Rough times for Myanmar Times
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Rough times for Myanmar Times
I liked the article. I still like it. In fact, everyone I know who had read it had spoken about it in its favor.
"The downfall of General Khin Nyunt," written by Maximilian Wechsler, 54, a Czech freelancer who has reported on Burma for years, and published by Bangkok Post, 31 October 2004, contains all those a reader expects from spending time reading a story: interesting, informative and stimulating, to say the least.
I congratulated him on the piece and he happily told me he had already received several well wishes. So I hung up thinking this time "Good old Max" was in for a slow period of high.
I was wrong.
A couple of weeks later, a complaint by Myanmar Times's CEO and Editor-in-Chief Ross Dunkley appeared in Bangkok Post.
The Myanmar Times E-in-C's contention was two fold:
MT is not part owned by General Khin Nyunt as stated by Mr Wechsler. It is owned by Myanmar Consolidated Media, a company registered in Burma, whose share holders are private citizens, both "Myanmar" and foreign.
MT has not been suspended "indefinitely" or for a "limited period" as reported, but has published continuously since 2000.
Well, I wasn't much of a Sherlock Homes or much of a Hemingway either, but it was difficult to keep back my inborn curiosity. Accordingly, I did some snooping around, read some available material and made several phone calls. The following is what I was able to gather:
According to Jayne Dullard, an Australian journalist who had worked for a year in Rangoon as an editor of the Myanmar Times, it is "independently owned," which ties in with what other have to say, that it is "privately owned".
There is a copy of the Myanmar Times, 18-24 October 2004, that I have been able to get hold of from a friend just this morning, 17 November 2004, with a shot of the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin in the front page. Copies of later editions had already reached us earlier.
It therefore appears that Max had been relying too much on the reports of other agencies, all of which were saying the same thing: that it had been shut down for one week on 21 October following the takeover of the new government, one quoting a staff member, "we were told the government is (still) in the process of restructuring the censorship office," while the Irrawaddy quoting Sonny Swe, the MT's Deputy CEO, "it was because the publication was moving premises."
The story should have ended here but it isn't. Simply because it isn't the whole story. That doesn't mean I've got the whole story, but from what I've read and seen, a clearer picture could be given:
Around 2000, the Office of Strategic Studies, the thinktank of General Khin Nyunt's intelligence apparatus that was looking for means to show the world the bright side of Burma under the military dictatorship, met Ross Dunkley, a 42 year old Australian entrepreneur, who had been Managing Director of Vietnam Investment Review and thus was already equipped with sufficient experience of working inside a censorship society. The result was the birth of Myanmar Times, a glossy weekly journal that was billed as the first "truly free press" in recent Burmese history and "different, more flexible" than other papers, being outside the control of the Ministry of Information and the notorious Press Scrutiny Board. It was funded, on the Burmese side, by Pyone Maung Maung, a local entrepreneur close to Khin Nyunt, among others, and the profits were shared 51:49 in the host country's favor.
Myanmar Times was actively promoting press freedom, stated Mr Dunkley in Bangkok in 2002, and that his ambition was to discover the fine line of censorship in Burma, and "to creep up on it every week relentlessly."
But if that was his mission, it evidently was doomed from the start. A high ranking Military Intelligence officer told Irrawaddy, "If you want to know our position, look at our website or the Myanmar Times".
In addition, its reports were screened by Tin Win (Labor Minister who was later 'allowed to retire' along with his boss Khin Nyunt) and Brig-Gen Thein Swe, Gen Khin Nyunt's colleague and father of the Times' deputy CEO, Myat Sonny Swe, said to be an American-educated Burmese, who also handled the papers' sales. Jayne Dullard describes the editing process this way:
"I would finish sub-editing the stories by the reporters, which in itself, given that they didn't speak terribly good English, which was quite an exhausting process, fax it off to what I used to call the 'war office', which was actually the Office of Strategic Studies within military intelligence to a man called Colonel Thein Swe who was the father of the newspaper's Burmese part-owner. A very, very interesting situation but one in fact which allowed the paper to exist, it wouldn't have happened otherwise.
"He would read the stories, run them past his superiors and then he'd get back to me and say please delete 'paragraph 3', 'please delete this word', 'please delete this sentence', 'you must not run this story', that sort of thing. It was very trying, very vexing and frustrating and often quite depressing."
At long last, Dunkley appears to have realized his own ridiculous situation, working in a country listed 165th by Reporters Without Frontiers (RSF) among 167 countries in its annual ranking of nations by respect of press freedom.
"If the government says we have to censor the paper, that's fine," he told The Australian, 11 November 2004. "I think what's important is keep getting the paper out, keep publishing, keep providing a superior product. We're not against the government, we're publishers. We're in this to make a profit. We are not a charity.
Now, with its patron gone, it certainly looks rough times are ahead for Myanmar Times.
The Ministry of Information has begun to scrutinize its reports, according to New Delhi-based Mizzima News, 15 November 2004, quoting one of MT's senior staff members.
The only reason that it was not 'allowed to retire' like other pro-Khin Nyunt adherents might be the fact that Vice Senior General Maung Aye, the junta's #2 man, has some appreciation for the paper's content.
Thus, with such an unenviable reputation and future for Myanmar Times, why the Bangkok Post is making a big thing out of Ross Dunkley's protest letter is certainly beyond its humble readers.