The hero who found a cause

James Mawdsley was certainly naïve to risk his life to oppose the Burmese regime but such acts of self-sacrifice are inspirational


If I were James Mawdsley's mother, I think I might say to him, "Darling, you've been so brave, but now you should close the whole chapter on Burma. You've been there, done that, now come and stay home and have a little fun and comfort in your life."

If I were James Mawdsley's mother, I think I might say to him, "Darling, you've been so brave, but now you should close the whole chapter on Burma. You've been there, done that, now come and stay home and have a little fun and comfort in your life."

Mr Mawdsley, the 27-year-old Englishman who has accepted imprisonment, beatings and torture in a Burmese jail in his mission to bring human rights to that tyrannised country, is not likely to listen to such supplications. Nor would his mother, Diana, be likely to make them. James Mawdsley's parents are solidly behind their son's altruistic endeavours to sacrifice himself, if necessary, for the cause of freedom and democracy in Burma. He has just been released from Kentung prison, where he has been serving what was originally a 17-year sentence for distributing pro-democracy leaflets. He has a broken nose and is suffering from internal bleeding as a consequence of prison beatings (he also offended by writing on his cell wall). One beating was administered by 15 men.

James's release came after a series of diplomatic representations (and warnings from the UN that his imprisonment by the Burmese military junta was unlawful), and his mother, naturally, immediately expressed her happiness in that fact. But will he stay out of Burma, and of jail? Possibly not. He is the kind of person who, once committed to a cause, will keep at it if it kills him.

Saint or fanatic? Idealist or zealot? Altruist or meddler? For those who dedicate themselves to a cause, who are ready to suffer and die for it, it can sometimes be a surprisingly thin line. Emily Davison, the Suffragette who threw herself in front of the King's horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913 - and died - was perhaps a feminist martyr, but biographical studies also reveal that she was a self-destructive exhibitionist who had been shopping around for a cause even before she discovered feminism. The Vietnamese monks who burned themselves to death as a protest against the Saigon regime of Ngo Dinh Diem and Madame Nhu were self-sacrificing - but were they not also religious fanatics who might have done better to work through dialogue with their Catholic counterparts who had some influence with the regime?

Did Jan Palach, the Czech student who also self-immolated himself in the 1960s, advance the cause of Czech democracy one whit? The Berlin Wall came tumbling down because Western advertising, as seen on TV, undermined state socialism, and also, as it happens, because Ronald Reagan outspent the Russians in military hardware, and the ripple effect reached all the Warsaw Pact. Hard realities, my boy, rather than melodramatic individual gestures are what change the world! Or so the prudent voice of experience would say. These barbarous, archaic tyrannies like Burma will eventually join the modern world because social democracy and the market system are the only proven ways of relieving poverty and delivering individual freedom at the same time. When people want their McDonald's chain and the liberty to make money, old dictatorships eventually crumble.

And yet, humanity needs individuals like James Mawdsley who, by their actions, their commitment, and their altruism teach something very important. Direct action is a more powerful means of communicating a concept, of teaching ideas, than any form of words, as organisations like Greenpeace have frequently shown. By his direct action, James has put a focus on Burma (which has it own home-grown heroine in Aung San Suu Kyi) which no mere formula of words could achieve. Also, in a universe where we pay lip-service to the notion of a common, universal humanity above race or nation - a notion so artfully placed in the service of marketing by the likes of Benetton and Coca-Cola - here is someone who cares so much for a people other than his own, for another culture, another society, that he is willing to lay down his life for them. That is a true multi-ethnicity.

Precisely because commodity capitalism is so successful, there is a shortage of causes and ideals for young people to aspire to today. Anarchism, Trotskyism? A gathering of Trotskyists today is a gathering of pensioners - the Tariq Ali generation are now reaching 60. It is a common complaint of university lecturers that students nowadays are so business-like, so sensibly focused on money and careers and looking after number one that there is no space in their lives either for the zany or the self-abandonment to a great cause: and in any case, there are no great causes left. The environment is dandy, but who among us is ready to give up our cars as a personal gesture to environmentalism? Few.

I believe that one of the reasons why there is such a terrible rise in suicides among young men is that modern life lacks meaning. What is it all for? Driving a Volvo up and down a motorway? Feeling passionate about a football game? Is that all there is? Strangely, it only seems there is something to live for when there is something to die for. When life is too comfortable, anomie enters the soul. By contrast, suicides and depression plummet in time of war: not a reason for starting a war, but a reason for reflecting on the need for man's need for meaning and purpose.

Reading Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago at 11, the story of Stalin's victims maintaining moral dignity in the face of tyranny and suffering must have been an influential aspect of James Mawdsley's consciousness. And his devout Roman Catholic formation must also have played a significant role in his sense of purpose, and perhaps of sacrifice.

There is something in any absolutist religious faith which can burnish the individual with a capacity for total commitment, whereby the light of the faith itself leads on, and no outside agency can diminish either by force or ridicule. The Jehovah's Witnesses showed a stunning courage in the concentration camps of the Third Reich - they were among the bravest of all groups - because their commitment was so unbudgeable. In more everyday circumstances, Lord Longford has that same unwavering element of commitment: no matter how often Myra Hindley is decried as a monster of evil, he stubbornly maintains that everyone can be redeemed, and all the ridicule on earth will not sway him from that course. He doesn't mind being regarded as an old fool, since he is God's fool.

I wouldn't want to be James Mawdsley's mother (or father) because of the pain, worry and anxiety that goes with being the parent of a courageous altruist. I also share the modern suspicion of anything shading into extremism, and the middle-aged preference for doing these things through the proper, and safer, channels. But where would we be without heros? Without men and women willing ready to risk all, and go all the way, to serve a fine cause? We would be robbed of the imaginative sense that to serve a cause is exhilaratingly human, and, maybe, divine.

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