My admiration for these brave martyrs in Burma

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The Independent Culture
I HATE to admit it but there are times when writing about Burma that you feel something close to despair. Aung San Suu Kyi would chide me for this I know. Despair is not in her vocabulary. But the relentless repression, the closing off of every avenue of legitimate protest, the apathy and indifference of the world bring, from time to time, a sense of hopelessness. Of course, in the long run I believe good will triumph, but this short term is a bleak place.

This week, however, I found a powerful antidote to the Burma blues at the end of a telephone line here in London. After 15 minutes of conversation, you wonder how and why you were ever tempted to despair. The voice is not Burmese. It is that of a middle-aged retired Army officer who had barely heard of Burma's democracy struggle until a few years ago.

David Mawdsley's voice is full of passion and a certain amount of incredulity as he talks about the horrors inflicted on the peoples of Shan State by the military dictatorship in Rangoon. These days he reads as much as he can about the history of Burma and listens for any snippets of news on the democracy movement. He and his wife Diana have four children including Jeremy, who is a captain in the British Army helping to keep the peace with the UN in Cyprus. The entire family has now become interested in Burma. What brought David Mawdsley to this unusual state of Burmese obsession was the arrest and imprisonment of his son James (Jeremy's twin brother), who is now serving a 17-year sentence in Burma. Seventeen years. That wasn't for drug dealing or murder or robbery. It wasn't for anything we would consider criminal in this part of the world.

London boy James Mawdsley has been locked away because he helped other people to stand up for their freedom. He did it without guns and bombs, through the simple expedient of entering a country where he knew he was not wanted. After two previous arrests for working with the pro-democracy campaign in Burma, James knew the authorities would be on the lookout for him. Through being arrested he hoped, as before, to draw attention to a story that has dropped from the international headlines. He got his wish. Arrest, a long sentence and publicity for the cause.

This week another young Londoner was facing a Burmese court: Rachel Goldwyn from Barnes was arrested after singing a pro-democracy song in the centre of Rangoon. For this outrageous act of revolution she was given a seven- year sentence.

So what is it that persuades a young Londoner to fly to a country 6,000 miles away and put their life and liberty on the line? David Mawdsley says his son's involvement with Burma began when he was travelling around Australia and New Zealand after quitting college a few years ago. I should point out that this is a young man who was reading Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago at the age of 11. Respect for human rights was something both Mawdsley parents strongly encouraged in their children. In Australia he ran into some Burmese refugees who told him about the military crackdown against the Shan people living along the border with Thailand. For the record, Shan State is where the military has destroyed more than 1,400 villages and uprooted 300,000 people since 1996. It is also the source of much of the heroin whose supply on to the international market is controlled by Burmese generals. As Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, has noted this is "one of the few governments in the world whose members are prepared to profit out of the drugs trade rather than seek to suppress the drugs trade".

What really bothered James Mawdsley were the refugees' stories of rape, murder and forced labour. The images burned away inside him until he decided to make his own gesture of solidarity by setting out for Shan State. For three months he worked as a teacher in a school he set up deep in the jungle. Then the Burmese attacked, the camp was destroyed and with it James Mawdsley's school.

In the four years of his involvement with Burma, James has been arrested three times. The time before last he was given a five-year sentence, then released after spending 99 days in solitary confinement in the notorious Insein prison in Rangoon. On that occasion British diplomatic pressure led to his release. David Mawdsley was in Rangoon hoping to visit his son when the news came of the decision to free him. He remembers driving out to Insein prison with staff from the British embassy. As they came up the drive, David saw some prison vans. "It was appalling. I had never seen anything quite like it before. There were all these faces, with dead expressions. The men were crammed in and pressing their mouths to the bars to get a mouthful of air. In that heat and humidity it was just awful," he says. Inside the prison David was reunited with his son. On their way out, driving back towards Rangoon and the flight that would take them out of the country, David turned to James with a simple question.

"Is that it then James?"

James replied immediately: "Dad, I've only just begun." This from someone who had endured 14 hours of non-stop beating when he was taken into custody. James went back again and earlier this month was jailed for 17 years. The fact is that he consciously martyred himself.

Some will regard this is a futile, even self-indulgent gesture. They will calculate that he will almost certainly be released, that both he and Rachel Goldwyn are naive young people playing games with the Burmese authorities. I do not hold this view. No one who has been in Burma for any length of time can feel immune to the sense of fear. It is the ultimate police state. There are no guarantees there, no certainty that diplomatic niceties will be observed.It is not a futile gesture. It is an act of heroism, a belief in principles larger than any individual and which in our self-obsessed, consumerist society we all too rarely see. Last week a friend gave me a copy of Captured Voices, a collection of poetry and prose written by people with direct experience of torture, imprisonment and exile. In the middle of the book, under the heading Bystanders, I came across these lines from Erich Fried whose father was murdered by the Gestapo. "The young do not care because they are too young/ and the old do not care because they are too old/ that is why nothing happens to stop it/ and that is why it has happened and goes on happening and will happen again."

But two young British people cared about evil in Burma and they acted in a peaceful way to show that they cared. The actions of Mawdsley and Goldwyn should prompt our government - and those of our business people still involved with Burma - to take a tougher line with the generals. For the rest of us, we have a shining example of courage. We have two young people whose freedom should become a national cause.

Their country should be proud of them.

The writer is a special correspondent with the BBC