Monday, February 21, 2011

Lessons from Ross Dunkley's arrest in Burma

It's obvious the generals no longer have use for this foreign editor

The Burmese military junta knows extremely well how to use foreigners. Ross Dunkley was one high-profile personality who ventured into Burma, thinking he could take advantage of the generals, who badly needed outside help. As such, he was pretty smart in undertaking such an unwanted enterprise as investing in an English-language newspaper, The Myanmar Times, in 2000. At the time, the regime wanted a polished propaganda tool to counter opposition groups and active media in exile.

He was arrested on February 10 on charges of visa violations. Now, he is spending his time at the Insein prison along with hundreds of political prisoners, including followers of Aung San Suu Kyi, for whom his paper had never urged release. There could be extra charges with the court hearing on February 24 which will undoubtedly kick him out of the country. Meanwhile, his Burmese business partner has taken over the paper completely. Questions are being asked: what on earth is going on inside the junta's mind for such a blatant action?

It is quite simple. The military has multiple objectives. First of all, it wants to scare off foreigners who are doing business inside Burma. "Watch out. We are after all of you, especially the weaker ones!" Dunkley was a faithful servant of the junta for over a decade. But he is small fry and dispensable. Those who know him said he wanted The Myanmar Times to be the best paper inside Burma and serve as a training ground for local journalists. The irony is that at the same time he has been more than willing to kow-tow to the junta at every turn. This strategy seemed to work well in the past when Burma was struggling for recognition overseas and wanting to have views and propaganda written in English.

After the election, there is no need for such a service. It was a fait accompli for the generals and suddenly Dunkley was no longer useful. As if predicting his fate, he bought the Phnom Penh Post recently. Fortunately, Cambodia has more respect for foreign media with English and French newspapers prospering.

Secondly, the regime wants to remind those non-foreigners who have a stake inside Burma that nothing has changed: Behave yourself and embrace the unknown! Local business community members, especially the major ones, should not be concerned about their future because, with the newly installed puppet government, more investment with better conditions could come. The generals are hoping that the recent Asean call for the ending of sanctions, which has received some support from quite a few EU members, could break the vicious cycle.

Finally, it is clear as sunrise that little is going to change inside Burma - the only change being the generals are gaining more power. They have mandates and increased legitimacy - through facades of democracy and electoral results- to carry out their final seven-point proposal and stay in power. The Nation, Bangkok

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