|There are fears that removing the BBC World Service from Myanmar would be a 'present' to military rulers [EPA]
The BBC World Service could be forced to withdraw from Myanmar and several other countries as it faces severe budget cuts under government austerity measures, reports have suggested.
Britain's Guardian newspaper reported on Wednesday that the UK foreign office, which funds the radio and website broadcaster, has told executives to be ready for a potential 25 per cent budget cut.
There are fears that removing the Myanmar service, which is listened to 8.3 million people weekly, would be a "gift to the military junta" there.
The BBC confirmed it was in talks with the foreign office about its budget as part of moves to cut public sector spending but insisted no final decisions had yet been taken.
'Deprived of a lifeline'
A foreign office spokesman also said discussions were under way but refused to give details of any proposed cuts, instead saying the outcome of a spending review would be released in October.
A diplomatic source told the Guardian: "The Burma [Myanmar] office is up for grabs. It is a question of costs. It is very expensive and has relatively few listeners."
Larry Jagan, a former BBC World Service journalist, told Al Jazeera he was "bewildered" by the suggested budget cuts.
"If these planned cuts go ahead to the Burmese service the Burmese are really going to be deprived of what they see as a lifeline," he said.
"The only people who would see this as good news is the junta itself and if the British government does go ahead ... then it's the best present it could give to the junta at this time.
"The service is so well regarded inside the country that when I was there last I went to some radio shops ... to see how they were selling. The seller said 'we cannot sell one of these radio sets unless we can prove it picks up the BBC Burmese service'."
Britain's Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, which took power in May, is drawing up plans for dramatic cuts to public spending aimed at reducing a record deficit.
It is believed the annual $417m allocated to the BBC World Service could be cut by 25 per cent.
The BBC started broadcasts to Myanmar 70 years ago and since its establishment the service has covered independence, uprisings and years of military rule.
'Threats and propaganda'
Around 23 per cent of the country's adult population listen to the service, which is broadcast from Bangkok and London, according to the BBC.
David Miliband, the shadow foreign secretary, told the paper that ending BBC broadcasts to the country would play into the hands of the country's military rulers.
"The World Service is a steady, credible voice in parts of the world where the only other messages blend threats and propaganda," he said.
"Scrapping the World Service in Burma would be a gift to the military junta, and an insult to political prisoners locked in Burma's jail for no crime."
Myanmar is the subject of tough Western sanctions, due to its refusal to recognise the last elections in 1990 and the prolonged detention of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The country will hold its first election in 20 years in November, but pro-democracy parties allege that restrictions imposed by the military government will virtually ensure it wins the poll.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies