James Mawdsley’s Imprisonment in Burma


Universe Column

By David Alton

It is now almost eleven months since James Mawdsley was arrested and imprisoned by the Burmese military regime. Such a long and lonely period of solitary confinement would have broken the spirit of many others. Sustained by his Catholic faith, James has shown extraordinary strength and determination.

Last week, on a day when I met James’ mother and his sister, Emma, and took part in a Burma Briefing held at the Foreign Office, the importance of James’ stand was brought home to me yet again.

Before James went out to Burma we had discussed the plight of the ethnic minorities – and especially the suffering of the Karen, Karenni and Shan peoples. I had recently returned from my own investigation of conditions in the Karen refugee camps and both inside Burma and on the border I had taken first hand accounts of atrocities carried out by the Burmese military regime.

The continuing acts of genocide – for that is what it is – continue unabated. By coincidence, on the day that James’ family were at Westminster, some Shan leaders came to meet me and brief me on their plight and on the struggle in which their 10,000 Shan fighters are engaged.

They showed me a Burmese military document which they had obtained ordering local commanders to lay more land mines throughout the Shan State – especially in the valleys, where civilians are engaged in agriculture. They estimate that more than 300,000 Shan are now displaced people – and that 2,000 have been killed since 1996. Many more have suffered or died through malnutrition. In one recent incident, on June 23rd, in the Sai Murng district, in the Kun Hing township, sixty four civilians – women, children and old men – were shot dead. This was a vindictive retaliatory act carried out by the Burmese Army’s 246 Battalion.

The whole of Burma has been turned into a vast concentration camp subjugated from the barracks which criss-cross the land. It is administered by a brutal, incompetent, and paranoid regime. What was once a middle ranking economy is now one of the world’s ten poorest countries. They have decimated the health and social services and destroyed the education system. Just twenty pence per person per year is spent on education while forty per cent of the economy is used to buy arms. Having gathered huge debts – owed primarily to the Japanese – they havebrutalised civilians, manacled democratic institutions, militarised the university system and militarised the economy. Now they have nowhere left to go.

To their credit, two Ministers at the Foreign Office, John Battle and Patricia Scotland, have spoken out strongly about the regime and its practices; but there is much more which Her Majesty’s Government can do.

First, we should raise the question of genocide at the UN Security Council and ask for an International Criminal Tribunal to be established.  The Tribunal which the UN set up in Rwanda has conducted eight trials so far – and seven defendants have been found guilty of genocide, most were also found guilty of public incitement to commit genocide.

Black’s Law Dictionary says that Crimes Against Humanity are brutal crimes that are not an isolated incident but involve large and systematic actions, often cloaked with official authority that shock the conscience of mankind. A War Crime includes devastation that is not justified by military necessity. Genocide is an act committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

If Burma does not fall foul of these definitions perhaps a British Minister would explain to me why not.

Perhaps they could also tell me what else has to happen before they will press for genocide charges to be laid at the door of this regime. A life in Burma should not be worth less than a life in some other part of the world merely because television cameras have not been able to transmit shocking footage of these events into our front rooms.

Burma is at the epicentre of the drugs trade – responsible for the death of many young people outside its own borders. Yet many Western Governments – and the international media – continue to turn a blind eye to its excesses. It takes place in international sporting events – the Olympics, the Open at St.Andrews. It collects $300 dollars a time from every tourist who arrives at its border. Last year, 200,000 (mainly French and Italians and up to 7,000 Britons) – helped to boost the regime’s Exchequer. Western companies – like the British oil company, Premier, and the French company, Total, continue to trade there. The Americans, by contrast – and to their credit – have an outright ban on new investment.

And, meanwhile, a young British national, James Mawdsley, continues to take his courageous stand acting as our conscience in Burma. Events are being organised to mark the first year of James’ imprisonment. If you or your Church wish to take part, or to campaign for the Karen or the Shan, please telephone the Jubilee Campaign on 01483 894 787.