Burmese get a whiff of UK elections

The furore surrounding Gordon Brown’s “bigoted woman” slip-up and Nick Clegg’s rise from the ashes to stardom are all being beamed at Burma’s young voters as part of a BBC ‘connecting’ initiative.

With Burma due this year hold its first elections since 1990, and the UK heading to the polls in a week’s time, the BBC Burmese service has said it is “specifically [targeting] Burma’s young people who have never voted”.

Although critics have derided the Burmese elections as a sham, some observers say that any window of opportunity for change in the country, however slight, should be exploited. Burma has been ruled by a military dictatorship since 1962.

“The BBC Burmese journalists report on the UK parliamentary system, the relationship between the UK government and the opposition parties, why people vote and whether they vote for the personality or for electoral platform,” it said.

Much of this however will fall flat on Burmese ears, given the ruling junta’s success in blocking any viable opposition from running for office. The National League for Democracy party, headed by imprisoned Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, was forced to boycott the elections after laws were announced which prevented Suu Kyi from participating.

The BBC is one of only three non-state television broadcasters in Burma, along with Voice of America (VOA) and DVB; around 10 million people tune into DVB’s radio and television broadcasts each day.

The 32-language BBC World Service, of which BBC Burmese is one, says that it has “mounted extensive programming, making the connection between the UK’s key political event on the one hand, and the lives of people around the world on the other”.

“The international broadcaster is placing UK election 2010 in the context of the issues relevant and important to its audience across platforms, across languages, across regions.”

The director of BBC Global News also noted that international audiences will want to “discuss and debate the impact the UK votes may have on their lives”. While the UK’s sporadic criticism of the Burmese government is often drowned out by vociferous berating from Washington, Britain maintains strict sanctions on the Burmese generals and provides funding for aid groups along the Thai-Burma border.

Many Central Asian and Arabic countries are also being targeted by the initiative, which includes “a look at how the elections work in a Western democracy, how the opposition functions, what are the forces influencing UK politics and politicians,” and more.

Burma has one of the world’s harshest media environments, and regularly imprisons journalists deemed guilty of dissent against the ruling junta. Non-state media workers are viewed as the ‘third pillar’ in the pro-democracy movement; the apparent threat they pose to the junta’s grip on power is epitomised by the 14 now serving jail sentences, some as long as 35 years.

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