The rise and fall of an Australian media mogul in Southeast Asia

Ross Dunkley, co-founder of the Myanmar Times newspaper, is escorted by Myanmar policemen at the Kamaryut township court in Yangon on March 3, 2011. Soe Than Win/AFP via Getty Images

Ross Dunkley was thinking of quitting journalism when he met Rupert Murdoch, a fellow Australian, on a friend’s yacht off the coast of Rhode Island during the America’s Cup boat race in 1983. He had grown tired of working for other people in a newsroom; he wanted to return to his family roots and become a farmer. But drinking champagne and chatting with “the most dynamic newspaperman of the day” made news seem exciting again, he says. As long as, like Murdoch, he got to be the boss.

He went on to edit a rural newspaper in Australia, then spent more than two decades co-owning and running publications in Southeast Asia. He is now 62, and looks a little like a younger Murdoch: bald, with square-framed glasses and a vague belligerence. By now he had hoped to be at the helm of his own modest media empire. Instead, he is locked up in Myanmar, serving a 13-year sentence on drug charges. 

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In June 2018, Dunkley was preparing to launch a new media venture when police raided his home in an affluent neighborhood in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. They reported that they found 797 yaba pills, a form of methamphetamine, 303 grams of crystal meth, and smaller amounts of marijuana, heroin, and opium. Five Myanmar women and Dunkley’s British business partner were caught up in the raid; they also received hefty sentences. 

I went to see Dunkley at Insein prison, a Panoptican-shaped compound famous for its mistreatment of political prisoners. One prominent dissident, Win Tin, who spent almost 20 years there, wrote in 2010 that he was kept in a former dog kennel without a bed and beaten so badly he lost most of his teeth. Conditions aren’t nearly so brutal for Dunkley. But when he shuffles into the dingy visiting room wearing plastic flip-flops, a cotton t-shirt, and a sarong-like garment called a longyi, he seems subdued, not the loud and brash man that has been described to me. His confident Aussie twang is muted, and he fidgets with his hands. “I’ll have to somehow or other wriggle my way out of this,” he tells me.

Since his arrest, he and John McKenzie, his business partner, have been kept in the prison’s hospital ward, where he says high-profile inmates can stay alongside sick patients. It is a dubious privilege. “You’ve got people coming in there, they’ve got tuberculosis or HIV and they’re on their last legs, and people die, mate,” he says. 

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Dunkley spent much of the four decades between the yacht party and the prison hospital turning a profit from journalism in some of the world’s most heavily censored countries. Some have praised him for pushing boundaries and opening up new space for local journalists. Others have accused him of acting as a government mouthpiece and fawning over despots.

When Myanmar elected a government led by former dissident Aung San Suu Kyi in 2015, many hoped for an end to the arrests, intimidation, and violence that had dogged journalists in the country for more than 50 years. But the new government has ignored calls to repeal repressive laws and has stood by as the military jails reporters. That includes Reuters journalists Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone, who spent just under a year and five months in Insein for exposing a military-led massacre of Rohingya civilians. 

Foreigners working in media typically face fewer risks than their local colleagues, but Myanmar is still a dangerous place to run newspapers. Dunkley has made powerful enemies. He has also alienated people close to him with what they describe as rash and self-destructive behavior. “He’s a solipsist in my observation, someone who thinks that no one else matters except them,” says Geoffrey Goddard, a former friend of Dunkley’s who worked in Asia with him for nine years.  

Tabloids in Perth, Dunkley’s hometown, have dubbed him a “wild colonial boy,” and his parties have provided regular fodder for gossip among Southeast Asia’s journalists. 

Dunkley says that the drugs found at his house were not his, and that he suspects one of his enemies planted them because he was about to launch a new media company. But press freedom advocates, usually alert to issues in Myanmar, have not gone near his case. 

 

DUNKLEY’S STORY IN MYANMAR begins in 1999, when Khin Nyunt, Myanmar’s feared military intelligence chief, turned his attention from torturing and imprisoning pro-democracy activists to laundering his country’s reputation for torture and imprisonment. 

At the time, the hardline military’s preferred method of public communication was a hate-filled junta mouthpiece called the New Light of Myanmar. The newspaper was known for its angry screeds against foreign interference and its attacks on opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whom it portrayed in cartoons as a bald, gap-toothed puppet of neo-colonial interests.

Khin Nyunt and his allies saw the newspaper as emblematic of an outdated, isolationist approach that was holding the regime back. One of his underlings published a newsletter in early 2000 arguing that the paper’s articles were “so vicious that people reading them cannot go past the vitriol to get at any grains of truth.” 

Khin Nyunt decided to find a foreigner willing to run a new publication under his supervision. Enter Dunkley. He came to Yangon for an initial meeting with Sonny Swe, a publisher whose father was a powerful general named Thein Swe and a confidant of Khin Nyunt. 

They conceived a newspaper called The Myanmar Times, which launched in Yangon as an English language weekly in early 2000 with around 20 staff members. It developed a circulation of about 30,000. 

Dunkley already had experience toeing the line for dictators; he had spent much of the previous decade as a partner at a financial weekly called The Vietnam Investment Review. It was a role that involved navigating one of the world’s strictest censorship regimes, or as Dunkley puts it, “getting head-fucked by communists in Hanoi.” Despite the challenges, it had gone relatively well for him. He and his partner Chris Dawe sold the venture for a profit to the Packer family, an Australian media dynasty. Murdoch had also considered buying. 

For the first few years at the Myanmar Times, things went as smoothly as they had in Vietnam. Khin Nyunt used his clout within the regime to circumvent the usual restrictions on starting a newspaper and even bypassed the official censorship board to have his own people scrutinize stories before publication. 

Dunkley came to be reviled by exiled Myanmar journalists as an apologist for a murderous regime. But the Myanmar Times towered above other local publications in terms of quality, even if it was still heavily censored and frequently parroted the junta’s propaganda. He also enjoyed a good relationship with his co-founder. 

Then, in 2004, the head of Myanmar’s junta, Than Shwe, decided to purge military intelligence, having evidently decided that Khin Nyunt’s faction had become a threat to his leadership. Khin Nyunt was arrested and sentenced to 44 years in prison, while Sonny Swe’s father was given a 146-year sentence. Sonny Swe was not part of military intelligence, but his association with his father and his role at the newspaper meant he was also targeted and given 14 years in prison for publishing a newspaper without going through the official censorship board. “There was no way they were going to let me keep publishing after my dad was arrested,” he says. 

Perhaps because Myanmar’s leaders didn’t want to ruffle feathers at the Australian embassy, Dunkley was left alone and stayed on as CEO. But, says Sonny Swe, the generals had no intention of letting him off the hook: “They had a long-term strategy for Ross.” The government handed Sonny Swe’s shares in the paper to a military crony named Tin Tun Oo. Dunkley resented his new partner, and the relationship became increasingly fraught. 

In 2011, in the midst of heated discussions about the paper’s future, Dunkley was arrested and accused of assaulting a woman whom local media identified as a sex worker. The arrest was seen as politically motivated. Dunkley vehemently denied the allegation, and media freedom advocates including the Committee to Protect Journalists highlighted his case. Dunkley was convicted on one charge of assault and an immigration offense and released after 47 days. 

Seemingly undeterred by his first stint at Insein prison, Dunkley returned to the office to continue his feud with Tin Tun Oo. Dunkley’s former friend Goddard, who worked as a senior editor at the Myanmar Times, tells CJR that Dunkley came out “virtually unscathed.” About a month after his release, Goddard was leafing through a copy of the International Herald Tribune when he came across an article detailing a manic condition suffered by Franklin D. Roosevelt called hyperthymia. The condition gives people “very high energy levels” and makes them “libidinous and workaholic,” the piece read, adding that it also made them more resilient in the face of stressful and traumatic experiences. “I showed him the story and he said, ‘fuck me dead that’s me!’” Goddard recalls.

When Sonny Swe was released from prison after a presidential amnesty in 2013, the country he had known before his arrest had changed drastically. Hundreds of political prisoners were being freed, feeding cautious optimism about the country’s chances of becoming a democracy. 

Censorship had ended the year before and foreign media could now visit the country openly. Back at the Myanmar Times, though, things were less rosy. Dunkley and Tin Tun Oo were fighting “like kids,” says Sonny Swe. It was clear to him that Dunkley had been on a downward spiral while he was gone. “I kept saying I wanted the 2004 version of Ross, not this version,” he says.

He speculates that things took a turn in 2007, when Dunkley’s company bought the Cambodia-based Phnom Penh Post. After that he was working as the paper’s publisher on top of his responsibilities in Yangon, and was travelling frequently between the two countries. Sonny Swe believes he started to take amphetamines around this time. Dunkley’s drug use was an open secret, he adds. Dunkley did not respond to a request for comment on Sonny Swe’s remarks. But he told a Perth-based newspaper in 2011 that he was “not a druggie.” 

Dunkley’s co-directors sacked him from the Phnom Penh Post in 2013 amid a feud over financial difficulties. And while he outlasted Tin Tun Oo, he stepped aside as CEO of the Myanmar Times in late 2014 and sold his stake to his new partner, a local tycoon named Thein Tun, the following year. Dunkley balks at the suggestion he was ousted from either paper and characterizes the departures as his decision.  

Myanmar’s transition from outright dictatorship allowed Dunkley to show his critics that he was more than an apologist. After censorship ended in 2012, he was willing to publish brave journalism. The Myanmar Times quickly shed its reputation as a government mouthpiece and started to win recognition at international award ceremonies for its coverage of sensitive issues, including the persecution of the Rohingya. For some, the paper’s success vindicated Dunkley’s argument that engaging with a bad system was better than criticizing it from the sidelines. 

“I think you needed publications inside Myanmar trying to work within the system and training journalists and trying to expand the space for reporting within the confines of censorship. But you also needed uncensored media outside the country as well,” says Thomas Kean, who edited the paper’s English language edition for several years before and after censorship ended.  

Under the military regime, the paper was the only place in the country where aspiring Myanmar journalists could be trained to a high standard, adds Myo Myo, a former senior reporter there who now works with the Wall Street Journal. “Working there gave me the chance to learn a lot… they were more professional than other local media,” she says. 

 

ON A RAINY DAY in August of this year, Dunkley stood in a courtroom in Yangon clutching his chains behind his back as a judge sentenced him and his business partner to 13 years in prison. Moments earlier she had given 11-year sentences to the five Myanmar women who were present during the police raid. The women had argued they were only there working as housemaids, local media reported, but the prosecution said they were doing drugs. 

As police tried to lead them away, one of the women sank to the floor, shouting and crying. She held her mother, who appeared to have fainted from shock. The five co-defendants were all chained together, and it took officers several minutes to unravel the chaotic tangle of people. Dunkley, chained to his business partner, left calmly. “The girls had nothing to do with this and I can’t believe that the judge has convicted them,” he said, his voice breaking. He disappeared down a set of stairs as screams echoed through the corridor behind him.    

Before our interview at the prison, he had sent me a five-page handwritten letter via his lawyer outlining his achievements, and his plan to write a book about his career that he was confident would sell “a million copies.”

“Many will describe me as the Hunter S. of Southeast Asian media and maybe that’s true,” he wrote. “I guess that you could say that I am the last of the breed of publishers and I changed the mentality of the press in Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam from the moment I moved to Asia in 1991… I trained hundreds of journalists and editors and my imprint is surely on many of them… sorry my pen just ran out.”

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Joshua Carroll is a freelance reporter based in Myanmar. Follow him on Twitter @jershcarroll.