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New Burmese Government Unblocks Foreign Web Sites

Burma's pro-military government has lifted a long-standing ban on several prominent news Web sites, including the Voice of America, Reuters news agency and the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Web sites belonging to several major regional news organizations and the exile-run Democratic Voice of Burma were also unblocked, along with the online video portal YouTube.

The surprise move by the government comes one day after U.S. special envoy Derek Mitchell ended a five-day visit to the country in which he sought to press the new, nominally-civilian government to make good on promises to foster democratic reforms.

The government's move marks the first time VOA's Burmese-language Web site has been available to the public since it was launched early last decade. Other Web sites, including Reuters, were blocked in 2007, at the peak of a government crackdown on Buddhist monk-led protests against the military junta that stepped aside earlier this year.

However, television remains tightly controlled in Burma and foreign journalists are largely barred from reporting in the country.

Thursday's easement also comes as the Burmese government for the first time allowed the public to celebrate the United Nations'-designated "International Day of Democracy."

Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, freed late last year from 7 years of house arrest, marked the U.N. observance with an address at her National League for Democracy headquarters in Rangoon.

Burma's Irrawaddy news magazine says the Nobel laureate's comments focused on the theme that "governments always have to change," and that such change must be "gentle, peaceful and dignified."

Recent overtures by the new government toward the country's pro-democracy opposition and a host of Western governments have stirred widespread speculation about democratic reform in Burma, which has been ruled by military generals since the early 1960s.

Since taking office earlier this year, the new government has called for peace with armed ethnic separatists and met with several foreign delegations. President Thein Sein met with Aung San Suu Kyi for the first time in August, and both parties later described the meeting as friendly. A senior NLD party official later told the Associated press the meeting could mark a possible first step toward national reconciliation.

In another sign of ongoing tension between pro-democracy forces and the government, a Rangoon court on Wednesday added 10 years to the prison sentence of a young news photographer who was arrested after taking pictures at the scene of a bomb attack last year.

The court sentenced 21-year-old Sithu Zeya under Burma's harsh Electronics Act, saying he had circulated material that could damage tranquillity and unity in the government.

Sithu Zeya was already serving an eight-year term on immigration and illegal associations charges. Prosecutors said he had admitted to associating with an exiled media group, the Democratic Voice of Burma, and receiving media training in Thailand.

Some information for this report was provided by Reuters.