October 19, 2017
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Dunkley talks about his arrest, changes in Burma

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In this file photo, Ross Dunkley, the Australian journalist, stands outside a courtroom in Rangoon. Photo: Mizzima
The Australian publisher of The Myanmar Times, Ross Dunkley, was interviewed last week about the political changes ...

(Mizzima) – The Australian publisher of The Myanmar Times, Ross Dunkley, was interviewed last week about the political changes in Burma and his role now on the English-language newspaper.

“I’m back to normal” as editor of the newspaper, Dunkley told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in a wide-ranging interview.

Dunkley, who has worked in Burma for 10 years, said he was appealing one minor conviction and an immigration violation.

Rumours circulated widely that the publisher was “set up” by someone in government regarding incidents between him and a Burmese woman.

“Oh, look, there's many different rumours that float around about that,” he said, “but there can be no doubt that someone was trying to interfere in the process. I think it's too much of a coincidence to assume otherwise.”

Dunkley told the broadcasting service that he was not a saint and because of his position, he lived his life in a semi-public way “out in the open. So I guess you get warts and all.” Dunkley is the subject of an ABC documentary “Dancing with Dictators.”

“I mean, I knew from a long time ago, well before I was arrested, that there were people out to get me,” he said. “There was no doubt about that. I saw that coming.” He said earlier he had received a letter from a government minister that said he was no longer trustworthy.

He said 47 days in Insein Prison wasn’t too harsh, and because he was well known many people looked after him, but the prison was overcrowded.

“In my cell block there's - there were nine rooms, each room about 110 people, so that's more than 1,000 people per block. I think that you've probably got no more than, you know, a couple of square metres, enough to lie down with your bedding at night time and otherwise you're pretty crowded up together in what is fairly hot circumstances.”

A founder of the Myanmar Times, Dunkley was accused of violating the Immigration Act and assaulting a woman. He was arrested on February 10, 2011.

His high-profile case attracted worldwide interest in the media community. Dunkley is also the publisher of the The Phnom Penh Post, and prior to working in Burma worked in journalism in Hanoi.

Originally from Perth, Australia, Dunkley was the first foreigner to enter the Burmese domestic newspaper market in 2000 when he joined forces with Sonny Shwe, the son of a close ally of then military intelligence chief and junta prime minister, Khin Nyunt. Less than a year after Khin Nyunt’s purging from the military junta, Sonny Shwe was arrested and new Burmese co-owners took over his stake in the paper. The publisher of the Myanmar Times is Dr Tin Tun Oo.

Dunkley told ABC that coming to Burma and working under the military junta was “a lot more smoother than I anticipated it to be.” He began working in Burma, he said, without kowtowing to the government, but he had to follow their rules “to get in the playing field.”

“I think you have to be there at the very minimum to be able to institute change,” he told the ABC interviewer.

He strongly defended his newspaper staff, rebutting people who said he had no chance working under Burma’s tight censorship rules prior to publication. They said, "’Oh, you had no chance with them because they had the red pen out at all times.’ Well, maybe sometimes the red pen was put away on occasions when perhaps it should have been out, and I think that that was the ability of our staff to push the envelope forward and to train people about the role of media.

“We've always attempted to tell the truth and we've always told the story as we see it and the censors cut it. We don't alter our copy or alter our articles because of the censor. We only write as we see it and then if the red pen comes out, it has to run like that,” he told the interviewer.

Progress may be “only incremental and it's only a little bit, but every time you do it, you - it's a small victory for you. That's not to say that it doesn't hurt every time someone cuts the red - puts the red pen and crosses out the story. It's like a knife in your guts. That feeling doesn't go away.”

He said he never had close ties with government officials.

“I mean, I had no friendships inside the government at all. So, I operated almost completely independently,” he said.

Regarding people who believe that the recent democratic changes in Burma are a well-crafted tactic that will lead to continued control by former generals, Dunkley said the current changes are continued steps in a process that has been underway for a long time.

“The fact is that this is their country, they've made a decision to move in this direction, and it wasn't an instant decision,” he said. “It was - these motions were put in place a long, long time ago. There was a seven-step road to democracy going back six or seven years. This is no surprise.

“It always was going to move that way. It's just that the suddenness of the change, the rapidity of the change and the breadth of the change is what has surprised a lot of people.”

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