The Phnom Penh Post’s publisher Ross Dunkley has been attracting headlines of his own recently. This time in Myanmar, where for 11 years he has been directing the business of The Myanmar Times. As the Managing Director and Editor in Chief of the largest private joint venture media organisation in that country, Dunkley has been a controversial figure in Yangon and across the region. He was jailed for 47 days in February and then appeared in court 20 times on criminal and immigration charges. Freed at last from his ordeal, Dunkley returned to Cambodia last weekend and here he talks with The Post’s Editors in Chief Alan Parkhouse and Kay Kimsong about his experiences.
Following Myanmar’s historic election last November, you were involved in a tense stand-off with the previous government. Suddenly you were arrested and imprisoned. Surely that could not have been a coincidence?
If you are a Buddhist nothing in life is a coincidence. It is predetermined. That is your fate. Maybe this was meant to happen to me and it is true some astrologers in Yangon, my senior staff said, warned that very dark shadows were over me at the time of my arrest in January and incarceration in February. They predicted when I would be sent to prison and when my trial would be over.
You can choose to believe this stuff or not, but reality in Myanmar will tell you not to be flippant about these things. My reality shows I was in an increasingly tense situation. Firstly, my partner ran for parliament and during the campaign I gave interviews saying that continuing to be the publisher of The Myanmar Times and sitting in parliament were incompatible. It was against the ideals of our profession.
We were scrupulously even-handed covering the election in 2010, but the impression from some inside government was that we were left-wing and against the major military-backed party, the USDP.
Therefore we were against them, which is a most unfair inference. And all along I was pushing for a daily licence and independence from censorship. In all truth, I was a vastly different style of manager for the company.
Couple with all of that the visas of my foreign staff and myself were not being renewed and they could not get back into the country to do their jobs. I sent two of my editors to The Phnom Penh Post where they managed to do their jobs. Another employee was trapped in Kuala Lumpur and had to work by email. Things were increasingly difficult and tense.
During this time an Australian documentary crew was in Yangon making a film on you. Were you able to speak naturally and with earnestness? Surely they were a risk for you as well?
I always want to look at the good side of people. I believe the documentary’s producer Hugh Piper is a man of integrity and that he came to Myanmar to show the outside world the country was changing and to paint a positive picture about the future. I worked hard to convince the government about that as I wanted them to sanction his documentary and open doors for them. Unfortunately, they didn’t.
The mayor of Yangon was angry at being filmed on election day. Later on the two filmmakers were photographed by special branch at a senior NLD party member’s house. They were then deported from the country and it was perceived that I had employed them. Then the government sent me letter saying that I was a person no longer to be trusted in Myanmar.
I mean, after more than a decade of defending Myanmar when it was at a low, by speaking out against sanctions and of altering the landscape of the media in Myanmar, of building capacity by training journalists and setting the path for the sector by building the most professional organisation in the country, I was being slapped in the face and I was saddened by that. I knew then that trouble was afoot.
The documentary was always filmed with sincerity and all of my staff involved in that love their country and love their newspaper. They did not say things that were untrue. I have not seen that film, but I know that Hugh Piper and Helen Barrow are people of honour and of the highest professional capability. The documentary will be hard but fair.
So your troubles were not out of the blue. But they really came crashing down in January and February. Tell us what happened?
By whom I do not know, but some people inside the government wanted to make a problem for me. It was obvious following the election that they thought I was a risk and the special branch had a watch on me. I went to a nightclub on January 17 and was approached by a young woman, in her mid 20s I suppose. I refused her advances and left the club, but she followed me and I took her in my car to my home.
She was acting strangely and I looked carefully into her eyes and asked if she was okay. Then I said I would not be able to keep her at my house and that I would drive her to a taxi. She was in my home for no more than 15 minutes. I had many witnesses to confirm that.
She went to the police and in her first report to them alleged I had kept her at my home for three days, that I had banged her head against the wall and had my hands around her neck. She claimed she escaped from my house and went downtown to drink with a boy, but that I had found her again and taken her back to my place.
Later, in a second report, she alleged that I gave her some substance and that I made her dance in front of me. Four days after her statement she was taken to a mental hospital and was then tested positive for drugs. Then about 10 police and officials came to my house with a search warrant and looked for drugs. They found nothing.
In fact, I had many witnesses to prove that I did not keep this girl captive, like my cook and cleaner and my guard and gate keeper, and that I was at work on the days she mentioned. I could not have done these things. I was horrified by these allegations. I mean, this sort of stuff is anathema to me. I am not the sort of person that would ever harm a woman. I was raised by good parents and I had a happy life. I was married with two loving children. I was a well respected member of the community with a serious business life. I came to the view that some officials really did not like me. They wanted to get me.
Wow. And tell us what happened next. We understand that it escalated even further?
Yes. The police took a statement from me and charged me with three criminal offences and I was bailed by my staff. I was also running out of a visa at that time, but decided I would go to Tokyo to speak to a group of 200 people about the newly-elected government and the prospects for the future. I got a single re-entry visa issued to me in Bangkok, went to Tokyo and spoke positively and with hope about the new government.
And then I went back to Yangon where I was arrested shortly after my arrival and taken to a police station. The next morning I went in front of a judge and four charges were laid on me, and an immigration charge, and I was taken immediately to the notorious Insein prison where I spent 47 days before I managed to get bail.
My lawyers worked extremely hard during that time to free me. Then I started my court battle. In all, I appeared in the court 19 or 20 times during this period and in total this whole episode took almost six months. During that time I was unable to travel or to see my family and it was a difficult time for me.
And the judgment?
My three barristers argued for a complete acquittal on all the charges and we had certainty this would happen. But, at the last minute I was convicted on Section 323 of the Criminal Code, which states that I had touched a woman causing her minor harm and was given 30 days in prison, but seeing I had already done 47 days, this was cancelled out. And on the immigration charge 13 (1), I was automatically found guilty and the minimum sentence is six months. In my case they made a special exemption and I was fined K100,000 ($120). Then I was set free. Of course I am very thankful to the president and the government for that.
What makes you want to stay in Myanmar and continue working in the media and on this project after what has recently happened to you?
Look, you have all sorts of experiences in a lifetime and I have recently had some new ones. Going to prison, even though I was not convicted of any crime, was an extreme experience I suppose. The important thing for me is my Dhamma, my own personal truth, and this upholds and supports my own knowledge of innocence. In the same way this also applies to my work in the media in Myanmar. I know that I have a serious task in ensuring all my colleagues get paid, are happy and provided for and are given chances.
Mostly I ensure that we are all working together with a single cause and that sustains us as a team. I also have to uphold what is right in my profession, to make certain The Myanmar Times is being honest and reporting as true as we can and to give readers and advertisers value for their money. Now, I have been there for more than 11 years and when I came to start The Myanmar Times I said my eventual goal was to see our papers become dailies and to break the state monopoly in that area.
Ultimately, it is that vision, a dream you can call it, that makes me want to continue on and I believe I have something to contribute in that respect.
If the game is about moving towards a daily cycle, please tell us in your opinion who are the potential players and when perhaps they could start to publish privately-operated dailies in Myanmar again?
The players who can go daily are those who have invested heavily in presses and other machinery, who have attracted sufficient numbers of staff and learned how to put them all together as one team. It is also about having the required experience in the industry to know where you are going and how to get there. So far I see that The Myanmar Times has those credentials and can move onto a daily platform, but we have challenges to overcome as well.
When? That is the million dollar question and I don’t have that answer. All I do know is that the state press is unable to project the new Myanmar and I think there are many wise heads in government who recognise that and would like to change. Under the constitution there are certain inalienable rights and freedom of expression is one of them, so it will be sooner rather than later when this question of private dailies will be addressed.
What is your advice then to local publishers at this time?
Become more professional. Be true to your ethics. Reach for the sky.
So, what now for our publisher?
I love Cambodia and I love the way the notion of a free press has been embraced here. I think the Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith is one of the most brilliant ministers in all Southeast Asia. I respect and admire PM Hun Sen for what he has done for his country in the past 10 years or more. These are two people that I hold up.
You know, when I walk down the street and feel the fresh breeze of democracy across my face and see smiling faces on motor bikes, see people in love and loving life, then I know this country is heading in the right direction. I have a lot to do here. And I have a lot to do in Myanmar and I am immensely excited by both countries. If myself and my partners are given support and encouragement we will always do the right thing. We are motivated by good causes. We should be thanked because we give a lot and we ask for little.