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new internationalist
issue 319 - December 1999

Truth in action
Last September two young British civil-rights activists were arrested in Rangoon.
They were marking the eleventh anniversary of the bloody crackdown on the
Burmese democracy movement. Rachel Goldwyn now faces seven years in jail after
chaining herself to a lamppost and singing a revolutionary song. James Mawdsley
was arrested for the third time in two years – he received a sentence of 17 years.
Two months before Mawdsley left London for Burma he talked to
Ben Skelton about what he was doing – and why he was doing it.

James Mawdsley first went to Burma at the beginning of 1997 to teach in the Minthamee camp for displaced Karen people in the jungle of southeast Burma, 20 miles from the Thai border. The Karen are one of Burma’s 100-plus ethnic groups, who since World War Two have been fighting for a degree of autonomy. ‘They don’t want independence,’ said Mawdsley. ‘They want to remain part of Burma but to be able to look after their people and land.’

Five weeks after his arrival at the Minthamee camp the Burmese army attacked it. ‘Every dry season there’s an offensive. There’s thousands of villages in the area which don’t support the Junta, so there’s a very good jungle grapevine... We moved closer to the border and the day before the government troops arrived I slipped over the border, followed later by women and children.’ Young Karen men and boys were turned back by the Thais, accused of being rebels, not refugees.

Mawdsley returned to Burma in September, via the Htan Hin refugee camp in Thailand. There he discovered that the Minthamee community ‘had been blown to bits. There were people in Thai prisons, detention centres, living and working illegally in Bangkok. Some had gone missing. Some were still at the front line in Burma. Some were hiding from the Junta in Burma.’ Of the young men turned back at the Thai border, ‘five had been sunk in a boat, two had been shot on the river where I used to wash every day. Another stuck his head out of a bush and got it blown off.’

When Mawdsley got to Rangoon he sprayed graffiti, chanted slogans and distributed leaflets, all detailing Junta abuses. He chained himself to a school’s gates and ripped up a copy of the state newspaper. After an hour he was arrested, interrogated for eight hours and deported. Thereafter he had to enter the country illegally, on foot.

In April 1998 he went to Moulmein, capital of Mon state. The journey – with the Karen National Union (KNU) – took two weeks, passing through villages left derelict by the Burmese Army. They slept under the stars, eating food hunted by the guerrillas.

His protest in Moulmein followed the same lines, only this time the interrogation lasted eight days and included 19 hours of torture. Mawdsley described to me his feelings when told that he was about to be tortured: ‘It was very frightening, but I was also extremely curious.’ Among other things, he was handcuffed, blindfolded and made to stand until he collapsed, then beaten and kicked back on to his feet. His experience, he stressed, was relatively mild, though often bizarre: ‘They tickled my feet for half an hour. It was unbelievable. They wiped a cat’s genitals down my arm. I heard the cat miaow. I was on the floor at one stage and I could see underneath the blindfold and they’d put a huge cockroach on my leg and they all started to titter and giggle like schoolboys.’

Mawdsley was sentenced to five years in jail. Insein Prison was ‘hellish, appalling’. ‘Physically, I got worse and worse,’ he said. ‘Mentally, I just got stronger and stronger. But you have bouts of desperation and bouts of calm and strength. At the beginning the desperation is long and the calm short. And at the end they’ve reversed.’ After 99 days in solitary confinement he was deported again.

‘It’s quite the opposite for the Burmese,’ he said. ‘They might be sentenced to five years and at the end of their term another five years is put on. There’s people held for years without a trial. There’s people held in prison for 20 years without ever seeing what they’ve been charged with.’

One thing which sustained him in jail and inspires all his activism is his religious faith. ‘But foremost,’ he told me, ‘I believe that truth is in actions and, absolutely regardless of what you say or think you believe, your actions determine how close you are to truth. It’s not what you say you are. It’s not what you think you are. It’s what you do.’

Mawdsley was convinced of the value of his campaign: ‘I’m not trying to get democracy in Burma. No one person can do that. All I can do is try to increase the chances of that happening, which I believe I’ve done in a tiny, tiny way.’ And he was determined to keep going back: ‘I’m not finished. I intend to build and build and build and it will have a bigger and bigger impact each time.’

Ben Skelton is a freelance journalist based in London.


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New Internationalist issue 319 magazine cover This article is from the December 1999 issue of New Internationalist.
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