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The Iron Road

James Mawdsley

A Stand for Truth and Democracy in Burma

(North Point Press)

It Takes Guts to Do This

This is the sorrowful story
Told as the twilight fails
And the monkeys walk together
Holding their neighbours’ tails’.
—1; Rudyard Kipling, The Legends of Evil


There are many unpleasant countries. Some are unpleasant because God made them that way and some have had to strive to become unpleasant. Take Burma, for example. Blessed with a decent tropical climate, enough flat land to produce plenty of rice, stunningly beautiful mountains, and enough forest to satisfy anyone, Burma should be a tropical paradise. But, through great human endeavor, it’s become a hellhole.


The Burmese had a chance to get out of the mess in 1990 when multiparty elections overwhelmingly endorsed the NLD, the National League for Democracy, but the military junta that has ruled Burma since Buddha was a baby quickly put a stop to that. This post-election Burma has become the special cause of James Mawdsley, Englishman and college dropout.


The Iron Road, named for a peculiarly horrid form of torture, is Mawdsley’s summary of his years of struggle for democracy and decency in Burma. A good Catholic lad with a childhood obsession with Burma and an Australian mother more English than the English, Mawdsley left college only to find himself eventually teaching English to Karen tribesmen on the Thai-Burmese border. He became indigent and wanted to do more for the cause of Burmese democracy. Get a rifle and join the fight? Nope. Go to Burma, protest, and get arrested.


Mawdsley slips into Burma, chains himself an iron gate, spray paints a few slogans on the wall, and starts handing flyers about the virtues of democracy. Along come the police to do their job. Mawdsley has done this, or its rough equivalent, three times. The rationale is that an Englishman arrested for pro-democracy demonstrations in Burma provides an immense embarrassment to Burma’s illegitimate regime. However, saying you are going to do this, and actually doing it are two different things. It takes a lot of planning, persistence and guts.


The right contacts have to be made and those are found in the Burmese community in exile in Bangkok, in refugee camps in Thailand, in hidden military camps on the Burma-Thai border. Then there is getting into Burma. Lots of long walks in the woods. Once there, the accomplices have to be given time to escape lest they or their families catch hell. Next, his arrest and its announcement outside of Burma have to be carefully timed. Do it wrong and Mawdsley might already be shot while Burma claims it never heard of him.


Mawdsley, a repeat offender, gets a longer sentence each time, though his living conditions generally improve as he gains notoriety. But longer sentences mean maintaining resolution, determination and purpose when the willpower and reason says, ‘To heck with it, beg forgiveness and go home’. Mawdsley’s life in prison is a plodding search for new ways to be a cheerful troublemaker and the spiritual quest to sustain his cheerfulness. A strong family, an occasional foreign diplomat, letters from around the world, and the support he gets from his fellow prisoners and most of his keepers, help keep his spirits up. The jailers are too frightened to resist the power structure but most are sympathetic with Mawdsley’s cause. When Mawdsley complains to one officer that he is in prison for 17 years, the officer replies that he himself is in for 30. Nonetheless, the will to do this sort of thing arises from within, so Mawdsley’s spiritual growth is a major theme in the book.


What Mawdsley does not do, however, is examine how and why Burma got into this mess. The regime is simply evil and that ends it. You won’t learn another thing about post-colonial Burma by reading this book, and this isn’t good because understanding evil empires requires knowing something about how they became evil. At first I thought that Mawdsley’s neglect of Burma’s history was a deliberate political statement. It doesn’t matter how the regime became evil, it just is. But, in prison, Mawdsley studies German and reflects that the German books make him feel like he is right there in Bohemia. Jim, my word, the language of Bohemia is Czech, not German, and it does make a difference. Mawdsley is simply and willfully plug-ugly ignorant.


What is it that Mawdsley wants to accomplish? Most of the time he answers: the establishment of the rightly elected democracy in Burma. But sometimes he says it’s independence, independence for the Karen or the Shan or some other ethnic group. These aren’t the same answers, and this is where plug-ugly ignorance becomes dangerous. Conflicting aspirations of various ethnic, social, economic and religious groups is what has made a mess of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, Ethiopia, Palestine, Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland, to name a few recent cases. Modern Burma isn’t so much a country as the residue of a British imperial political organization thrust onto several divergent peoples. To argue for ethnic independence is to argue for Burma’s devolution, something the world community isn’t likely to tolerate. For now, if the price to be paid for Burmese unity is Burmese democracy, or if that is how the world community perceives the choices, then that is the price that will be paid. Awful, isn’t it?


Why should I care that Burma is an awful mess? Mawdsley raises the question, but he doesn’t give much of an answer beyond, ‘Gee, this isn’t nice.’ Since we live in a world full of things that aren’t nice, this is hardly convincing. Readers of The Iron Road, and I do recommend it highly—my criticisms aside—might consider reading it in conjunction with In Our Own Best Interest by William F. Schulz, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA. He answers the question of why we should care about Burma, and similar awful places, in simple pragmatic terms even politicians should be able to understand.

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