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Friday, 20 October, 2000, 14:28 GMT 15:28 UK
James Mawdsley: Defiant dissenter
James Mawdsley: released by the Burmese authorities
By Caroline Frost of the BBC's News Profiles Unit

What drives a man to leave his home and family, travel across the world to certain imprisonment, and lay his life on the line for a foreign and faraway cause?

The pro-democracy activist James Mawdsley has had time to ponder this question. In the last year, he has spent all but 20 minutes of each day in the solitary confinement of his Burmese cell, following his sentence last year to 17 years imprisonment for sedition and illegal entry.

The Burmese dissident leader, Aung San Suu Kyi addresses a meeting
James's heroine: Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi

Since then, hunger strikes, squalid conditions and beatings with bamboo sticks might have prompted him to take the course of action followed by fellow freedom-fighter and Briton Rachel Goldwyn.

She agreed to co-operate with the Burmese authorities in their purge on narcotics in return for her freedom. But it seems that James Mawdsley was determined to stay put.

Two sources of strength and comfort for this extraordinary young man have been his Christian faith and his belief in the justness of his cause.

In a letter written from his cell he questions whether he is in unbearable pain.

"And the answer's always no, because if you are in unbearable pain, you can't put the question to yourself."

The theological roots of such forbearance can be found in James's background as an altar boy in his home village. He enjoyed a childhood where he and his siblings were encouraged always to seek the truth for themselves, rather than believing necessarily what they were told.

And his sister Emma describes their mother Diana as a woman "who instilled in us the need for decency and fair play."

James Mawdsley
James Mawdsley: Always a free thinker

It seems James was always a bit of a free thinker. For many years, Emma explains, "We had a lot of political discussions. He definitely has a way of making you look at things in a different way."

For James's father David, his son's current political struggle is a logical activity for a man for whom loyalty is paramount.

"The Burmese people were his friends", he says. "There was no way James was going to abandon them."

His long-time friend Emma Glover says that James would have no trouble sacrificing the material British comforts we take for granted. She said: "He's never been a comfort zoner."

It was a chance encounter for the 27-year-old Briton that sealed his fate, when he met a group of Burmese refugees while backpacking through New Zealand.

Their tales of genocide, rape and repression spurred the university drop-out turned defender of democracy to make his first trip into Burma to "see for himself".

Demonstrating Burmese dissidents
Burmese dissenters: James considered them his brothers

After teaching English to the displaced Karen tribe, James became politically active after being forced to flee from his village when the military junta moved in.

Arrested and thrown out of the country, James nevertheless returned to support his new friends and was imprisoned before being deported once again.

In spite of their concerns about his welfare, James's family respected his decision to return for a third time to Burma and almost certain arrest. He explained that "I cannot sit idle; their cause is my cause." His family and friends witnessed his inner turmoil.

Although divorced, his parents rallied in support of their son. His father drove him to the airport, while his mother struggled with her own maternal dilemma.

She explained: "As a mother I wish he was home, but as a member of the human race, I cannot argue with what he is doing."

I am torn between desperation for his plight, and admiration for his courage

James Mawdsley's mother Diana

On his return home, his father has only three requests to make of him. They are to resist any urges to enter Burma again under the current regime, to consider some publishing options, and finally to speak to the local Church about his experiences.

His mother will be more direct. "I'll have to box his ears," she has already decided. But in the tradition of this strong-minded but loving family: "It will be a loving box."

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19 Oct 00 | UK
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