Myanmar junta hikes satellite TV fees

YANGON (Reuters) - Without warning, Myanmar’s military junta has ordered a massive 166-fold rise in the annual satellite television levy in an apparent attempt to stop people watching dissident and international news broadcasts.

With no word in state media of any license fee increases, the first satellite dish owners knew of the hike was when they went to pay the 6,000 kyat levy, only to be told it was now 1 million kyat ($780), three times the average citizen’s yearly income.

An official at Myanma Post and Telecom confirmed the increase on Wednesday, but was at a loss to explain it.

“It’s not our decision,” the official, who asked not to be named, told Reuters. “We were just ordered by the higher authorities. Even I was shocked when I heard about it.”

The increase is way beyond the meager means of virtually all the former Burma’s 56 million people, for whom international broadcasts such as Al Jazeera or Norway-based dissident network Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) are the main source of news.

Without satellite, the only other television news is on rigidly state-controlled MRTV. The few private television stations avoid all current affairs in favor of a diet of soap operas and pop music.

Foreign and external media played a major role in the dissent in August and September that mushroomed from a handful of sporadic demonstrations against shock fuel price rises into major protests against 45 years of military rule.

Since killing at least 31 people in suppressing the protests, the ruling junta has sustained a relentless assault on the BBC, DVB, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, accusing them of broadcasting a “skyful of lies.”

Yangon residents saw the license fee increase as an extension of that campaign.

“I just can’t help thinking that they want to close the eyes and ears of the people,” said Ba Myint, a retired government official.

According to official data, there were 60,000 registered satellite receivers in 2002, although a glance at the dish-clad roofs of Yangon apartment blocks suggests the real figure is much higher.

Besides outside news, many people have satellite to watch European soccer or Chinese soap operas.

Rumors have also been sweeping Yangon of an imminent cut in the daily ration of subsidized fuel in response to the increase in world oil prices. State media denied that any reductions were in the offing.

($1 = 1,280 kyat)

Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Michael Battye and Roger Crabb