BANGKOK – While speculation continues about the real reasons for last week’s arrest of Australian Ross Dunkley in Rangoon, the detention of the media entrepreneur could influence the ongoing debate about Western sanctions on the military-ruled country.
Dunkley, who is the editor of The Myanmar Times, a weekly news journal based in Rangoon, was arrested upon returning to Burma from a business trip to Japan, according to David Armstrong, a business partner of Dunkley’s.
In a statement carried in The Phnom Penh Post, a sister newspaper of The Myanmar Times which Dunkley has also invested in, Armstrong said that “a key point about the arrest is timing,” as the arrest coincides with “tense and protracted discussions Mr Dunkley and the foreign ownership partners in The Myanmar Times have been conducting with local partners.” The main local partner in question is Tin Tun Oo, who is close to Burma’s ex-Information Minister Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan.
The Myanmar Times is part-owned by an Australian consortium involving Dunkley and backed by Twinza Oil, an Australian company that has investments in Burma’s energy sector. It is thought that local partners, who hold a 51 percent stake in the newspaper, are trying to oust the Australian investors.
The arrest shows that those who invest in Burma do so at their own peril, according to Zetty Brake of the Burma Campaign Australia. “The fact that Mr Dunkley, who had been working in Burma for many years, has been arrested demonstrates that there is no security or guarantees when doing business with Burma’s military junta,”, she said in an email to The Irrawaddy.
The arrest comes as the debate about Western sanctions on Burma’s military regime, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), is entering a new phase.
Recently released Nobel laureate and leading dissident Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, promoting Burma as an investment destination. However, her National League for Democracy (NLD) suggests that Western governments retain sanctions on the Burmese rulers.
The SPDC is preparing to hand over power, in name at least, to a parliamentary form of government, which will be dominated by the military and its allied Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the landslide winner in the Nov. 7 election, dismissed by US President Barack Obama as “a farce”.
On Feb. 8, the NLD said that the Burmese government should “take the necessary steps [to] speedily and assiduously” improve human rights conditions in Burma as a precondition for the lifting of sanctions.
The NLD wants to hold talks with Western governments to ascertain precisely what the benchmarks are for the lifting of sanctions. Possibilities include release of the country’s more than 2,100 political prisoners and the establishment of a national reconciliation dialogue involving the country’s ethnic leaders.
Two days after the NLD statement, Dunkley was arrested upon his return to Rangoon. A commentary subsequently published in state-run newspapers accused Suu Kyi and the NLD of “going the wrong way”.
The remarks, which would likely have been approved by Than Shwe, Burma’s long-time military ruler, accused the NLD of “ignoring the fact that today’s Myanmar [Burma] is marching to a new era, new system and new political platforms paving the way for democracy.”
While the piece issued an overture to Suu Kyi to cooperate with the regime in its efforts to build a democratic nation, there was no indication of what this would entail. Ominously and ambiguously, the writer of the piece warned that the NLD will “meet their tragic end” if the party continues to advocate that Western sanctions be retained.
Twinza Oil boss Bill Clough has reportedly flown to Burma since the arrest, according to Australian media reports. According to Burma Campaign Australia, Twinza Oil Ltd signed a production sharing and exploration contract with the junta-run Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise in November 2006. Billions of dollars in revenue from oil and gas sales to Thailand, China and elsewhere helps insulates the Burmese government from the impact of Western sanctions.
The Burmese regime says the sanctions hurt ordinary Burmese, but despite the recently accrued energy largesse, there is little indication that the junta invests any of this money in health, education or job creation.
According to Sean Turnell, the founder of Burma Economic Watch and an economics professor at Australia’s Macquarie University, the Dunkley imbroglio is an “extraordinary example once again of how the regime is by far the biggest ‘sanctioner’ on Burma.”
The arrest puts the focus on the precarious nature of property rights in Burma, and has implications for any foreign investor. “All you have to do is run afoul of one official or another, one crony or another, and suddenly you have your assets seized and your business interests destroyed,” he said.
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