Fri 23 Jul 2010
Filed under: Opinion,Other
It’s a tricky business, publishing a newspaper in a country ruled by a military junta. But Australian Ross Dunkley thrives on taking calculated risks, writes Paul MyersIF ROSS DUNKLEY WORRIES ABOUT BEING DEPorted from Myanmar and the military junta closing down his flourishing newspaper business, he doesn’t show or admit it. Eleven years in the country has taught the single-minded Australian not to try to second-guess the generals, to press openly and unapologetically for what he wants and, most importantly, to always appear in control.
So far, against the odds, it has worked. Only twice has The Myanmar Times, which Dunkley launched in 1999, been suspended from publication – for a week on both occasions. Not even the uprising by Buddhist monks in 2007, when gunfire crackled for days outside his office as the military brutally quashed dissent, stopped his presses or dented his resolve. “There have always been veiled background threats against me and the paper, but my only defence is to fight for what’s best for the business and the country,” he says. “Even in Myanmar, the wise heads usually prevail.”
Idealistic? Risky? Provocative? Undoubtedly, yes.
But when you have pushed the boundaries as much as Dunkley has, and weaved through the maze of Myanmar’s media regulations for more than a decade, self-belief and a take-charge approach can be convincing.
Now, with Myanmar’s first election in 20 years approaching, the likeable, some say brash, ideas-adozen publisher is upping the ante. He wants to convert his weekly newspaper into a daily.
As with everything in Myanmar – formerly known as Burma – the decision ultimately lies with the junta. But to Dunkley, it is just another episode in the cat-and-mouse game he has played since he arrived in the country as a newspaperman seeking to exploit a big opportunity. It’s a high-stakes game that has spawned a multi-million dollar company but cost the freedom of his joint-venture business partner, Sonny Swe, who was jailed in 2004 for 14 years on trumped-up charges. Sonny and his father – a former general, who was sentenced to 152 years for treason both remain in jail.
Dunkley’s ambition is a free press in Myanmar that can publish what it wishes, and when it wishes.
Not even a potentially explosive election campaign can stop or deter him. With the world watching as eligible voters of Myanmar’s 50 million citizens prepare for the poll, Dunkley sees a perfect storm. How can the generals, keen to show they’re taking Myanmar towards democracy, deny his plans to make The Myanmar Times (which is published in Burmese as well as English) a daily when a “free press” has been promised? Not easily, he reasons. Even if approval isn’t given before the election, he expects it soon after. “Theoretically, straight after the election we could say we’re going daily,” he taunts, then admits he’ll wait for “the right signals”.
Australia’s ambassador to Myanmar in 2002 to 2003, Trevor Wilson, doesn’t discount the possibility of Dunkley achieving his goal before the election.
Now a research fellow at the Australian National University, Wilson sees a growing trend towards press freedom in Myanmar, particularly in Burmese-language publications, but says there is “no prospect” of censorship being axed. “Not being allowed to publish daily may be more about the censors fearing the amount of work [in reviewing content] than anything else,” Wilson suggests.
While he believes The Myanmar Times has been used at times to peddle propaganda, Wilson acknowledges it has performed “a useful function” in distributing information, and says Dunkley deserves credit for “sticking to his guns”. Even so, he says intelligent Burmese can easily pick junta-friendly articles.
But The Irrawaddy, an influential news magazine that is produced in Thailand by Burmese exiles, has long been critical of Dunkley and his newspaper. It often accuses Dunkley of being too close to the junta, publishing pro-junta propaganda, and being more interested in making money than journalism.
Such allegations only make Dunkley strive harder for an independent media. “It’s naive and stupid to say we’re in the junta’s pocket,” he retorts. “We don’t make the rules. We are the only foreign joint-venture media company in Myanmar. I was the first foreign publisher here and have been told [by the government] I’ll be the last. I know the generals see me as a necessary evil. We are subject to the same rules as every other publisher and have been closed down on two occasions. We push the boundaries every week and take our chances when we can get them.”
Testing the boundaries
TAKING CHANCES COULD WELL BE Dunkley’s mantra. He took one during the FIFA World Cup, publishing (with approval) an uncensored sports daily during the tournament. He believes this was a giant step towards the two editions of The Myanmar Times going daily.
When that happens, he says Myanmar Consolidated Media, which he and WA mining magnates Harold and Bill Clough own, along with a junta-installed 51 per cent Burmese partner, will capitalise on a decade of hard yakka.
But first comes the election, expected on October 10 (the date, 10.10.10, is considered auspicious by Myanmar’s supersitious generals), in which 440 elected representatives – 25 per cent from the military and others from 42 registered political parties, including military officials who have “stepped down” from their posts to contest the poll as civilians – will take their place in a new parliament in the off limits-to-foreigners, purpose-built capital of Naypyidaw. It will be the first parliamentary gathering of elected lawmakers in the country for 48 years.
Not that much of what Dunkley’s 60 editorial staff in Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw write about the election will see the light of day.
Everyone knows too well what happened in 1990 when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won the election by a landslide:
the junta prevented her from taking office and the parliament never sat. Trevor Wilson, for one, has no doubt that a pro-democracy outcome won’t be permitted this time either.
It is equally safe to predict that, just as has occurred in every issue of The Myanmar Times since 1999, the censor (the Press Scrutiny and Regulation Board or PSB) will ensure that only information favourable to the junta goes to print in the lead-up to the election.
It’s a common ploy, but a practice that fools no one. The government’s own daily newspaper, the oddly-named New Light of Myanmar (called the “Dim Light of Myanmar” by Dunkley’s staff ) runs Stalinist-style propaganda ranging from the trivial to the absurd. A general departing for overseas, a tree-planting ceremony or an obscure meeting with regional officials, always featuring photos of high-ranking generals, is typical frontpage fare.
Conversely, stories perceived to convey the wrong messages are removed by the censors before The Mynanmar Times (and other papers) are printed. Page proofs, submitted twice weekly to the PSB, often return with stories completely crossed out, paragraphs removed and headings changed. Sometimes it takes three or four attempts to get the censor’s nod. In June, a story about a rat plague was so heavily cut as to be useless, presumably because it portrayed Myanmar as a health risk.
During the 2007 monks’ uprising, the junta allowed a muted approach: no photos, stories about the military taking control and veiled vilification of the protagonists. Even now, with the junta well in control, English-language editor Tom Kean says up to a quarter of submitted content is removed; his Burmese-language counterpart, Zaw Myint, estimates 10 to 20 per cent is removed. Both take it in their stride, although Kean – a young Australian on his first posting admits to being frustrated.
“Nobody stops us writing what we believe is right, but often we just can’t publish it,” he complains.
Two years ago, after an unapproved story was published about satellite TV charges being savagely increased, the junta ordered the removal of a Burmese-language editor and two reporters, and closed the paper for a week. Dunkley counters that the editor wasn’t fired as a result of this pressure, but “because we felt she wasn’t very good”.
The trappings of power
SEATED IN HIS LARGE OFFICE IN A TASTEFULLYrefurbished warehouse in Yangon, the former capital, Dunkley projects himself as a man who relishes power. Paintings by Myanmar modernist artist Myo Khin and one of the beach at Margaret River by his friend, Bay Rigby, adorn the raw brick walls. Dunkley smokes, as do many of his staff who come in to discuss issues. The office is as presentable, if not better, than any mediumsize newspaper anywhere in the world and Dunkley, dressed in a trademark suit with white shirt and tie, with his beloved Goss Community printing press ticking away on the ground floor below, is the undisputed king. Separated from his Australian wife, who lives in Perth, his sprawling rented home with tennis court and pool is in one of Yangon’s best areas. Like his newspaper employees, his house staff are constantly attentive.
But rather than wanting to be lord of the manor, Dunkley prides himself more in having trained 100-plus Burmeselanguage journalists in the past decade – “building capacity” he calls it and providing job opportunities in a tough economic environment. Even though local journalists earn only $US1000 a month net, or thereabouts, and foreigners $US1500-2000, there is no shortage of takers, including experienced reporters.
Dunkley’s personal political views appear to be conservative liberal. He, like other foreigners in Yangon, admits to having reservations about Aung San Suu Kyi’s judgement and tactics. The former political leader, whose father was a hero in Burma for bringing about the country’s independence from Britain, has been under house arrest for 14 of the past 20 years.
Dunkley acknowledges the paper doesn’t write stories about her. “There’s no point. They would never be published,” he contends. “By refusing to register the NLD [National League for Democracy] for the election, she dealt herself out of the game. You have to be on the field to score a goal. It’s no use being on the sidelines and complaining. I think she has been very badly advised.”
Equally, Dunkley doesn’t hide his distaste for the junta and openly criticises his joint venture partners, Dr Tin Tun Oo and his wife, who were handed Sonny Swe’s shares at a discounted price. “We have a working relationship,” he says of his 51 per cent partner.
“But I care more about the business and the country than he does. It’s ironic that I’m the one trying to open things up and make them happen.”
Dunkley is not afraid of being outspoken.
He and others recount a speech at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok in 2002, which turned into a withering tirade against Myanmar’s rulers. As usual, he dodged the bullet. “I had a prepared speech, different to the one I gave,” he recalls. When required to explain, he claimed to have been misquoted.
Now he says all military generals and senior civil servants have been instructed to read his newspaper. “We’re making a difference,” he chortles. “Even [United Nations secretary-general] Ban Ki-moon congratulated me on what we’re doing when he came to Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis.”
Dunkley believes it’s what happens after the election that now matters most. Ever the optimist, he reckons there’s a good chance censorship will be axed after the election and that the country’s 2100 political prisoners, including Sonny Swe and Aung San Suu Kyi, who is due to be released in November anyway, will be freed.
The long route to Myanmar
DUNKLEY MADE HIS MARK IN JOURNALISM BY winning a Walkley Award in 1982 for his reporting in the Victorian rural weekly Stock & Land of the waterfront dispute between unions and farmers. He later transferred with Rural Press to his home state of Western Australia to edit Western Farmer, leaving in 1987 to team up with a mercurial character, Barry Millett, as the coowner of specialist publisher Farm Gate Press.
But when Millett’s depression ultimately caused his departure (and later suicide), Dunkley was left holding the bag and the company later went into receivership.
In 1991 Dunkley left Australia to join two fellow countrymen, Chris Dawe and Alex McKinnon, in their fledgling Vietnam Investment Review, arriving in Hanoi as the weekly was about to print its fourth issue. He and the two Saigonbased founding partners sold the English/ Vietnamese-language title to Australian Consolidated Press in 1994 when James Packer sought a media beachhead in Vietnam.
The trio fulfilled three-year management contracts after the ACP sale and went separate ways. But armed with the valuable experience of Vietnam, Dunkley saw an opportunity in Myanmar, travelling there frequently before finally securing a deal with Sonny Swe to establish the country’s second Englishlanguage newspaper. It has been a no-contest. His rival English-language title, the daily New Light of Myanmar, launched as the Working People’s Daily in 1914, was nationalised in 1969 and is a shadow of its competitor; the Burmese-language edition of The Myanmar Times, however, faces much stiffer competition, competing against numerous Burmese-language titles every week.
Two years ago, Dunkley turned his sights to Cambodia, another frontier publishing environment that was home to the English-language fortnightly The Phnom Penh Post, Cambodia Daily and French-language daily Cambodge Soir, plus a bevy of local language titles.
Post founder Michael Hayes, an American who launched the paper in 1991 and was losing money, had long been seeking a buyer. Dunkley and the Cloughs swooped, eight months later turning the paper – once described by an American columnist as “the greatest little paper on earth” – into a weekday daily with English and Cambodian editions; they installed printing presses and increased the staff ten-fold to more than 250. The attraction was obvious: full ownership of a media business without needing a local partner. But whereas Myanmar Consolidated Media is profitable and operates smoothly, Post Media Company’s short life has been complex, with reputed losses of $US600,000 a year and staff rumblings. In June, it caused Dunkley to bring in former editor-in-chief of The Australian and former chief operating officer of The Bangkok Post, David Armstrong, as chairman.
Armstrong, who is not formally involved in Myanmar, but will be an advisor, brings vast newspaper experience in Australia and Asia as well as legitimacy that may help an eventual listing on the Phnom Penh Stock Exchange, due to open later this year. Or, more likely, a strategic media partner in Australia or Asia to help the company expand, possibly into television as well as more print.
Armstrong is effusive in his praise of Dunkley
“He has so much energy and the ideas keep tumbling out.” Armstrong describes The Phnom Penh Post as “solid but bland” and under new editor-in-chief Bernie Leo, a former Fairfax chief sub-editor who came from the Shanghai Daily, wants the paper to ramp up hard reporting and to more effectively tackle business, metro news and local issues.
With the Cambodian parliament midway through its current five-tear term, Armstrong is urging the Post to report politics fairly and “straight down the middle”. And despite the paper’s current financial malaise, he says: “I suspect it won’t be so tough to be successful financially and report honestly.”
Siem Reap bureau chief Peter Olszewski, a former editor of People and freelance writer for The Bulletin and other titles, believes Dunkley’s experience in Vietnam has helped him prosper in Myanmar and will work to his benefit in Cambodia.
“Ross is like a bull in a china shop, but he doesn’t break any china,” he explains. “He has an extraordinary ability to deal with suspect governments and difficult people. If anyone had said they were going to open a Western-style newspaper in Burma [in the late 1990s] they would have been regarded as nuts. But Ross did, and it has succeeded and survived.”
One dissident, however, is the outgoing editorin-chief at The Phnom Penh Post, Seth Meixner, a 37-year-old American who Dunkley hired from the local bureau of news agency Agence France Presse. Riled at being replaced by Leo, even though he was planning to return to the US at the end of the year, Meixner says the paper has begun pandering to advertisers and has slashed its word-count on big stories. “I’m worried about its journalism,” he says. “If we took more care of the core product [instead of producing supplements and advertising features] and made the paper as good as possible, the numbers would look after themselves.”
Although dismissive of the criticism, Dunkley is unapologetically pushing his newspapers down a more commercial path. In Myanmar, he has launched an A4 young female magazine, titled Now, published in Burmese.
There’s also Crime Journal, a weekly tabloid newspaper, also published in Burmese, that incorporates Wheels, an auto insert. All have been highy successful cash cows that are certain to be replicated and expanded in Myanmar and elsewhere.
The next two years will be critical for Dunkley’s Cambodia experiment and future expansion. One potential cloud is the future media intentions of 41-yearold Cambodian-Australian, Kith Meng, who as a youngster fled to Australia with his sister after their parents died under Pol Pot’s brutal purge of the 1970s.
A graduate of the University of Canberra, he returned to Cambodia to resurrect the family business, Royal Cambodia Company, and in the 1990s made a fortune supplying United Nations relief agencies. Now chairman of the Royal Group, ANZ Bank’s business partner in Cambodia, he is an aggressive commercial operator and a major contributor to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party, as well as being chairman and part-owner of MobiTel, Cambodia’s biggest mobile phone company.
Dunkley enjoys a cordial relationship with Meng, but worries he could turn into a competitor, possibly as a future owner of a ramped-up Cambodia Daily or of other media formats.
Will Kith Meng and Dunkley team up or fight it out? As if he doesn’t have enough on his plate, the irrepressible Dunkley will have to find a way to tiptoe around that minefield, too.
Just as he has shown in Myanmar – a much tougher business environment than in Cambodia – the publisher’s own unfailing self-belief will be the driving force behind his expanding empire.