Briton freed from Burma jail

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With a roar from the jet engines of Thai Airways flight TG306, James Mawdsley's incarceration in the troubled state of Burma came to an end yesterday afternoon.

With a roar from the jet engines of Thai Airways flight TG306, James Mawdsley's incarceration in the troubled state of Burma came to an end yesterday afternoon.

After 415 days of solitary confinement in a jail overrun with rats, the 27-year-old pro-democracy campaigner has been deported. He left the capital, Rangoon, bound for Bangkok and then London, where he was due to land early this morning.

Arriving at Bangkok last night, Mr Mawdsley - sentenced in September 1999 for 17 years - said he was delighted to have been freed, and had no intention of returning to Burma. "I saw just the tip of the iceberg and for a foreigner who has protection from the international community -it was just a case of adapting to hardship," he said.

"But for the Burmese prisoners it is not. It is a case of being numbed, absolutely numbed, and not having a chance to exercise your dignity, your morality or freedom."

Whatever his concerns about those prisoners he left behind, he can take satisfaction from one certainty: it is he, more than anyone except perhaps the Nobel Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the pro-democracy opposition, who has made Burma headline news.

While Ms Suu Kyi has struggled for more than a decade to make the world take notice of her country's plight, his one-man campaign has achieved mass coverage. It is James Mawdsley who has brought Mandalay to Middle England.

His background as a former public schoolboy who dropped out of university and travelled the world before being seized by the Burmese authorities three times has the ingredients that make his story enticing for the mass media.

But his parents believe there is more to it than that. His mother, Diana, who accompanied him from Rangoon yesterday, said: "I believe it is because he does as he says. He is honest, his passion is true. There is nothing false. It is clear as glass that he cares about these people."

His father, David, of west London, said he was impressed by his son's dedication, even though he felt he had now made his point. "When he was in London he wrote his leaflets and handed them out but of course none of these got in the newspapers," he said. "He has said to himself, 'What can I do?' and he has gone out and done it ... I am very proud of him."

The country on which his son has focused attention is rotten with corruption, controlled by secret police and ridden with fear. The controlling SPDC junta crushed a democracy movement 12 years ago, killing around 10,000 people and spreading lasting terror.

The human rights group Amnesty International said yesterday: "While James has been released there are still more than 1,000 political prisoners, while outside the jails the ethnic minorities are being brutally suppressed."

The United Nations Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, literacy, education and income, last year placed Burma 128th out of 178, behind Iraq, Mongolia and Nicaragua.

Mr Mawdsley was first arrested in Rangoon in 1997 for spraying the word metta - peace - on the wall of a school. He was deported, but returned in 1998 with the Karen and made a second protest before being arrested and held for 99 days. He was released and forced to sign a statement saying he would not return. It counted for nothing. Fourteen months ago as he prepared to make a third demonstration, Mr Mawdsley was arrested again and sentenced to 17 years.

Few would question his courage. Held in solitary confinement in Keng Tung prison, he has spent 23 hours and 40 minutes of every day locked up in a small, dirty cell. He has been tortured, refused pen and paper and, apart from his parents, his sole contact with the outside world has been a monthly visit from the British vice-consul Karen Williams.

But despite Mr Mawdsley's efforts to highlight events in Burma, and appeals from Ms Suu Kyi and the Government, some companiesstill do business with the military regime. One is the British-based Premier Oil, which has interests of £400m in the offshore Yetagun oilfields. Yesterday a spokesman said the company believed in "dialogue and constructive engagement". He added: "We are satisfied there are no human rights abuses taking place in the areas in which we operate."