James Mawdsley is the kind of guy who makes you want to be an idealist. After the 29-year-old Briton made headlines in 2000 for his illegal incarceration and subsequent mistreatment in a Burmese jail, the UN called for his release, the pope wrote a letter on his behalf, and the world paid attention, however briefly, to the plight of Burmese political prisoners.
The Iron Road is Mawdsley's account of his fight against Burma's military dictatorship. During a 1996 backpacking trip, he signs up to teach English at the Minthamee refugee camp near the Thai border. Months after his arrival, the Burmese army advances on the camp, which the retreating rebels destroy to prevent their foes from commandeering buildings and supplies. This tragedy galvanizes Mawdsley. "I made two resolutions," he writes. "The first was that as the regime had destroyed Pyo Pan Wai, our primary school, I would make sure it was rebuilt. . . . The second resolution was that I would make known the story of Minthamee. . . . The regime is trying to rewrite history. It is important that the truth be told."
By 1998 Mawdsley is surreptitiously entering Burma to stage one-man protests. For his first, he chains himself to the gate of a Rangoon school. In others he distributes pro-democracy literature. For these dubious infractions (one Kafkaesque charge claims that he contravened a law against breaking the law), Mawdsley spends more than 12 monthsof a 17-year sentencein solitary confinement, where he endures torture and completes a 20-day hunger strike. Throughout, he remains stoic and optimistic, befriending guards and fellow prisoners and devouring Solzhenitsyn and Dostoyevsky, while international organizations rally to his aid.
Mawdsley creates an accessible memoir, part travelogue, part political manifesto. He recounts with pleasure a 14-day jungle trek that would challenge the most seasoned Lonely Planet-toting thrill seekers. Meanwhile, his provocative meditations on justice and life in the Burmese gulag could spur those same travelers to become the next generation of global activists.
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