RANGOON — An internal dispute between the owners of The Myanmar Times is threatening the survival of the English-language newspaper, after the company’s majority shareholders asked a court earlier this month to dissolve the firm and immediately suspend publication.
The Myanmar Times is privately owned by Myanmar Consolidated Media Co. Ltd. (MCM) and 51 percent of MCM’s shares are in the hands of Dr Tin Tun Oo and his wife Khin Moe Moe. Tin Tun Oo is also listed as the paper’s publisher.
The couple’s lawyer announced in a Burmese-language notification in the government-run newspaper The Mirror on Monday that they are seeking to officially dissolve MCM through a court order.
Dr Tin Tun Oo and his wife “submitted a request at the Western Yangon Court on August 12 to dissolve MCM and there will be a court hearing on September 26,” the announcement said, adding that anyone who wants to object in the case should be present at the court on the day.
The 49 percent of remaining MCM shares are owned by an Australian company affiliated with The Times’ managing director and English-language editor-in-chief Ross Dunkley, who also publishes Cambodia’s Phnom Penh Post.
Khin Moe Moe and her lawyer Kyaw Myint were reluctant to discuss the court case when contacted by The Irrawaddy on Monday.
Asked why she and her husband were seeking to dissolve the newspaper, Khin Moe Moe said, “Because we cannot reach a deal with the foreigner who owns 49 percent. We own the other 51 percent.
“We will agree to any decision by the court,” she added, before asking an Irrawaddy reporter to leave her office in downtown Rangoon.
Lawyer Kyaw Myint said his clients had requested an immediate suspension of the paper’s publication while their request was pending at the court. “That is what we have requested of the court. The court will consider this proposal,” he said.
Kyaw Myint declined to comment on whether or not the majority owners would consider selling their shares instead of seeking the dissolution of MCM through legal action.
Dunkley has had public disagreements with MCM’s majority shareholders in the past.
In January, Khin Moe Moe accused the Australian of hitting her son-in-law during an argument at the paper’s Rangoon office, and she said she would sue him over the alleged assault. At the time, she also vowed to block Dunkley’s plan to turn The Myanmar Times into a daily newspaper.
Currently, the publication appears weekly.
Burma’s reformist government lifted restrictions on daily newspapers in April after repressing independent media in the country for decades. All publications remained subject to government censorship until August of last year.
Asked if the legal action regarding MCM was related to Khin Moe Moe’s claims of an assault by Dunkley, her lawyer said, “This is unrelated. That is a different case.”
Dunkley could not immediately be reached for comment on Monday.
The paper’s CEO Sonny Swe voiced concern over the future of The Myanmar Times in a brief interview with The Irrawaddy.
“There are many employees here. If the company has to stop, many will be unemployed. They should not do this, I think,” he said, adding that his attempts to buy the majority MCM shares had failed.
“I tried to buy the shares, but I could not reach an agreement over the price,” Sonny Swe said.
The Times employs about 300 staff, most of whom are Burmese. It was founded in 2000, when Dunkley entered isolated, military-run Burma to set up an English-language newspaper.
The Australian businessman cut a deal with the hated Military Intelligence (MI) that allowed the paper to appear without passing through the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department, Burma’s censorship board. Instead, the paper’s content was only screened by the MI.
Sonny Swe, a son of senior MI officer Brig-Gen Thein Swe, was the Times’ original majority shareholder. He was arrested during a purge of the MI by then junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe in 2004. Tin Tun Oo, a media person with close connections to the junta, took over his shares in The Times. After 2005, The Myanmar Times also went through Burma’s censorship board.
Sonny Swe was released from prison in April this year and Dunkley subsequently offered him a position as CEO at The Times.
In January, Dunkley complained that ever since Tin Tun Oo took majority shares in the paper, he and his wife had “sometimes attempted to disrupt the activities of the newspaper.”
Apart from these business disputes, Dunkley has also faced criminal charges in Burma. In 2011, he spent 44 days in Rangoon’s Insein Prison after he was convicted of physically assaulting a woman and for drug-related charges.
Since April, there have been reports that the Australian is banned from leaving the country because of the court case against him for allegedly hitting Khin Moe Moe’s son-in-law.