"Lifeline service": BBC Burmese marks 70th anniversary

Image caption Burma's first post-Independence Prime Minister U Nu appeared on the BBC Burmese service in 1947

As the BBC Burmese service broadcast a programme marking its 70th anniversary, Sandhobasa, a monk, called in to say that he had been listening for more than two decades.

The broadcasts enriched his knowledge, he said, and he had become attached to them. He could, he said, name the day when every presenter joined or left the BBC.

Founded in 1940, the service has covered independence, uprisings and long years of military rule.

Small teams based in Bangkok and London's Bush House broadcast to an estimated 22.9% of Burma's adult population, and in times of national crisis these figures soar.

"The BBC plays a massive role in bringing accurate, impartial information to the people of Burma," says Soe Win Than, one of the editors at the service.

"People inside Burma cannot get free information. We are a lifeline service."

Essential listening

Last year Burma was voted 5th worst in the world in terms of media freedom by Reporters Without Borders; local media is heavily censored.

Image caption The BBC began broadcasting to Burma in 1940, when Burma was still part of the British empire

Soe Win Than says this is particularly true in times of crisis, such as during the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, or the 2007 protests led by monks.

"During the uprising the government slowed down the internet connections and blocked access," he says.

"People tuned in to the BBC to find out what was happening - and our listenership skyrocketed."

This also happened in August 1988, when hundreds of thousands of people took part in pro-democracy protests across the country.

Former student leader Aung Myo Tun said that during that time he listened to the BBC every day.

But it is not only in times of crisis that the BBC is essential listening in Burma.

Sit Maw, a 19 year-old student living in Burma's commercial capital Rangoon, is one of an estimated 8.3 million weekly listeners in Burma.

"The information in my country is not good," he says. "Most news is controlled by the government."

"We need free information about what is happening inside and outside the country and in the world today. That's why I listen to the BBC. "

His view is confirmed by research.

"Independent surveys also show that BBC Burmese has established itself as the most trusted, reliable source of information in Burma, says the BBC's Director of Global News, Peter Horrocks.

"It's not an exaggeration to say that its broadcasts have helped to keep the Burmese people informed - and empowered."

Huge following

In their weekly Have Your Say programme, listeners from inside Burma as well as countries like Bangladesh, Thailand and Japan call in to to take part in discussion.

"The people of Burma are deprived of the privilege of free information," says Soe Win Than.

Image caption Presenter Ne Win (R) was one of the service's best known voices; he retired in 1995

"The government in Burma is so paranoid that they censor publications with dark covers, as they believe they imply that Burma is still in the dark ages."

"Our Have Your Say programme gives the Burmese people a forum, a chance to talk about a range of topics, including politics."

BBC Burmese do not only broadcast radio. They also have a Burmese language website, and receive many emails a day.

They have just launched a newsletter aimed at Burmese migrants on the Thai-Burma border.

Not surprisingly BBC journalists enjoy a huge following in Burma.

"Every journalist in Burma wants to work for the BBC" says producer Moe Myint, one of the younger members of the team. "Nobody can compete in terms of audience or reputation."

But for those who work for the BBC, there is a personal cost. Moe Myint says that whenever he returns to Burma he is followed by the authorities "everywhere I go".

Several BBC Burmese journalists have experienced difficult circumstances due to the political situation in Burma.

Nita May spent three years in the notorious Insein prison, where she gave birth to a son.

Another member of staff took part in the student uprising in 1988 and had to escape through the jungles on the Thai-Burma border.

Now as journalists in London and Bangkok, they provide an essential link to the outside world for a country starved of independent news.

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