Myanmar Times Says Burmese Want U.S. Invasion
By Richard S. Ehrlich
BANGKOK, Thailand -- Many Burmese want U.S. President George W. Bush and the U.N. to invade Burma with warplanes and troops to topple the military regime, said Burma-based Ross Dunkley, a CEO and managing editor of the government-censored Myanmar Times.
"The business community is on the point of collapse" in Burma, prompting desperation and despair after the U.S. enforced economic sanctions to push the junta into handing power to a democratically elected administration, Mr. Dunkley, an Australian, said.
The Myanmar Times is the only English-language weekly allowed to be published in Burma, a Buddhist-majority country also known as Myanmar.
Mr. Dunkley's life and work in the capital Rangoon, also known as Yangon, has given him a unique, controversial perspective inside the repressive, hermit nation.
"I live in Yangon and I catch a taxi to work every day. And I speak to a lot of people randomly out on the street, and indiscriminately hear opinions from people who don't know who I am and I don't know who they are," the Australian publisher said.
"But one thing is pretty common. They all want George W. Bush and the U.N. to come into Myanmar with a whole lot of guns and airplanes and jets and to solve the problem. They believe that's possible."
Mr. Dunkley made the remarks during a recent news conference and panel discussion at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, billed as: "Prospects for Democracy in Burma."
Everyone on the panel agreed the military regime in Southeast Asia's biggest nation was in terrible shape.
Mr. Dunkley said despite strict laws against freedom of the press, he taught his journalists and editors to perceive the real situation and report news the best they can.
"I talk to them about ethics, about the law, about corruption and about what a fucked up government this is," the blunt Mr. Dunkley said, drawing a burst of laughter from the audience of journalists, diplomats, business people, activists and others.
Mr. Dunkley defended his joint-venture which produced a newspaper bleached by censorship and offering sanitized domestic and international news and photos, and said it was better than no news at all.
He lashed out at a respected, U.S. government-financed Burmese intellectual, Aung Zaw, who is based in Thailand as editor and director of The Irrawaddy monthly magazine which seeks an end to military rule in his homeland.
"I'm not in Chiang Mai [northern Thailand] like you, Aung Zaw, and I'm not receiving 250,000 U.S. dollars a year from the U.S. government," Mr. Dunkley said.
Mr. Aung Zaw, also on the panel, became livid at that remark and later insisted Irrawaddy magazine was paid "only 100,000" U.S. dollars last year from the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which is funded mostly by the U.S. Congress through the State Department.
"We take the money," Aung Zaw replied.
"They are not donors. They are a funding agency, a financial institution who believe in what [we] do, who believe in [our] values, who believe in [our] principles, who give [us] money.
"It is all transparent and accountable. They believe [we] are pushing for a free press, independent media. That's why they give [us] the money. Nothing wrong with it," Mr. Aung Zaw said.
"They never interfere. If they interfere, I tell them, 'Get lost.' I would never allow them to come into my office. I don't become a mouthpiece of anybody," Mr. Aung Zaw said.
For the past 10 years, Irrawaddy magazine has been read by journalists, scholars and others interested in politics, economics and culture in Burma, which usually forbids independent investigation of events.
The military regime is responsible for some of the worst human rights violations in the world, according to London-based Amnesty International, Washington-based Human Rights Watch, the U.S. State Department and other monitors.
Despite the frequently acrimonious tone to the debate, the remarks by the Australian entrepreneur and the Burmese intellectual provided a microcosm of the optimism and difficulty faced by people grappling with Burma's stonewall against democracy.
Critics of the latest U.S.-led sanctions say Burma has already suffered a closed economy for more than 40 years -- because of its own xenophobic "socialist" policies and various international boycotts.
Locking up Burma's businesses did not nudge the regime to embrace democracy in the past, and does not appear to be successful now, they said.
Sanctions also kept most Burmese too poor to challenge the military, but modernization and investment could bring new ideas and influences to help Burma evolve toward greater freedom, critics added.
The latest U.S. sanctions made Burmese "confused, worried and completely disoriented," Mr. Dunkley said.
"Internally, there has been a run on the banks over the past six months, which the international press has scarcely reported on, but which has had a major impact on business," he said.
"There are no credit cards in the country anymore. There are no people running loans or overdrafts. Financial instruments have gone out the window.
"No one is really using the banking system anymore," Mr. Dunkley said.
"Can you imagine...if you got your paycheck every week and couldn't put it into the bank, couldn't use your credit card, you didn't know how to pay your bills?"
Even the regime is being squeezed.
"The generals are hurting because the generals and their wives, who are hoarding away hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars of F.E.C., Foreign Exchange Certificates -- which is so-called equivalent to one U.S. dollar [each] -- has plunged to 40 percent or 50 percent of its value. They are in deep trouble," he said.
"The business community is on the point of collapse. They are unable to export anymore. And the government has put in rules and regulations that you cannot import goods anymore.
"This is dragging the government down even further to the point where something will crack," he predicted.
Mr. Dunkley said his four-year-old newspaper was read by 300,000 people each week.
"We have 49 percent foreign ownership, and 51 percent Burmese ownership and no government money is in our organization.
"We employ 300 people and we support their families. And we sell advertising on a commercial basis like everyone else and we don't make any profit," the Australian added.
Mr. Dunkley said he received financial "support" from the Japanese Sasakawa Peace Foundation, a non-government organization, but did not elaborate.
"I wish that I was making a profit," Mr. Dunkley said. "I'm on the bones of my ass."
Richard S. Ehrlich,
a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for
the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book,
"HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar
Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is