Letters: Democracy in Burma

A blow we can all strike for democracy in Burma
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The Independent Online

Sir: John Bercow MP (Opinion, 26 September) rightly says that the vile regime in Burma has to be confronted with tougher EU trade sanctions. But what neither he nor Gordon Brown has stated is that it lies within the power of the readers of this newspaper to implement effective sanctions immediately. As Aung San Suu Kyi has said, Total Oil "has become the main supporter of the Burmese military regime".

Perhaps the most depressing consequence of Total's presence in Burma has been its malign influence on French foreign policy. In order to protect Total's interests, the French government has become an obstacle to any serious strengthening of EU measures against Burma. The French government has pushed for the junta to be admitted into international associations, defended Total's investment in Burma and ensured that EU policy is devoid of any serious economic sanctions against Burma's dictators.

In October 2004, for example, France made sure that proposed new sanctions against Burma would not affect the regime's most lucrative sector – oil and gas. France, by protecting Total's interest in Burma, is protecting the dictatorship itself, which has used the revenues it has received from Total to buy MiG-29 jet fighters and other military hardware.

Every day, thousands of readers of this newspaper buy fuel from Total petrol stations in ignorance that they are helping to buy the bullets which are used for the suppression of peaceful protest in Burma. The best way to cut off the junta's funds is for all of us – including Messrs Brown and Bercow – to commit to driving on past Total's forecourts and filling up our cars elsewhere.

Alan Bates

London W9

Don't blame Islam for education gap

Sir: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's article (24, September) provides an inadequate explanation for the educational success of British-Indian children as compared with British-Pakistani children. She implies that religion (Islam) accounts for this difference.

Most Pakistanis and Indians migrated to this country in the 1960s. With the majority of Indians, the most motivated of people migrated to better their lives. This selection of motivated people ensured that their future generations were likely to do well. Seventy per cent of Pakistanis migrated, under a government scheme, from the remote Mirpur area of Azad Kashmir. Entire villages were relocated for a new dam.

If whole villages from rural Bihar (India) had been transported to the UK in the 1960s, and these had accounted for 75 per cent of the British Indian population, then I suggest that we wouldn't see this disparity between educational levels of the next generation. This is not an issue of religion.

The differences between India and Pakistan are not as great as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown suggests. The GDP per head for Pakistan was $787 last year; $842 for India. Alibhai-Brown has inflated the difference between the two countries, and then explained this through religion.

Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by Hindu fundamentalists because he went on a hunger strike to protest against the partiality of the British and the Indians in their splitting of assets. Lord Mountbatten described Pakistan as "moth-eaten" in 1947. It was not afforded a fair start; it is, to its credit, a vibrant state that is catching up.

Dr Asad Sadiq


Sir: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is brave to write about "barbaric Muslims", but her analysis suggests that she and other refined and educated Muslims must be braver still and shoulder a frightening responsibility to engage with those barbarian hordes.

Surely the "terror of the modern world" that is felt by those hordes stems from being exposed to modernity without the emotional education to understand it, and this is where Muslim intellectuals can try to help their disadvantaged brothers and sisters. Refinement and education are not worth anything if kept in a world apart, and will be destroyed, as she says, if they do not engage. I do not envy them their task.

Richard Myers

Clandon, Surrey

Sir: Recently, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown lambasted atheists for scientific questioning of the validity of religion and its merit for society. Now she bemoans the decline of refined and educated Muslims.

Does she not see the link between religious faith, which prohibits critical questioning, and education, which depends on it. Only by challenging religious "certainties" can the self-righteous bullies who fight intellectual discourse be contained. Thanks to the critical questioning of religious dogma Europe managed to struggle out of the dark ages into enlightenment.

Jörg Schumacher

Department of Biological Sciences, Imperial College London

Acupuncture seems to work – but why?

Sir: The German study of acupuncture (report, 25 September) agrees with other similar studies and with the experience of those of us who practise Western medical acupuncture: acupuncture does work but it often makes little difference exactly where the needles are inserted. This may mean either that acupuncture is a complicated placebo or that its effects are real but not connected with the traditional theory. I think myself that the second possibility is the case.

The accompanying case history of the student with back pain gives a rather misleading impression. While it is gratifying that she is obtaining some pain relief from her treatment, if she requires repeated needling twice a week, apparently indefinitely, this cannot be called a good outcome. If acupuncture is successful the relief should last much longer than this; the quoted research mentions six months. It is also unnecessary to give treatments lasting as long as 50 minutes; much shorter treatments, perhaps taking only a few minutes to perform, are equally effective and therefore suitable for use in a busy NHS setting.

Dr Anthony Campbell

London N14

Rescue work for vanishing languages

Sir: Your excellent feature article on endangered languages (19 September) and the work of Dr Harrison and Dr Anderson ends with the words "What we lack are the funds" to help with the task of documenting threatened languages.

In fact, there are substantial funds available to support this work, though more is needed of course. UK is home to the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project, based at the School of Oriental and African Studies that is sponsored by a £20m commitment from Arcadia. We distribute around £1m in research grants each year, and indeed Harrison and Anderson themselves have received over £65,000 from our project to support their research in Siberia (not mentioned in your article). In addition the Volkswagen Foundation through its DoBeS project distributes several million euros in grants annually, and the DEL project of the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities in the US grants over $2m each year.

What we truly need are trained and committed researchers to carry out this work together with communities across the world – at SOAS we are training a new generation of fieldworkers through the Endangered Languages Project and are keen to link up with others interested in documenting the world's linguistic and cultural heritage.

Professor Peter K Austin

Department of Linguistics, School of Oriental and African Studies, London WC1

Sad fate of Victorian vicar's pet bat

Sir: The reference to the Rev Sabine Baring-Gould (19 September) was good to see, but might I correct and embellish what is certainly a very good story?

Sabine did marry Grace Taylor in 1868, but she was 18, not 16, and far from illiterate. They had 15 children, of whom 14 reached adulthood, but the story of the unrecognised daughter at the party is almost certainly apocryphal. Similarly, we have no firm evidence for the claim that George Bernard Shaw used the couple as models for Pygmalion. However, Sabine did have a pet bat, which was accidentally killed when the maidservant trod on it. He was at one time the author with the highest number of listed works at the British Library, having published his first article at the age of 16, and continued to write for the next 74 years.

Rebecca Tope

Walterstone, Herefordshire

Obvious ways to improve hospitals

Sir: I was amazed to hear that ministers are discussing at great length and putting in place measures to improve patient care and hygiene in hospitals. Surely these are two of the most fundamental principles of health care and should be priorities at all times. That the NHS is not even getting these right indicates just how serious its problems are.

Some of the solutions are obvious. Put matrons in charge of wards; stop doctors wearing their street clothes whilst seeing patients; get off the computer and off the phone whilst huddled around the nurses' station and get back on the ward looking after the patients. Put the money and the workforce where they are needed, on the hospital ward.

I base these observations on recent tragic experience which I regret many others are at present experiencing also.

Margaret Spendlove-Mason

Newton Harcourt, Leicestershire

Legal assault on respectable drinkers

Sir: A notice was recently affixed to a lamp post outside our home, an owner-occupied former local authority flat on an estate with a reputation.

The purpose of the notice was to inform residents that the estate was to become an alcohol exclusion zone, and whilst I applaud efforts made by government and the police to crack down on youth drunkenness and associated crime, it nevertheless raises concerns as to the real intention behind this policy.

The notice said, "No premises is exempt." No premises! So can we not enjoy a glass of homemade wine on our own balcony?

Surely there are plenty of laws the police can use to counter drunkenness in the street (and I write as a former police officer)? The offences of drunk and disorderly, assault, actual or grievous bodily harm, criminal damage, and the all-embracing breach of the peace spring to mind, along with a host of others.

Should I, a middle-aged, middle-class, reasonably educated and law-abiding woman wish to have a glass of wine or a can of lager, not only in a public place but also in my shared garden or balcony, I shall be breaking the law and therefore subject to arrest, fine, and an Asbo should I fail to abide by this law. Can this be right?

Helen Petersen

Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire

No safe haven for Mugabe's victims

Sir: Gordon Brown is boycotting a summit of African and European leaders if it is attended by President Mugabe. Is it not therefore ironic that thousands of Zimbabwean asylum seekers have been refused permission to stay in this country?

Many are refused asylum not because there is doubt that they have been tortured by the Mugabe regime, but because they cannot prove that they would be in danger of further torture if they returned to Zimbabwe. Gordon Brown writes of "the appalling and tragic situation in which the people of Zimbabwe now find themselves" and how Britain is doing "everything it can" to help them. Surely a good start would be to allow any Zimbabwean who has managed to escape to Britain to stay here until that help has taken effect.

Theresa Frayn


Sir: If opposition forces in Zimbabwe want to oust Mugabe all they need to do is announce to the world, "We've discovered oil." The forces of "peace and democracy" will have invented weapons of mass destruction and be invading before the evening news goes out. Pending, of course, division of lucrative "reconstruction" contracts.

Glenn Sweeney

Wigan, Greater Manchester


Miles ahead

Sir: Now that the EU has said it will leave us alone to our pounds and ounces and other quirky measurements, please can we return to "exclusion" zones and other distances being in miles not kilometres. We do not do kilometres.

Malcolm D Y Treen

Camberley, Surrey

Paying to pay

Sir: I was amused by Roger Iredale (Letter, 25 September) expressing delight in having withheld £4.50 from BT on the grounds that their demand for payment for processing his cheque did not form part of his contract with them. I'm sure he will be equally delighted when BT decides it can afford to forgo his custom. When a business relationship breaks down to the extent that the parties start examining the contract small print for petty advantage then the only people likely to benefit are the lawyers. I would recommend he finds a different supplier.

Mike Cherry

Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

Family tradition

Sir: Emily Benn (Pandora, 25 September) is in fact the fourth generation of her family flying the flag for Labour. Her great-grandfather, William Wedgwood Benn, a Liberal MP, transferred his allegiance to the Labour Party in the late 1920s. Attlee created him Viscount Stansgate in 1942. On his death in 1960, his son Tony fought to avoid inheriting the title, which enabled him to carry on in the Commons until 2001.

Michael G Cottrell

Marlow, Buckinghamshire

Brown's Iraq silence

Sir: Alan Taylor is right that the Iraq war is the most dishonest, corrupt, unethical and disastrous war of modern times (letters, 26 September). But if Gordon Brown admits this, as is suggested, he must also admit that he gave the venture his tacit approval and still does. A clear condemnation from him would have had enormous moment. All I can remember him saying on the issue is the single very strange remark, "Saddam had to be punished", referring not to the hanging , which had not then occurred, but to the invasion.

Ed Edmunds


Damaging impact

Sir: Remember when the word "impact" always used to mean a collision? Not any more. In the modern way it replaces "affect" or "effect", as in this passage by Dr John Haine (Letters, 24 September): ". . .that's where it impacts society. . . ." Sad little point from a grumpy old man.

Bill Evans

Ruthin, Denbighshire