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An Australian newspaper editor is due in court in Burma on Thursday in a case that some observers say highlights the risks of doing business in the country, long dominated by the military.
Ross Dunkley, co-founder of the Myanmar Times, the country’s only newspaper with foreign investment, was arrested two weeks ago and locked up in Rangoon’s Insein prison, according to officials and his business partner.
He is due to appear at the city’s Kamaryut Township court for an initial hearing. The authorities have not yet announced the charges against him but official sources say he is accused of assaulting a sex worker.
“He is likely to be deported soon after he’s sentenced. We do not keep many foreigners in jail here,” said a Burmese home ministry official who did not want to be named.
David Armstrong, a business partner in Cambodia, where Dunkley is a key shareholder in the Phnom Penh Post daily, has suggested the newspaper editor is the victim of a business dispute.
His arrest “coincides with tense and protracted discussions” between the foreign and the domestic investors in the paper, Post Media chairman David Armstrong said in a statement shortly after Dunkley’s arrest.
Armstrong told AFP on the eve of the hearing that he was optimistic the Australian would be exonerated.
“I’m sure he’s done nothing wrong, but we don’t have any precise detail of what the charges are,” he said. “We hope that one day Ross will be able to come back to the Myanmar Times.”
A second home ministry official denied the charges were linked to a power struggle. The authorities “have no interest in their business problem”, he said.
“He [Dunkley] broke the law by beating the woman. She was seriously injured.”
Some observers believe that the brash Australian – who as a foreigner blazed a trail in Burma’s tightly controlled media industry – fell out of favour with the ruling elite in the authoritarian country.
“I think because his business has been quite successful and the newspaper has been quite influential, if anything the regime has targeted him,” said Trevor Wilson, an academic and former Australian ambassador to Burma.
“It has been suggested to me that they want to get him out of the country and get control of his magazine all for free and if that is the case they will probably succeed,” he said.
Wilson was doubtful that the case would have much impact on foreign investors’ stance towards the country – the target of Western sanctions – as “there is enough to put them off anyway”.
“But it is a very important case – a tiny media outlet pushing the boundaries where they haven’t been before,” he said.
Dunkley was last week replaced as chief executive of Myanmar Times publisher Myanmar Consolidated Media (MCM) and as the editor-in-chief of the newspaper’s English-language edition, which is subject to pre-publication censorship.
One of his partners, Australian mining executive Bill Clough, was appointed acting managing director of MCM and editor-in-chief of the English-language edition.
A source at the Myanmar Times who did not want to be named said that “morale is low in the newsroom because of what has happened as well as uncertainty about the future”.
Dunkley and his foreign partners control 49 percent of MCM while his Burmese partner Tin Tun Oo owns 51 percent.
The Australian, who had experience working in the media in Vietnam and Cambodia, co-founded the Myanmar Times in 2000 with local partner Sonny Swe, the son of an influential member of the junta’s military intelligence service.
But Sonny Swe was jailed in 2005 and his stake was handed to Tin Tun Oo, who is believed to be close to the military regime’s information minister, in circumstances that are unclear.
Tin Tun Oo was a candidate for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) during a controversial November election, but was not elected to the country’s new parliament, which opened at the end of January.
Tin Tun Oo could not be reached for comment, but he was quoted by the Wall Street Journal Wednesday as saying that reports of a business dispute were untrue.