Mawdsley, James 1973-

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MAWDSLEY, James 1973-

PERSONAL: Born 1973, in Germany; son of David Mawdsley. Education: Attended Bristol University.

ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, North Point Press, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 19 Union Square West, New York, NY 10003.

CAREER: Writer and pro-democracy activist.


The Heart Must Break: The Fight for Democracy andTruth in Burma, Century (London, England), 2001, published as The Iron Road: A Stand for Truth and Democracy in Burma, North Point Press (New York, NY), 2002.

SIDELIGHTS: James Mawdsley is a writer and human rights activist who has experienced first-hand the fight for democracy and means used by oppressive regimes to suppress it. As a prisoner in a succession of Burmese jails, Mawdsley was tortured and mistreated for his participation in pro-democracy activities in Burma. Mawdsley chronicles his ordeals in The Iron Road: A Stand for Truth and Democracy in Burma, originally published in the U.K. as The Heart Must Break: The Fight for Democracy and Truth in Burma.

Born in Germany in 1973, Mawdsley was raised in Mawdesley, Lancashire, England. He attended Bristol University for a year and a half, studying physics and philosophy, but left when he realized that his academic pursuits were not challenging enough to him. While working in New Zealand, he learned in detail of the fight for democracy in Burma, particularly the struggles of Burmese Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, condemned to ongoing house arrest. In 1997, Mawdsley went to the jungle camp of Minthamee in Burma, teaching English to resistance-fighter members of a pro-democracy student group allied to the local Karen people. Some months later, the Burmese army attacked and destroyed the camp. Mawdsley crossed the border into Thailand and began planning new ways to confront the oppressive Burmese government on its own territory.

Mawdsley decided to take his protest directly to Rangoon, reasoning that the visibility of his actions would ensure that journalists and officials around the world would learn what he had done and that he would be sufficiently safe from reprisals, observed Sreeram Chaulia on the Asia Times Web site. "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." Celia McClinton, writing on the PopMatters Web site, remarked, "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."

In his first protest, Mawdsley chained himself to an iron gate of a school, spray painted pro-democracy slogans on a wall, and handed out leaflets calling for the release of political prisoners. As expected, the police arrived to take care of the problem, and Mawdsley was promptly deported. Mawdsley returned to Thailand and was helped to cross the Burmese border through the jungles of Karen state, traveling to the town of Moulmein. There, he took up a position in the town center and started handing out leaflets, stickers, and cassette tapes, shouting for the release of student dissidents and attracting the largest audience he could. Again, he was arrested.

Mawdsley's second arrest did not result in a simple deportation; instead, he was illegally detained at Insein prison. During a harrowing nine-day interrogation, he was blindfolded with a cloth soaked in gasoline, but he refused to cooperate with his jailers. At Insein, Mawdsley experienced the torture that gave his book its name, the Iron Road, an excruciating rolling of iron rods up and down the shins until flesh is ground away to the bone. "What kept Mawdsley going were prison trustees and guards tiptoeing up to him late at night and sympathetically whispering, 'I am sorry,' ashamed of what their regime was doing," Chaulia wrote. Later tried on fraudulent charges, Mawdsley was sentenced to five years in prison. After several months, however, he was released and again returned to Great Britain.

For a third time, Mawdsley returned to Burma and staged a loud and noticeable protest. Again he was arrested, but this time, "a kangaroo court sentenced him to 17 years in solitary confinement on a series of trumped up charges," Chaulia explained. While incarcerated, he engaged in hunger strikes and non-violent disobedience. Mawdsley was released after 416 days in prison. While he was illegally jailed "the UN called for his release, the pope wrote a letter on his behalf, and the world paid attention, however briefly, to the plight of Burmese political prisoners," wrote Danial Adkison in the Village Voice Online.

"In a thorough but occasionally meandering narrative, the author vividly recounts sacrifice and heroism little known in the West," wrote a Publishers Weeklyreviewer. Harriet Klausner, writing on the Blether Web site, called the book "taut and well-written," while a Kirkus Reviews critic called it "tightly written, at times cinematic: a stirring example of individual activism that shows why large democracies must aid and encourage smaller ones." After reading The Iron Road, Chaulia opined that "I am inclined to think that rights activist is too narrow a tag for [Mawdsley]. … He is a seeker of truth, inner truth, in the Gandhi mould." Steven Martinovich, writing on the Enter Stage Right Web site, commented that "As a story … 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."

Mawdsley's The Iron Road also covers his ordeals and his reasons for subjecting himself to such brutal conditions for the ideal of democracy in a military dictatorship. "This book is something of an apologia to explain not just what happened but why he acted as he did," wrote a critic in Contemporary Review. Martin Morland, former British ambassador to Burma, writing in Times Literary Supplement observed that Mawdsley believes his tribulations "were cumulatively worthwhile and has written an entertaining as well as a moving book in support of his case. He has no illusions that foreign pressure alone can make changes in Burma, but he believes that everyone must play their part." For Morland, "It is difficult to disagree with this line of reasoning—tyranny thrives on silence and Mawdsley broke that silence in an impressive manner."



Booklist, August, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of TheIron Road: A Stand for Truth and Democracy in Burma, pp. 1897-1898.

Contemporary Review, April, 2002, review of TheHeart Must Break: The Fight for Democracy and Truth in Burma,, p. 255.

Independent, August 7, 1998, Andrew Buncombe, "Season of Hell in Burma Junta's Jail," p. 12; September 3, 2001, Julia Stuart, "I Laughed at Their Sentence," p. S7; October 21, 2000, Andrew Buncombe and Dominic West, "After 415 Days in Burma Jail, Freed Briton Says He's Not Going Back," p. 9.

Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2002, review of The IronRoad: A Stand for Truth and Democracy in Burma, p. 934.

Los Angeles Times, October 21, 2000, "Myanmar: British Activist Freed from Prison," p. A10.

National Catholic Reporter, October 27, 2000, "British Activist Feed after Year in Myanmar Jail,", p. 7.

New Statesman, October 23, 2000, p. 6.

New York Times, September 19, 1999, "Burmese Pain in Spotlight as Two Britons Sent to Prison," p. 11.

Observer September 5, 1999, Ben Skelton, "As I'm Tortured I Think: What If I Don't Get Out?," p. 12; January 9, 2000, Harriet Lane, "I Half Want My Son to Stay in His Burma Jail Hell," p. 8.

Publishers Weekly, August 5, 2002, review of The IronRoad: A Stand for Truth and Democracy in Burma, p. 66.

Sunday Times, January 16, 2000, Stuart Wavell, "My Son's Solitary Stand for Justice in a Burmese Jail," p. NR6; October 1, 2000, Peter Conradi, "Briton Beaten over Peace Sign in Cell," p. 23; October 29, 2000, James Mawdsley, "Dreams of a Rebel" p. NR1; May 12, 2002, Michael Sheridan, "Burma's Freed Heroine Thanks to Tortured Briton," p. A27.

Times (London, England), February 12, 2001, Penny Wark, "How Do You Follow a Grand Gesture?," p. T4.

Times Literary Supplement, June 21, 2002, Martin Morland, review of The Heart Must Break: The Fight for Democracy and Truth in Burma, p. 31.

Washington Post, May 23, 2001, Nora Boustany, "Blue-eyed Battler for Democracy in Burma," p. A28.


Asia Times Online, (November 30, 2002), Sreeram Chaulia, review of The Iron Road: A Stand for Truth and Democracy in Burma.

Blether, (December 5, 2002), Harriet Klausner, review of The Iron Road: A Stand for Truth and Democracy in Burma.

Enter Stage Right, (December 5, 2002), Steven Martinovich, review of The Iron Road: A Stand for Truth and Democracy in Burma.

PopMatters, (December 5, 2002), Celia McClinton, review of The Iron Road: A Stand for Truth and Democracy in Burma.

Village Voice Online, (December 5, 2002), Danial Adkinson, review of The Iron Road: A Stand for Truth and Democracy in Burma.*