British human rights activist Mawdsley’s compelling debut chronicles his opposition to the Burmese military regime.
Unfulfilled by student life, the author left school in 1993, at age 20, and relocated to Southeast Asia. He became interested in the plight of Burmese Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whose democratic political party overwhelmingly won national elections in 1988 but whose victory was rejected by the military. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, and many of her followers were killed or driven into exile. Mawdsley’s first contacts were with student exiles from the Burmese democracy movement who worked from Bangkok to assist sympathizers still living at home. He became an English teacher at one of the villages inside the border but soon graduated to more visible and dramatic forms of support, staging one-man protests and distributing antigovernment cassette tapes and leaflets. In and out of trouble with the Burmese government, Mawdsley ultimately chose to become a political prisoner, hoping that the detention of a British citizen would arouse support and concern in the West. The government was easily provoked; he was arrested, quickly tried, and sentenced to 17 years for, among other things, breaking a law against breaking the law. The author’s willingness to goad his captors and remind them of their illegitimacy even as he was interrogated and tortured seems at times more suicidal than courageous; much as readers will admire Mawdsley’s daring, they’ll also notice he’s a bit of a zealot. But it’s clear that this game of wits partly enabled him to survive four years in captivity. Coming at a time when the relationships between Western democracies and politically troubled developing nations have been cast into stark relief by the “war on terrorism,” his account deserves a wide audience.
Tightly written, at times cinematic: a stirring example of individual activism that shows why large democracies must aid and encourage smaller ones.