Did Foreign Minister Alexander Downer intervene in a dispute with the Burmese military Government over its ownership move against the partly-Australian-owned weekly newspaper, the Myanmar Times, by writing a letter to the Burmese government? He did according to a recent Bangkok Post report.

Downer denies the claim, but his spokesman Chris Kenny confirmed that the Australian embassy in Yangon (Rangoon) “has been involved, to support the rights of Australian businesses.”

An Australian consortium which owns 49% of the newspaper is headed by the Myanmar Times's CEO Ross Dunkley, a Walkley-winning Perth journalist who started a business press in Vietnam and then sold it to Australian Consolidated Press. Another Australian investor is the Clough Engineering firm of Perth, and board of directors meetings were often held in Perth.

Two months ago, the Burmese military regime began moves to seize the paper, which was founded in February 2000 by Dunkley and U Myat (Sonny) Swe, the son of a senior Burmese military intelligence officer, Brigadier General Thein Swe, a close confidant of the recently-ousted Prime Minister and Chief of Military Intelligence Khin Nyunt.

Thein Swe headed the military intelligence bureau that became the official censor of the Myanmar Times, against the wishes of the Ministry of Information.

Sonny Swe and U Pyone Maung Maung, a prominent Burmese businessman also closely connected to Khin Nyunt, owned 51% of the newspaper.

In September 2003, the Prime Minister gave the Times the go-ahead to publish a daily newspaper in opposition to the military regime's Stalinist-style propaganda English-language daily, the New Light of Myanmar.

But a year later, in October 2004, just as the Times moved into swanky new downtown Rangoon premises, the Burmese top dog, Senior General Than Shwe purged all military intelligence officers, shutting down the organisation. Many senior MI officers were jailed including Brigadier General Thein Swe (152 years) and PM Khin Nyunt (44 years house detention.)

Shortly after the MI purge, Sonny Swe was arrested at Mandalay airport and sentenced to 14 years prison for bypassing official censorship.

After Sonny Swe's imprisonment, his wife, Yamin Htin Aung, took over the shares and directorship of the company.

But recently, she was forced to resign by Burma's Minister of Information General Kyaw Hsan after he threatened to nationalise the paper.

Hsan is ridding the paper of anyone connected with military intelligence and has nominated a favoured buyer, a small scale publisher Dr Tin Tun Oo who tendered a “low ball bid.”

Ross Dunkley has been trying to organise a consortium of Burmese investors who are “non-military men,” and in early September he circulated a document about the attempted takeover stating that the “foreign side” has legal rights under its Shareholders Agreements and The Myanmar Companies Act.

It is believed the Burmese military will bring the matter to a head in the next few days and Ross Dunkley already has an exit plan – a publishing venture in Kabul.