Teacher became dissident after camp was razed by troops

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The Independent Online

James Mawdsley's commitment to the cause of Burmese freedom began in 1997 when, at the suggestion of Burmese refugees he met in New Zealand, he visited a jungle camp of the Karen, the hill tribe eight million-strong who had been fighting the Rangoon regime for independence for half a century.

James Mawdsley's commitment to the cause of Burmese freedom began in 1997 when, at the suggestion of Burmese refugees he met in New Zealand, he visited a jungle camp of the Karen, the hill tribe eight million-strong who had been fighting the Rangoon regime for independence for half a century.

Mr Mawdsley taught English in the camp, and he was there when it was destroyed by Burmese forces. With other survivors he fled across the Moei river into Thailand, carrying a baby in his arms. This experience was the crucible of his dedication to the issue that has cost him so much.

I visited that same camp, called Manerplaw, in 1991, and I understand why Mr Mawdsley was so profoundly affected. You could not visit the place without being moved.

Manerplaw had been the military base of the Karen's guerrilla struggle for 15 years. But after the massacre of dissidents in 1988 and the crackdown on democrats that followed the aborted election of 1990, it became the refuge and rallying point for all the forces fighting what was then calledSlorc - the State Law and Order Restoration Council, as the junta styled itself.

Fleeing members of Aung San Suu Kyi's party defiantly formed a National Coalition Government among the trees. Dissident students poured in and began to organise. The Young Monks' Union set up a camp adorned with a sign reading "Long Live Holiness", where they meditated in their maroon robes. Mr Mawdsley's forerunners, Janette from England and Jennifer from Canada, taught English, history and music in huts carrying "Federal University" signs.

Five thousand people lived in the steamy heat of the jungle at Manerplaw. The Karen, sternly moral Christians, received them all warmly. "They welcomed us and took care of us like their own children," a member of the students' central committee told me.

Everyone in Manerplaw had malaria. Aerial bombardment by the Burmese forces was a permanent threat. But for as long as it existed, Manerplaw remained a brave model for the plural, diverse and tolerant Burma that the hard men of Rangoon refused - and still refuse - to countenance.

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