The Burmese military junta has arrested an Australian newspaper publisher in an action criticized by colleagues and foreign media groups as “baseless” and highlighting abuse of press freedom.
Ross Dunkley, 53, editor and chief executive officer of the foreign-invested The Myanmar Times, was arrested in the former capital of Rangoon Thursday on immigration-related charges, according to his publishing group.
But one of his colleagues at the newspaper said his arrest stemmed from “baseless” rape and drug charges leveled against him by the junta.
Some said he was locked in a newspaper ownership dispute.
"We call on Burmese authorities to clarify why they are holding Ross Dunkley," said Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a group campaigning for media freedom worldwide.
"Jailing a prominent foreign editor is utterly out of step with Burma's supposed new democratic direction,” he said, referring to Burma’s first general elections in 20 years held last November.
A military-affiliated party overwhelming won the polls, which were widely criticized for rules and regulations that favored military candidates.
A colleague at The Myanmar Times, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Dunkley, currently held in Burma’s Insein Prison, “was arrested for rape, carrying drugs, and overstaying his visa, but none of these allegations are true.”
He added that he had heard rumors of an argument in the office between Dunkley and the paper’s co-owner, Tin Tun Oo, a member of the pro-junta Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) who is reportedly close to the regime’s information minister.
“Tin Tun Oo will officially take over the paper as CEO, which will be reported in the upcoming Thursday edition, but as of now, he still has not visited the office,” the colleague said.
David Armstrong, chairman of Phnom Penh Post publisher Post Media Limited, of which Dunkley is also a publisher, reported that the Australian was being held on suspicion of violating Burmese immigration laws after returning to the country from a business trip in Japan.
He also suggested that Dunkley’s arrest had stemmed from a dispute with Tin Tun Oo, which he said centered on “ownership issues and senior leadership roles.”
He noted that “a key point about the arrest is timing,” as the it coincides with “tense and protracted discussions Mr. Dunkley and the foreign ownership partners in The Myanmar Times have been conducting with local partners.”
Calls to Tin Tun Oo for comment went unanswered.
Call for release
Meanwhile, the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia (OPCC), an organization monitoring the rights of journalists, issued a statement calling on the military regime to release Dunkley from prison.
“The OPCC sees no reason to imprison Dunkley ahead of his trial, and is concerned that his arrest is an abuse of the law in order to resolve a business dispute.”
The rights monitor added that Dunkley’s arrest is “in line with a trend of increasing authoritarianism in some countries in the region and efforts to circumscribe hard-won press freedoms.”
Dunkley co-founded The Myanmar Times in 2000 with Sonny Swe, the son of a member of the regime’s military intelligence service.
Sonny Swe was jailed in 2005 and his 51 percent ownership stake was turned over to Tin Tun Oo and his wife by the government at a discounted price.
The Times, which is the only foreign-invested newspaper in Burma, publishes weekly editions in both Burmese and English.
The newspaper is part-owned by a group including Dunkley and backed by Twinza Oil, an Australian company that has investments in Burma's energy sector.
It is believed that Tin Tun Oo is trying to force out the Australian investors.
Pushing the limits
In the past, Dunkley had been openly critical of his partnership with Tin Tun Oo, who he said was uninterested in seeing the paper succeed.
“We have a working relationship,” Dunkley said of his partner in an interview with The Weekend Australian Magazine last year.
“It's ironic that I'm the one trying to open things up and make them happen,” he said in reference to his efforts to obtain permission to publish The Myanmar Times daily and to achieve greater press freedom.
Dunkley has had repeated run-ins with the junta’s censorship board. The Burmese-language version of The Myanmar Times was banned for a week after publishing a story about a sharp rise in satellite license fees in 2008.
Dunkley told CPJ that same year that censors rejected around 20 percent of the articles he submitted for publication.
Tin Tun Oo took part in Burma’s elections last year, but failed to win a seat despite his affiliation with the junta-backed party, which many say is an indication of his waning influence with the military regime.
David Armstrong told The Australian that Dunkley’s arrest could be seen as an attempt by Tin Tun Oo to extract some value out of the business.
Dunkley had also criticized Burma’s military rulers in the past, including during a 2002 tirade at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok.
He is due to appear in court on February 24.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Kyaw Min Htun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.