Southeast Asia
Reclaiming Burma
The Iron Road. A Stand for Truth and Democracy in Burma by James Mawdsley

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." - Edmund Burke

James Mawdsley was introduced to me in a crowded London pub last year as a "human rights activist" who shook the Burmese military junta. I accepted that description, having only a sketchy knowledge of details. However, after completing The Iron Road, I am inclined to think that rights activist is too narrow a tag for him. He is a seeker of truth, inner truth, in the Gandhi mould. His duel for the past several years against the totalitarian Burmese junta is not merely for physical and political freedom, but "a still more vital one - inner freedom ... to do right, to obey God, to love". (p.380)

Mawdsley's Herculean one-man defiance of a bloodthirsty genocidal regime is made possible by a deeply spiritual mind which has abjured violence and learnt to love the entire human race as belonging to one family. Even in the darkest hours of torment and torture, he is conscious of countering the evil in the perpetrators and not the individuals per se. A strong sense of duty and responsibility for maintaining good in the world, coupled with genuine sensitivity for the sufferings of the Burmese people, make Mawdsley a real hero who sacrifices to attain personal happiness. His contribution towards reclaiming Burma for humanity springs not from the altruism of a do-gooder philanthropist or the cold calculation of a politician, but from a pursuer of personal happiness and peace.

Mawdsley's epic tryst with Burma began in 1995, when he read news reports of forced labor, conscription for fighting and minesweeping, and scorched earth policies of the military junta. Like all conscionable people, he felt the urge to "do something", but what won the day was a thorough reading of Aung San Suu Kyi's Freedom From Fear. Mawdsley sunk into the book and imbibed the vital message: "To allow oneself to be trapped by fear is a fatal mistake." (p.23) He went to Thailand and contacted the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) and pleaded to be given a chance to stage a symbolic protest inside Burma. He was smuggled to Minthamee camp in the bordering Karen state and appointed "English teacher" for the pro-democracy students who escaped from the military's massacres in central Burma.

Mawdsley being Mawdsley, he learnt more from his pupils than vice-versa. In a country where all forms of free literature and university learning are banned, there was a "natural thirst for education sharpened by years of deprivation". Bright young students and deserters from the Tatmadaw (Burmese army) knew what was needed when democracy came and saw Mawdsley as a window to the wider world. "Having a big white clown blundering around the camp is a sure sign to them that the outside world has not forgotten them." (p.41)

This idyll came to a sudden end when the Tatmadaw launched a fierce offensive on Minthamee. The generals spared not even Mawdsley's primary school. He was whisked back across the Thai border and left pining for another opportunity to enter Burma. "What I really wanted was to take up the fight where extra people were most needed - in Burma itself." (p. 51) He returned to Thailand in no time and contacted Burmese refugees at Maneeloi camp and leaders of the Karen National Union who were waging an armed insurgency against the State Law and Order Restoration Council, as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) was then known. He begged to be allowed to go to Rangoon to make a "simple demonstration in support of democracy", pacifying doubting Thomases by suggesting "as soon as I am arrested, the world press will know all about it and the junta will not be able to make me disappear". (p.64) Once they realized that the world was watching an Englishman's detention, the generals would not resort to the casual brutality which Burmese people were subjected to, he reasoned.

In Rangoon, Mawdsley dramatically chained and padlocked himself to the gates of a school opposite the government building where Aung San was assassinated in 1947. He drew curious onlookers' attention by shouting democracy slogans, distributing fliers and demanding the release of all political prisoners and the opening of universities. Arrested immediately, he was put on a plane and deported after the intervention of British and Australian consular officials. One of the guards at the airport surreptitiously stole up to him when his superiors were not watching and said, "Thank you for what you have done. I really never forget you [sic]." (p.86) This was a manifestation of the extreme cruelty and coercion culture in the Burmese army which had driven subalterns and lower-ranked men into a state of vegetation, suicide or silent acceptance of fate. Mawdsley would come back for them and millions of others.

Inspired further by reading Vaclav Havel's writings, the author reasoned that "by asserting the values of truth, by defying the regime's wicked manipulations and continuing to defy them, you call into question their power". (p.93) He returned to Thailand and requested the Kayin National Union, Burma's largest anti-government ethnic armed group, to arrange for his escort deep into Burmese territory. In a magical trek through the jungles of Karen state, he encountered burnt villages and terrified civilians everywhere. "The deal for the locals is that they either inform the Tatmadaw of everything or be executed for withholding information." (p.118) On reaching Moulmein, Mawdsley walked to the town center and nonchalantly distributed pro-democracy tapes, stickers and leaflets, shouting at the top of his lungs before audiences for the release of Min Ko Naing and other student leaders.

Taken into custody, Mawdsley refused to divulge any details. His face was blindfolded with a cloth dipped in petrol. "Could I hold out under torture? Shall I tell them my name or risk having my face burnt off?" (p.134) Illegal detention and harassment continued for days at Insein, with exasperated and bewildered policemen applying the favorite tactic of Burma's military intelligence (MI), the "Iron Road", a painful rolling of iron rods up and down the shins of the victim until they strip one to the bone. What kept Mawdsley going were prison trusties and guards tiptoeing up to him late at night and sympathetically whispering, "I am sorry", ashamed of what their regime was doing.

Forty handpicked uniformed goons watched Mawdsley's mock trial where he was arbitrarily sentenced to five years imprisonment on charges of being a "mercenary" and an "insurgent terrorist". Jail life was predictably horrific. Mawdsley called for a doctor when he collapsed from malnutrition or got infected by scabies, shocking the authorities. "The notion that a prisoner has rights made no sense to them. If I was starving to death, that was my business." (p.159) The MI were used to doing anything they liked with Burmese citizens, but were perplexed how to deal with an assertive foreigner. Within months, it was decided to release him and send him back to Britain. Mawdsley's best was yet to come.

"As I thought about Burma by day I also dreamt about her at night." (p.184) His restless soul wanted more battle with deceit and untruth. Campaigning and lobbying against the junta in the West did not satisfy him. The prodigal son returned to Thailand and hooked up this time with the Karenni National Progressive Party and extracted a promise to be taken across the Salween river and the legendary impassability of northern Burma's landscape. Convinced that "fearlessness, and public displays of fearlessness, are the greatest threat to a regime that rules by fear" (p.12), Mawdsley got to Tachilek in eastern Shan state by August 1999 and redid the symbolic protest. A kangaroo court sentenced him to 17 years in solitary confinement on a series of trumped up charges. "The court is not a court, the judge is not a judge, yet they are dressed up as such. Merciless men sit behind it all saying they have a judicial system." (p. 218)

Incarcerated in Kengtung, Mawdsley did not despair at the length of the sentence and went about practicing his trade of non-violent disobedience. Prison officials could not overtly show their approbation, but they found other ways to repay him for his extraordinary stoicism. These small gestures in a Gulag-like ambience sustained him. "You do not need praise or back-patting; you need to be reminded that there is a truth and a truth worth suffering for." (p. 232) Since Burma itself was a macrocosmic prison, Mawdsley was happy to be in a real prison.

When the MI sleuths were distracted, some jailors came to him to shake hands and confess, "we are on the same side". He observed how rational and reasonable individuals had been subdued by incessant propaganda and bootstrapped to servitude by Than Shwe and his entourage in power. Burmese police, soldiers and bureaucrats had not lost their conscience, but they were not willing to openly declare that either, for fear or reprisal. Mawdsley drew on his spiritual strength to tide over crisis after crisis, shedding any remnants of fear inside him inch by inch. "Ninety percent of my struggle was against myself." (p. 284)

Determined to expose the deceit and fraud of his sentence, Mawdsley went on hunger strike for 20 days, one day each for the 20-year sentence passed on Min Ko Naing. "If he must do another year in a solitary cell, can I not do another day without food?" (p. 307) Hundreds of letters of support poured in as news of his strike was communicated to the media by British consular officials. Mawdsley rejoiced at the outpouring of concern by his fellow prisoners too and at the wider publicity his actions were generating. As more and more spoke up around the world, he noted with satisfaction, "We gain nothing at all by buttoning our lips in the face of injustice. We put the brakes on progress every time we fall for self-censorship." (p. 338)

Enterprising lawyers took Mawdsley's case to the US Senate, the British parliament, the European parliament and the United Nations. News of more savage beatings meted out to him outraged thousands. The UN working group on arbitrary detention found the Burmese junta in violation of 10 points of international law and declared that Mawdsley's detention was from the beginning arbitrary and illegal. Under intense diplomatic pressure, the SPDC released him in October 2000, after undergoing 411 days of prison.

Mawdsley believes that what brought about his unshackling is the same medicine needed for democracy and truth to prevail in Burma: "A resonance between the forces within the borders and the forces without." (p. 350) Forty-five million Burmese people are resisting the onslaught that has never ended since the coup de tat of 1962, but the skill with which the junta has rewritten history, brainwashed young people and policed the entire country will make it a long walk to freedom. Aung San Suu Kyi may be out of jail through UN mediation, but she is virtually in house arrest again. Neighboring big powers have turned "realist" and are cooperating with the junta in spite of its horrendous domestic and foreign policy record. The superpower is chasing oil in Iraq and has no interest in a forbidden land called Burma that no longer figures in balance of power games of the mighty.

But Burma will not give up. Nor will James Mawdsley. When "demokrasi" comes, he will be one of the first to break into a dance on the streets of Rangoon.

The Iron Road. A Stand for Truth and Democracy in Burma by James Mawdsley. North Point Press, New York, 2002. ISBN: 0-86547-637-3. Price: US$16.00, 397 pages.

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Nov 30, 2002




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