/ 15 September 2011

Burma lifts ban on foreign news websites

Burma lifted bans on prominent news websites on Thursday, including some run by critics of the army-dominated government, and unblocked online video portal YouTube, the latest signs of possible reforms in one of Asia’s most reclusive states.

Bans were lifted on websites for several news organisations including Reuters, along with the Bangkok Post, Singapore Straits Times and other regional newspapers, and the Burmese language services of the Voice of America, British Broadcasting Corp and the exiled-run Democratic Voice of Burma.

Reuters and several other news websites were blocked at the peak of an army crackdown on monk-led protests in 2007. Since then, those sites displayed a common message from state telecoms group Myanmar Post and Telecommunications (MPT).

“This website is blocked by the MPT,” it said.

That disappeared on Thursday, a day after a United States special envoy ended his first trip to the country. It also coincided with the United Nations’ “International Day of Democracy”, an event celebrated by Nobel laureate and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the commercial capital Yangon.

“Changes are on the horizon in Burma,” she told supporters outside her party’s headquarters.

However, television remains strictly controlled by the government and foreign journalists are still mostly barred from legally reporting in the country. Most expect Western sanctions to remain in place until an estimated 2 100 political prisoners are released.

Approval by censors
Every song, book, cartoon and planned piece of art still requires approval by censors rooting out political messages and criticisms of Burma’s authoritarian system.

One editor of a weekly newspaper described the reopening of the websites as “a big improvement in the media policy of the new government.

“We can have access to these websites, but the connection is still rather slow most of the time,” he said, declining to be identified by name. “Let’s wait to see how long it will last.”

Rare overtures by Burma’s rulers toward liberalisation have stirred speculation of possible reforms in the resource-rich country, blighted by 49 years of military rule and starved of capital.

Burma last year held its first elections in two decades after which the military nominally handed power to civilians — a process widely criticised as a sham by the West.

Other overtures include calls for peace with armed ethnic separatists, presidential meetings with foreign delegations, some tolerance of criticism and more communication with Suu Kyi, who was freed last year from 15 years of house arrest.

In one gesture, Burma’s state-run newspapers last month dropped back-page banners attacking Western media. — Reuters