It’s doubtless tempting for some to dismiss James Mawdsley as a dilettante activist until they learn a little about his recent past. Mawdsley, a crusader for democracy in Burma, spent much of the last few years as a guest of the country’s military dictatorship in its dismal jails. Unlike the thousands of activists who are content to write letters of protest or demonstrate in front of Burmese embassies around the world, Mawdsley felt it was his — some might say foolhardy — duty to confront the regime on its own turf. That story is detailed in The Iron Road: A Stand for Truth and Democracy in Burma. (North Point Press, 400 pages, $16 paper.)
Beginning in the late 1990s, Mawdsley repeatedly entered Burma to aid ethnic groups in their fight against the government and to spread pro-democracy literature in the streets, something that brings attention quickly, as his adventures clearly show. Mawdsley’s theory was simple: as a foreigner the regime wouldn’t harm him — at least not severely — for fear of raising the ire of other nations and his imprisonment would bring attention to his cause.
“My main motivation for the protest in Rangoon was so that I could meet some of the authorities for myself and so judge how open they are to reason and appeal. I met and talked with a fair range of them and undoubtedly most are good blokes,” he writes at one point in a letter to a fellow activist.
Good blokes or not, Mawdsley’s repeated attempts to provoke the regime caused him to spend nearly five years in Burmese prisons under conditions that could politely be called difficult. With solitary confinement the norm, Mawdsley suffered from a lack of food, was beaten occasionally and even underwent outright torture when his provocations became too much for the authorities to bear.
Buttressed by a strong faith in God and a belief in the purity of his quest, Mawdsley wasn’t broken by his incarceration, but rather almost seemed to relish it at times. Each encounter — whether over the quality of food or a demand for a Bible — with prison guards or government officials turned into a game of brinkmanship with the government oftentimes blinking first. Each victory prompted Mawdsley to go one step further.
His time in prison was more than a quest for survival and publicity for the cause of Burmese liberty. As Mawdsley states early on, he’s interested to learn about the type of men that it takes to enslave a society and kill their fellow citizens. Throughout his ordeal, he rarely fails to glean insights into the totalitarian mindset, from the lowest officials afraid to make decisions lest it land them in prison or worse to the upper level decision makers afraid to anger foreign nations yet unwilling to bend any more than they had to.
The nobility of Mawdsley’s campaign isn’t in question. As he repeatedly points out to both the reader and the regime, Burma’s government is an illegal entity. It massacres ethnic minorities and represses its citizens. It has breached the covenant that binds a government to its citizens by failing to protect their rights and ultimately their lives. Burma’s government is a textbook example of one that should and must be resisted.
Where one comes to question Mawdsley’s campaign, however, is in its efficacy. Although his case did bring international attention to the conditions in Burma, at least for a short while, the reader might begin to question whether his stint in prison was really worth it. His actions could imply a Western arrogance that where the citizens of Burma continue to fail, a foreigner might make the difference. That’s not to say that Mawdsley has a low opinion of the Burmese. On the contrary, he often states and shows his admiration for the people who continue to resist the government. His affection for the people is genuine and his quest doesn’t come across as being his White Man’s Burden.
Despite that, Mawdsley does occasionally appear to be perhaps a bit naïve. Military dictatorships rarely, if ever, fall due to the actions of outside activists. Revolutions, like the one that brought Cory Aquino to power in the Philippines in 1986, are and must be by their very nature an internal reaction to tyranny and injustice. Despite Mawdsley’s best efforts, it would appear that most Burmese are unwilling or unable to unite against their oppressors. That fact doesn’t detract from Mawdsley’s convictions and courageousness, he did after all serve prison time in a just cause, but it does beg the question whether he had completely thought out the process before he launched it.
As a story, however, of one man’s determined campaign to show the inherent contradictions of a military dictatorship that proclaims its love of the people while simultaneously repressing them, The Iron Road is a stirring effort and Mawdsley is a remarkable young man. Although his journey to bring down the regime in Burma has a long way to go before it’s successful, Mawdsley’s story is an inspiring one. Rarely are those in the West brought face to face with the evil of tyranny and Mawdsley’s insights into his captors are worthwhile if only as a reminder of how lucky we are. Naïve he may be, but Mawdsley’s brand is the type that can inspire, perhaps what people need the most when they confront evil — even if indirectly.