Stranger in a Golden Land


John Hickman

Berry College, Mount Berry, Georgia

Copyright © 2003 by John Hickman, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Mawdsley, James. The Iron Road: A Stand for Truth and Democracy in Burma. New York: North Point Press. 2001.

  1. Political prison memoirs typically escape from being tedious personal accounts of official brutality and petty oppression in two ways. First, they may allegorize the author's experience of imprisonment as that of the imprisoned nation. Second, they may offer a sympathetic or perhaps inspirational portrayal of the author's philosophical development as the political leader or as an intellectual. Unfortunately, James Mawdsley's The Iron Road (2001), an account detailing the author's three arrests, interrogation, court trials, and imprisonment for his brave individual protests in Burma against that country's military government, never escapes being a tiresome litany of minor misadventures and major miseries endured for a good cause.

  2. A devout middle-class Roman Catholic from Lancashire who dropped out of university in England to see the world and/or find the meaning of life, Mawdsley makes an improbable symbolic representative for the oppressed, impoverished and largely Buddhist masses of Burma. Nor does he appear to have experienced any philosophical development as a political activist while incarcerated. He exited his prisons with the same political ideological convictions with which he entered them. Being white, British, and a political prisoner in a former British colony appears to have prompted no interesting insights into post-colonial authoritarianism or understanding of the punishment of political crime generally. Mawdsley appears content to understand authoritarianism as the product of official violence plus mass compliance. Readers anticipating the eloquence and insight into the thinking of torturers of Jacobo Timerman's Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number or the extraordinary explorations of subjectivity in captivity of Breyten Breytenbach's The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist will probably be disappointed with this prison memoir.

  3. Instead, Mawdsley appears to have experienced his imprisonments as a kind of Christian martyrdom. Arrested for demonstrating the first time in 1997, he was quickly deported. A second arrest for demonstrating in 1998 led to his being tortured and made to serve 99 days of a 5 year sentence in Insein prison, where he underwent a religious experience. Following his third arrest in 1999, he was made to serve more than a year of a 17 year sentence in Kengtung prison. There he read, prayed, staged hunger strikes, and lectured prison officials, guards, trustees, and whenever possible, fellow prisoners on the virtues of liberal democracy. Prison authorities isolated him from the other prisoners as much as possible and punished him for infractions with severe beatings. Mawdsley acknowledges that his nationality (British and Australian) and race afforded him an important if incomplete degree of safety from punishment that was not enjoyed by his fellow prisoners in Kengtung prison, the majority of whom were deserters from the Tatmadaw, the feared Burmese Army (230).

  4. Readers with little knowledge of contemporary politics in Burma may find the denunciations of evil scattered through The Iron Road instructive. Mawdsley condemns the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the Burmese military regime previously known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), for violently repressing the democracy movement, genocide against the Karenni nationality, spending 40% of the country's GDP on the Tatmadaw, conscripting child soldiers and slave laborers, and exploiting the drug trade.[1] The Thai and Burmese prison systems are criticized for corruption. British, American, French, and Japanese oil companies are also criticized for dealing with the SPDC rather than the National League for Democracy (NLD) (49). Unsurprisingly, except possibly to Mawdsley, the oil companies gave him the cold shoulder during his stint as a democracy activist in London. The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) is subjected to scathing criticism for not being sufficiently aggressive with authoritarian regimes in protecting the human rights of prisoners, and in particular, for not being aggressive with the Burmese government in protecting Mawdley's own rights (248-253). The author was angered by what he deemed the poor performance of the ICRC delegation that visited Kengtung prison during his incarceration. Mawdsley also derides environmentalist concern about the state of the rain forests rather than about the state of the nationalities inhabiting them (37), Perhaps he never got on well with environmentalists on the outside.

  5. Mawdsley does not tolerate criticism of his own role lightly. When The Guardian carried an article on June 2001 by two freelance journalists that he claimed "painted him as a hypocrite who never had any interest in Burma," the author brought an action for libel following failed negotiations with the editors on the appropriate language of apology for inaccuracies (Dyer, July 22, 2002).

  6. While gushing about the democracy movement in Burma, the author is circumspect in his discussion of the separatist movements fighting for independent states within the current territorial boundaries of Burma. Serious discussion of the political differences between the democracy movement and the separatist guerrilla movements would have complicated a simple and emotionally compelling narrative of brave rebellion against an evil government. The NLD has indicated its willingness to concede autonomy but not national independence to some nationalities. NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Karen National Union leader General Bo Mya disagree about both the goals and the methods of the opposition (Nichols September 21, 2002). Suu Kyi seeks to democratize the existing Union of Burma using Gandhian non-violence while Bo Mya is intent on winning an independent Karen State using armed struggle. With approximately 10,000 soldiers under arms, the Karen National Union is the largest of the separatist armies still ion the field. Several separatist armies have ended hostilities after negotiating peace settlements with the government, and the United Wa State Army has even allied itself with the government in return for a free hand in running its corner of the drug trade in the north of the country.

  7. State terror directed at the Karen and Karenni nationalities, substantial numbers of which are Christian, is described in detail in The Iron Road. However the treatment of other nationalities like the predominantly Buddhist Arakan, Mon-Khmer, and Shan, and the Muslim Rohingyas, is ignored. That neglect may be no accident. Mawdsley is an activist for the conservative Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a British organization whose mission it is to protect the human rights of Christians in the Middle East, Asia, and the Caucasus. Once again, more details would have complicated a simple and emotionally compelling narrative.

  8. No doubt the strangest notes in this prison memoir are the revelations of Mawdsley's weak grasp of the ideas that he believes he champions. At one point in the text he asks, "Who in the West can define democracy?" (224) When he refers to the Bible as "democratic literature" at another point in the text he reveals the degree to which he has confounded his ideals. (188) Completing a university degree might have helped to sort out such confusion. It might also have led him to greater insight into the political behavior of the people he wants to liberate.


  1. 'State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)' and its predecessor, 'State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)' are Orwellian constructions of the first order. That the regime might have been motivated to adopt the former in place of the latter because English speakers found that pronouncing 'SLORC" as a word was amusing is a distinct possibility. Back

Works Cited

Breytenbach, Breyten. The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist. New York: Straus Farrar and Giroux, 1985.

Dyer, Clare. "High Court Ruling Averts Libel Trial Over Guardian Article on Burma Activist." The Guardian. July 25, 2002.

Nichols, Hans. "Exiles in Burma; Opposition Leaders Suu Kyi, Bo Mya Disagree, But Continue Their Drive to Oust Military Junta." The Washington Times. September 21, 2002. p. A8

Timerman, Jacobo. Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number. Trans. Toby Talbot. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002.

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