The Myanmar Times plays an important role in Myanmar’s media landscape. It has contributed to the process of Myanmar’s media evolution, producing many skilled and experienced journalists, editors and media personnel.
Many of them are now working across the local media industry as chief editors, PR managers, and senior journalists. The Myanmar Times has brought respectability and sophistication to Myanmar’s media landscape.
THIS IS HOW THE MYANMAR TIMES HAS EVOLVED OVER THE LAST 15 YEARS.
During nearly 50 years of isolation, the Myanmar media landscape was unique in terms of context and trends.
Before the military coup in 1962, the Myanmar media was sophisticated, featured high quality newspapers and publications and there was press freedom at an international level.
However, after the military coup, the press faced dire challenges.
There were persecutions to press under the military government. Famous journalists, editors and publishers were imprisoned and threatened by authorities. For the first and second decades, the media and press had to struggle with the press scrutiny board, an organization formed by the government, screening all the news and media.
Some publications continued to march on as much as they could, but after three decades, in the 1990s, most of them were weary, worn out or diminished. The only newspapers were five state-owned newspapers, a few magazines and overall a low quality journalism existed in Myanmar.
In the late 1990s, there was a change with the emergence of weekly Sports Journals. Myanmar is a soccer-loving nation and the hype of 1994 and 1998 World Cups and Myanmar football team participation in 1993 and 1995 SEA games brought about the official acceptance of more media.
There were dozens of Sports Journal around 1998 and 1999. One of the leading Sports Journals at that time was First Eleven which later became a giant publishing house, introducing Eleven Weekly Journals in the early 2000s and now publishing Eleven Daily Newspaper.
In 2000, The Myanmar Times came out as a weekly journal. It’s the first privately owned newspaper that covered topics beyond sports.
The Myanmar Times was unique not just in display with an international style and approach, but also its ownership. It was founded by Ross Dunkley an Australian, and Sonny Swe (Myat Swe) making it the only Myanmar newspaper to have foreign investment at the time. The newspaper is privately owned by Myanmar Consolidated Media Co. Ltd. (MCM), which is 51 percent locally owned and 49 percent foreign owned.
The government at that time allowed the sports journal to publish because their focus was in Sports. The existence of the Myanmar Times, which was not only first privately-owned newspaper, but even partially foreign owned, and also focused on news (the very area where the government wanted total control) would be a mystery if you don’t know the story behind it. Sonny Swe’s father, Brigadier General Thein Swe, was a senior member of the now-disbanded Military Intelligence department. In the era during which The Myanmar Times was first released; the MI department was very high in power because of its authority to inspect even generals.
The Myanmar Times is published in both English and Myanmar language. The 40-page English version was introduced first on a Monday, and over a year later, the 68-page weekly Burmese version caught the market by storm.
The Myanmar Times introduced its English Edition first to the public. Originally, the 40-page English version was published on a Monday. One year later, the 68-page Myanmar version was launched.
In terms of content, The Myanmar Times had unbelievable press freedom at that time because it was the only publication which didn’t need to pass the Press Scrutiny Board. Under Military Intelligence (MI) supervision, the Myanmar Times circumvented regular scrutiny from the Press Scrutiny Board, which falls under the MI’s rival office within the bureaucracy, the Ministry of Home Affairs.
The Myanmar Times quickly found favor with readers who were looking for fresh alternatives. Quickly, both editions became dominant and superior newspapers in Myanmar and the benchmark for the press. The Myanmar Times took the lead of the media scene in the 2000s with the advantage of being the first private media, which was followed by other weekly journals such as Weekly Eleven, 7 Days News and The Voice in a few years time.
Even then with the new competitors rising, The Myanmar Times had the advantage of bypassing Press Scrutiny Board, with permissions for exclusive coverage and more freedom in editorial content and photos.
With having Ross Dunkley and Sonny Swe as co-founders, The Myanmar Times had Dunkley’s media experiences, ideas and insights and authority and power from Swe’s Side plus the combined financial strength which accommodates well for a private publication. In those golden early years, The Myanmar Times had often been perceived as an organization with good pay and standards for its staff.
The Myanmar Times had selected enthusiastic young people and trained them well to become journalists and editors. Even though there were a number of journals in the market to compete after a few years time, the Myanmar Times was still a leader and the most distinct one with more of an international outlook and features.
In late 2004, General Khin Nyunt who was the head of the office of Chief of Intelligence was put under house arrest. The Myanmar Times was registered under the Office of Strategic Studies, which was formerly controlled by Khin Nyunt. Swe’s father, Brigadier General Thein Swe, was also detained and Swe, 36, became one of the first media personalities arrested following the September ouster of Gen. Khin Nyunt as prime minister.
Sonny Swe was arrested on 26 November 2004. In April 2005 he was given a 14-year jail sentence for publishing the newspaper without approval from the Ministry of Information’s Press Scrutiny Board. The charges were imposed retroactively after Military Intelligence was declared an illegal organization, which in turn meant The Myanmar Times had been effectively publishing uncensored material since its launch. Swe’s arrest and sentencing were generally considered political and linked to his father’s senior position in Military Intelligence, a government body that was purged in 2004 after a power struggle within the military.
After being a favored publication both by the authorities and the public, this was a big turn for the Myanmar Times. The Myanmar Times was started by Dunkley and Swe’s with a vision to become a daily newspaper. Its staff had more editorial freedom than other publications which had to go through press scrutiny board. For the government, at that time, all other publications were locally owned and being the only one publication with a foreign owner; The Myanmar Times seemed like the most dangerous publication for them, with resistance towards being entirely under their controlled.
Following Sonny Swe’s arrest, his stake in The Myanmar Times was transferred to his wife, Yamin Htin Aung, who continued to hold the local share with another investor, Pyone Maung Maung, for almost a year.
With this twist of MIs being purged from the government, the battle for the country’s leading semi-independent newspaper was on. As co-owner and chief editor of the publication, Ross tried to meet the minister of information, General Kyaw Hsan, to try to resolve the issue between the government and the paper’s overseas owners.
General Kyaw Hsan pressured Ya Min Htin Aung, the company’s major shareholder to sell the family’s shares to another local media proprietor, Dr Tin Tun Oo, whose company, Thuta Swe Sone, publishes four other journals. Dr Tin Tun Oo is the secretary of the Myanmar Writers and Journalists’ Association and known to be close to several ministers, including both the information and health ministers.
At that time, the paper’s circulation was claimed by the owner as more than 350,000 a week. The company employed more than 300 workers in Yangon and Mandalay. The Myanmar Times was like a sophisticated public relations tool for more progressive elements in the government compared to the government’s official daily newspaper with traditional propaganda.
Vincent Brossel, head of Asia for the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontiers even said at that time: “It’s like comparing Singapore with North Korea and the presence of the Myanmar Times has helped create some space for the media.”
The battle for the control of the Myanmar Times continued and Dunkley said: “The survival of the paper is in the broader interests of the country as it has raised the standards of local journalism and has helped to counter the bias in the international press.”
Nyan Win, the Foreign Minister of Myanmar at that time, told diplomats in Yangon that “The Myanmar Times was important in creating a more sophisticated view of the country internationally.” He also revealed that he was not aware of the minister of information’s threat to close the paper.
The Australian government also intervened in the dispute. The foreign minister wrote to the Myanmar government urging them not to force the sale of the majority shares in the paper and to allow the company to find viable commercial backers with whom they were comfortable.
Eventually, in 2005, the shares were sold to Tin Htun Oo who became the co-owner with the 51% shares. It was said that General Khin Nyunt permitted the launch of the Myanmar Times as part of his efforts to engage the international community and show the world that Myanmar was changing and was considered as semi-independent without the censorship of Press Scrutiny Board. But after the new ownership took control, all the content in the publications were subject to government censorship.
In the second half of the decade, The Myanmar Times continued to march on with more training for upcoming journalists, cooperation with international organizations and, despite censorship, it still managed to maintain a quality approach in presenting their news and content for readers. With many political incidents in that era, The Myanmar Times was one of the most daring publications in serving people with information they need to know.
THE BATTLE GOES ON
In 2010, newly elected government announced a reform process for the nation and did away with pre-publication censorship in August 2012. Until then, all media in Myanmar including The Myanmar Times was heavily censored by the Ministry of Information’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, commonly known as the Press Scrutiny Board. According to Dunkley, on average 20 percent of the articles submitted to the censorship board were rejected and the gaps were filled with soft news stories.
In January 2008, The Myanmar Times’ Myanmar-language edition was banned from publishing for one week. The ban was imposed by the Press Scrutiny Board after the newspaper’s editors published a story on 11 January about satellite license fees, despite being warned not to do so. The ban was subsequently condemned by Reporters Without Borders and the Myanmar Media Association. In the following week’s English edition, Dunkley defended the article as “good journalism” and denied that he had been told to sack four editors. However, he did announce an editorial “reshuffle” and the creation of an Editorial Steering Committee to both “safeguard the company from conflict with the authorities” and “plan improvements and expansion”.
With the Government’s intention to relax the censorship, the Myanmar Times, the only publication with 49% of foreign ownership and sophisticated practices became the odd one in the Myanmar media scene. The government at that time also had plans to allow private owned daily newspapers for the first time in almost half of a century and The Myanmar Times was the very publication which stated firmly their vision to release a daily publication since from the beginning and also a publication, which wants to keep international trends and standards, such as covering news that formerly the government would not approve.
On 10 February 2011, Dunkley was arrested and charged with breaching immigration law by assaulting a sex worker, a charge which he denies and says was politically motivated. On 13 February 2011, after Dunkley’s arrest, Dr. Tin Tun Oo of Swesone Media and Mr Bill Clough of Far Eastern Consolidated Media (FECM) were appointed as editors-in-chief of the Myanmar and English language editions. Dunkley was released on bail on 29 March from Insein Prison after posting bail and was convicted on 30 June 2011, of assaulting the woman and breaching immigration laws and fined 100,000 kyats.
As part of a government amnesty that saw 93 prisoners released on April 23 of 2013, Sonny Swe, was released from Taunggyi Prison in Shan State after serving more than eight years of a 14-year sentence. Upon the release of his former business-partner for The Myanmar Times, Dunkley called on Dr Tin Tun Oo, who bought U Myat Swe’s shares at a reduced price when he was forced to sell them in 2005, to return them to the company’s founder.
Prior to this, there were clashes and disputes between Dunkley and Dr Tin Tun Oo that resulted in both sides filing criminal charges against each other. Dunkley was determined to release the daily newspaper in that year, with the plan to commence from April 1, and the spark started when he was reportedly halted by his partners in achieving this during February.
There was speculation that Swe tried to buy back his shares but the negotiation wasn’t successful. After a prolonged power struggle between Dunkley and Dr Tin Tun Oo, prominent businessman U Thein Tun bought the shares of Dr Tin Tun Oo for an undisclosed sum in February 2013.
THE JOURNEY GOES ON
On March 9, this year The Myanmar Times achieved its vision by releasing a daily English Newspaper. The man with the vision, Dunkley still owns his shares of the paper but he doesn’t appear to be in the operation management team anymore. In this 15 year journey, The Myanmar Times has encountered many twists and turns and served a major role in the Myanmar media scene. But with the Burmese Edition still being a weekly journal, which is now released every Wednesday, the ultimate original dream to become a Burmese daily newspaper is yet to be fulfilled.