YANGON – The trial of Australian media personality Mr. Ross Dunkley, his compatriot Mr. John McKenzie and five young Myanmar women began at the Western District Court on Friday after they were apprehended by police in possession of a large quantity of illegal stimulants last month.
The district law office announced that two other Myanmar nationals detained at the same time as Dunkley, his maid and guard, were released without charge.
Previous police reports stated that law enforcement officers had raided Dunkley’s rented house in Bahan at about 9 p.m on June 6 and seized various amounts of amphetamine tablets, crystal methamphetamine, or “ice”, marijuana and heroin.
The reports said a total of nine suspects were arrested. The five women, aged between 19 to 29, were identified as Ma Hanni Soe, Ma Win Win, Ma Haymar Lwin, Ma Thuzar and Ma Hnin Ei Khine. All were found at Dunkley’s house on that night of the police raid. U Thue Thue and Daw Tin Tin Win, who serve respectively as Dunkley’s private home security and housekeeper, were released in line with the legal officer’s recommendations, according to District Court spokesman U Htay Aung.
At Friday’s court hearing, the seven suspects appeared in handcuffs and shackles. Although some of the suspects had already been brought to the district court’s custody, the hearing was delayed for several hours until 4:05 p.m as McKenzie was receiving medical treatment elsewhere. Relatives of the women suspects also attended the hearing.
In the courtroom, Associate Judge U Nyi Nyi Aye told the seven detainees that they were being charged under sections 19 (a) and 21 of the anti-narcotics law. While Dunkley and McKenzie were accompanied by their defense lawyers, the five women’s legal representatives did not show up although they promised to bring them to the next hearing, set for July 12. If the suspects are found guilty, they face a minimum jail sentence of 10 years and possibly unlimited imprisonment.
The connection between the five Myanmar nationals and two foreigners was not explained at today’s hearing nor were the results of the medical examinations of the accused made available to the media. The District Court’s spokesman said the medical records would not be included as evidence in the case as they were considered irrelevant.
Based on posts to their respective Facebook accounts, it appears that Ma Hanni Soe is Dunkley’s girlfriend. Ma Hanni Soe’s mother declined to clarify the relationship between her daughter and Dunkley.
“I am not feeling well and don’t want to talk about anything,” she said.
Dunkley founded the Myanmar Times in 2000 in a partnership with Sonny Swe, the son of a notorious senior military intelligence (MI) officer, Brigadier-General Thein Swe, with the permission of then spy chief Khin Nyunt. At that time, foreign investment in Myanmar was extremely difficult and enmeshed in red type.
The publication faced challenges from early on, starting in 2004 when Khin Nyunt was purged and jailed. In the following year, Sonny Swe was also imprisoned for decades for violating Myanmar’s censorship laws. The disputed ownership of the Myanmar Times was acrimoniously resolved with a new owner taking over and Dunkley ousted. The Myanmar Times is currently operated by Pepsi U Thein Tun and publishes both Myanmar and English versions.
In 2017, Dunkley re-entered Myanmar to make a “fresh start” in the local media landscape with a mission named “Beyond the Box Communications“. McKenzie, who has been identified as a former IFC and World Bank advisor, was Dunkley’s business partner.
Dunkley was quoted in an article of MediaWeek published in 2017 as saying that he had assembled an exceptional founding team for the agency that included Yamin Htin Aung, owner of My Magical Myanmar and the wife of his former partner Sonny Swe (who established Frontier Myanmar); Mr. Glen Felgate, formerly of CTN Cambodia, former chief government censor U Tint Swe of the Ministry of Information, and McKenzie.
Dunkley said in the MediaWeek article, “As partners we will tip in US$1.5 million (A$1.9m) and look to raise an additional $3m for 30% of the company. That’s not much to establish a premier media company in Myanmar.”