Monday, February 14, 2011

A Lesson on Business in Burma

Don't mess with the junta

The arrest and imprisonment of the editor and part-owner of the Myanmar Times, Australian Ross Dunkley, will do nothing to convince the outside world that Burma is reforming and welcoming foreign business.

Myanmar Consolidated Media, which publishes the Myanmar Times was founded in 2000 by Dunkley and his foreign partners with 49 percent, and a Burmese shareholder with 51 percent. The venture has regarded by many as a bridge between the regime and the wider world.

Appearing in print and on-line in English and Burmese, the paper's content was tightly censored by the Ministry of Information but has at least been a more serious effort at journalism than the government owned English-language New Light of Myanmar, which rivals the Pyongyang Times in its focus on idolatry of the leaders rather than on information.

Dunkley has, according to official sources, been arrested for possessing marijuana and for being in the country illegally on a tourist visa. The latter charge seems particularly curious given that Dunkley has been living and working publicly in Burma for years. For many Burmese exiles he was regarded as adding ill-deserved respectability to the regime and the controlled local media.

There is some speculation that he was too encouraging of a bright, young reporting staff which, like the majority of Burmese, had little respect for the Than Shwe regime and went as far as they could to get real news through the censors, who read every word before publication. During the elections last year the paper ran some blank pages to denote censored copy.

A more likely, or at least primary explanation however is that Dunkley fell out with his local business partner in what is believed to be a successful commercial venture thriving on attracting advertising appealing to the country's small but growing consumer class and foreign residents. Whether this simply involves a dispute with majority owner Tin Tun Oo is possible but there is speculation that powerful forces within the government have been wanting to muscle in on the venture. These may well include the one person best positioned to exercise his power behind the scenes – the information minister.

Tun Tin Oo himself got to his position through the jailing in 2005 of the co-founder Sonny Shwe, son of former high ranking intelligence officer who fell out of favor with dictator Than Shwe. Tun Tin Oo was a candidate for the ruling United Solidarity and Development Party in the elections but failed to get a seat.

The use of trumped-up charges backed by political muscle to gain business leverage is all too frequent in some jurisdictions. Many an overseas Chinese businessman has fallen foul of such tactics in dealings in China, particularly with lower level administrations where business and local government are almost inseparable. The Australian government currently has several cases of its ethnic Chinese nationals rotting behind bars in China on what look like trumped up charges.

But Dunkley's arrest is particularly noteworthy given his record of engagement with the regime and the recent introduction of a new and supposedly more liberal, representative constitution in Burma. Dunkley is no novice at dealing with difficult regimes. Before starting the Myanmar Times he was in Cambodia and is a significant shareholder in the Pnomh Penh Post. But his arrest shows how easily the sands can shift in a Burma where reform is still just a hope and where change is brutal and arbitrary. Asia Sentinel

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