Dunkley's arrest says about the power of the Burmese junta.
MUMBAI, India — There was a time when Ross Dunkley, my former boss at the Myanmar Times, was a powerful man. Today, he sits in a prison cell.
I remember Ross storming into the newsroom in Rangoon after having stayed up all night drinking. Ross, a tall Australian with broad shoulders, wore a power suit. His head was bald and shiny.
“Come on, Hanna,” he commanded, waving his arm in the air. “We’re going to lunch.”
We arrived at Trader’s Hotel. “Sake, sake!” Ross shouted at a young Burmese woman standing near the entrance. She looked confused and walked off.
“Sake, sake!” Ross yelled. Another woman brought over a kettle, which Ross took out of her hands. He poured me a cup.
“No, thanks,” I said. “I have articles left to edit.”
Ross pushed the cup closer to my face. “When your boss tells you to drink, you drink!”
The Burmese junta detained Ross, the publisher and co-founder of the Myanmar Times, on Feb. 10, and today he is being held at the infamous Insein prison in Rangoon. Officially he's been arrested for immigration violations, but there is speculation he will also be charged with possession of drugs and prostitution.
Ross, who founded the paper in 2000 with a once-powerful Burmese businessman, has a controversial reputation. But most Burma watchers assume his arrest has nothing to do with sudden allegations of age-old behavior.
Instead, it’s being seen as evidence of a government doing everything it can to cling to power. Ross’ arrest comes during a time of transition in Burma, and the government has responded to this period of possible instability by tightening control, said Toe Zaw Latt, the Thailand bureau chief of Democratic Voice of Burma, a leading news outlet on Burma run by exiles.
“Transition is a very dangerous period,” he said. “The government has become more hard-line.”
The Burmese junta held elections last year, and convened its new parliament last month. Much of the international community has denounced the elections as a sham, but they mark a small change in rule and therefore pose the possibility for uncertainty.
“The slightly nervous generals are taking no chances,” Bertil Lintner, an author of numerous books on Burma, wrote to GlobalPost. “The election/new parliament is not the beginning of any kind of ‘transition;’ the generals have only institutionalized their rule. But during this transition from direct to slightly more indirect military rule, they want to make sure there is no opposition and/or criticism from any quarter.”
Ross’ arrest is a move by the government to squeeze out any semblance of an independent voice, wrote Lintner.
By getting rid of Ross, his current partner Tin Htun Oo – who is closely aligned with the regime – can take complete control of the newspaper, both editorially and as a business. The board made Tin Htun Oo the new CEO on Monday, Mizzima reported.
Even with an Australian journalist at its head, the Myanmar Times was never a voice of dissent.
Burma analysts speculate that the junta allowed the newspaper to remain open because the government wanted a polished, well-edited propaganda tool. The newspaper has called itself independent, but from the beginning it was government-censored and has always had strong ties to the junta. Ross’s co-founder, Sonny Swe, is the son of a former senior official in military intelligence.
I lived in Rangoon, working as “Timeout” editor at the Myanmar Times, from 2003 to 2004 and became friends with Sonny and Ross. Sonny and his wife would have me over for beers on their back porch or to sing karaoke in their soundproof media room.
Throughout my year there, I struggled to understand how such warm, caring people could be closely connected to a regime known for imprisoning and torturing dissidents, pillaging villages and enlisting child soldiers to fight its wars against ethnic groups.
I also grappled with the complexity of Ross, a jovial man who encouraged his staff to be the best journalists they could. He once said to me during happy hour at the famous Strand Hotel that he always supported my column in his paper when others criticized it around town.
“I always say to them, ‘Look, I may not agree with what Hanna says, but she’s my girl.’ ”
“Thank you, Ross.”
“Of course, that’s my job.” He gave me a big smile.
And yet, Ross also agreed to publish the propaganda of a notorious junta.
Ross often appeared torn between journalism and business, according to Virginia Moncrieff, a foreign journalist who worked there.
“I think his approach to his time in Burma was a reflection of that — really wanting to liberalize and expand and help people become journos and thinking people,” she emailed GlobalPost. “But at the same time, kowtowing to the generals and dancing to their tune.”
Soon after I left, I learned how tenuous power is in a place like Burma. Sen. Gen. Than Shwe, considered one of the world’s most brutal dictators, consolidated his rule and sacked Prime Minister Khin Nyunt and his entire intelligence service. Sonny and his father went to prison, where they remain today.
Ross appears to be the latest casualty in the government’s efforts to take complete control over the paper. Well-meaning reporters and editors at the paper have over the years tried to squeeze past the censors articles that accurately portray the country’s situation, if in subtle ways. It appears that such attempts will no longer be tolerated.
During the elections, the government allowed a slight opening in space and permitted some interviews with candidates and opinion pieces in various local media outlets, according to journalists inside the country and working in Thailand. There was also more space immediately after the release in November of Nobel laureate and Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
That time has ended. In addition to Ross’ arrest, the government has recently made other moves to crack down on the press and independent voices. Journalists were not allowed to cover the opening of parliament or other political happenings.
“The censors allowed publication of Suu Kyi's pics in the very first months [after her release],” a former Myanmar Times journalist emailed GlobalPost. “However, not these days.”
Ross, who is also the publisher of The Phnom Penh Post, has a court hearing on Feb. 24. He faces five years in prison if convicted on immigration violations and could be there longer if the regime chooses to press other charges.
Lintner does not think the generals would imprison him for long.
“They don't want him there,” Lintner wrote, “but they would want to give everybody else a scare.”
Follow Hanna on Twitter: @Hanna_India. She is working on a memoir about living, working and falling in love in Burma.