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Burma Appears to Tighten Grip on Media

Ross Dunkley, the editor-in-chief of the English-language Myanmar Times, poses for a photo with packs of heroin during a ceremony to destroy seized narcotic drugs in Lashio, northeast of Rangoon, Burma (FILE)

The arrest in Burma of Ross Dunkley, the Australian publisher of the Myanmar Times, has raised fears of even tighter control over Burma’s media by the military.

Dunkly was was arrested in Rangoon shortly after returning from overseas last week. A pioneer in Southeast Asia news media, he founded the Times in 2000.

But there have been reports of a conflict over control of the paper.

Dunkley currently holds 49 percent of Myanmar Consolidated Media, which oversees the paper. The remaining shares are held by Tin Htun Oo.

A statement Monday from the Thailand-based Post Media, a sister company of Myanmar Consolidated, called for Dunkley’s immediate release after authorities failed to press charges. He reportedly was arrested for visa violations and drug possession.

His arrest may have more to do with control over the paper than crime, says Aung Zaw, the editor of The Irrawaddy, a magazine about Burma published in Thailand.

"What is clear is that there was conflict between Dr. Tin Htun Oo and Ross Dunkley; and now it is apparent they want to take over the whole Myanmar Times," he says. "That’s why I think probably they will frame up the charges against him, which doesn’t surprise anyone."

Dunkley’s initial partner in the pro-military paper was Sonny Swe, the son of former Brigadier General Thein Swe.

But Thein Swe fell from favor with the top leadership. Sonny Swe was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to prison in 2005. His shares were passed to Tin Htun Oo.

Burma, also known as Myanmar, has long been ruled by the military, which keeps tight control on the media and most aspects of the economy and public life. The country’s first parliament in 22 years was elected in November, but more than 80 percent of its members are either in the military or linked to it. And the parliament selected former Prime Minister Thein Sein to be the new president.

Aung Zaw says Dunkley had initially been hopeful that Burma’s tight media controls would ease. But he says those controls and the country’s politics meant the paper was always a risky investment.

"Ross ... should realize Burma is a political graveyard for everyone," he said. "Even he should realize how many journalists and reporters are being apprehended and spending time ... in prison."

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma says around 30 journalists and media activists are among Burma’s more than 2,000 political prisoners.

Dunkley also publishes the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia. Some journalists familiar with the operation say there are fears that the loss of the Burma paper could hurt finances at the Post. But the Post on Monday said that although its management is concerned for Dunkley’s well-being, the paper is running as normal.

Dunkley has been viewed as a media maverick and risk taker, after investing in Vietnam’s fledgling news industry in the early 1990s.

Reporters Without Borders in 2010 ranked Burma as 174th out of 178 countries in its annual press freedom index. Several media analysts in Southeast Asia say with Dunkley’s arrest points to tighter control over the media by the military.