Cover image for The iron road : a stand for truth and democracy in Burma
The iron road : a stand for truth and democracy in Burma
Mawdsley, James, 1973-
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Heart must break
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : North Point Press, 2002.

Physical Description:
397 pages ; 21 cm
General Note:
Originally published: The heart must break. London : Century, 2001.
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
DS530.68.M38 A3 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A startling account of an evil regime and one young man's efforts to defy it. Twenty-eight-year-old James Mawdsley spent much of the past four years in grim Burmese prisons. The Iron Road is his story, and the story of the regime that jailed him, the way it jails, tortures, and kills hundreds of Burmese each day. Mawdsley was working in New Zealand when he learned about the struggle of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese Nobel laureate who is under house arrest. Outraged, he went to Burma, staged a one-man protest, and was jailed. There his own amazing story begins. He is tortured, interrogated, released, jailed again. He turns his incarceration into a contest of wits -- going on a hunger strike, toasting the year 2000 with a cigar and "prison champagne," and requesting "1 packet of freedom, 1 bunch human rights, and 2 bottles of democracy." At the same time, he asks himself: What leads those of us in peaceful democracies to ignore others' suffering, just because it is happening "over there," to "them"? James Mawdsley is a hero in a generation said to lack heroism. The Iron Road -- named for a torture in which skin is scraped from bone with a piece of iron -- is an urgent call for an end to human rights abuses in Burma and is a keen analysis of the totalitarian mind-set. And it is the story, at once moving and terrifying, of how one person can further the cause of justice through sheer will and determination.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

British Australian Mawdsley was so devastated by the sorrows and injustices of the world that he dropped out of college and attempted suicide. This proved to be a soul-cleansing experience, and two years later he decided to face tyranny and evil head-on by speaking out against one of the world's most brutal military regimes, the oppressors of once glorious, now acutely suffering Burma. Although the leader of Burma's democracy movement, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, the government remains murderously totalitarian. Unattached to any activist group, Mawdsley boldly staged conspicuous, solo pro-democracy protests in the streets of Rangoon and Moulmein, enraging baffled Burmese officials, who, after arresting and torturing him, handed down a 17-year prison term. Mawdsley's determinedly positive and indelible chronicle of his efforts to awaken the international community to Burma's plight is, like Victoria Armour-Hileman's Singing to the Dead [BKL Je 1 & 15 02], a poignant call to action and a reminder that, "Mankind is one body. . . . None of us is free until we all are free." --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

In his first book, Mawdsley painstakingly describes his nearly unimaginable experiences as a political prisoner in Burma, recalling almost matter-of-factly the cruelty, deprivation, sorrow, horror and bureaucratic stupidity he endured, and his calculated opposition to authority. Three times he set himself up for arrest in Burma during the 1990s in support of the democratic movements that fought the repressive military junta. In a thorough but occasionally meandering narrative, the author vividly recounts sacrifice and heroism little known in the West. He tells of the brave and generous Burmese revolutionaries supporters of the National League for Democracy, which overwhelmingly won a 1990 election that was disregarded by the junta who daily faced the threat of encountering the larger, better-armed government forces. He also takes the reader inside his own mind, that of a quiet revolutionary who challenged authority by demanding his rights to food, books and letters and by calling for humane treatment for his fellow prisoners. Mawdsley also recounts his evolution from angry advocate of justice to a Christian armed with God's love (though as a Brit, he doesn't describe himself as "born-again"). His use of British terms may briefly befuddle some American readers. Yet his story of personal commitment to a struggle on the other side of the planet and of the Burmese who give their lives for that struggle buttresses everyone but despots and their minions. Photos and maps. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Englishman Mawdsley's passionate narrative stridently calls attention to the chronic abuse of human rights by the Burmese state. On three occasions, Mawdsley penetrated the Burmese border to demonstrate publicly on behalf of Burmese political freedom and elicit worldwide response through his arrest. He was immensely successful, inspiring efforts by the United Nations, the Vatican, and the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia to address the Burmese situation. Mawdsley's narrative and diary excerpts describing his experiences in solitary confinement form a significant subplot, and it is especially instructive to see some of his early navet give way to a sense of realpolitik as his imprisonment lengthened. A young man from a broken home who dropped out of university and failed in an attempted suicide, Mawdsley has clearly grown into a noble cause on which to focus his life. It is this vision, related in simple, sharply etched prose, that drives his compelling account. Recommended for all libraries John F. Riddick, Central Michigan Univ. Lib., Mt. Pleasant (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



I squatted down in the marketplace and reached into my small bag. Sick with apprehension, I pulled out the flyers and cassette tapes I had brought, expecting to be arrested at any moment. Was there to be nothing that would stop me, no final realization or excuse, no earthquake or Armageddon? No, there was just the misery of poverty and oppression all around. The drizzle falling made everything look even more rotten. I was in Tachilek, a small town on the Burma-Thai border, gateway to the Golden Triangle. The military junta in Burma are destroying the country. They imprison those who dare to speak the truth, and are committing genocide against minority nations on the borders. They had killed eight of my friends. I was there to protest. I would distribute prodemocracy flyers, red-and-white stickers, and freedom songs. "Kyaungtar khaung zaung Min Ko Naing hnit naing ngan yey a kyintha, lut myowt yey!" I shouted, hurling the first fistful of flyers into the air. I began walking through the market stalls, dropping cassettes here and there and throwing letters and stickers to left and right. Tired-looking men stood behind stalls of fish paste or clothing; women laid out vegetables on sacks or on the ground, but customers were few. The market seemed empty, subdued, but I could not really see anything around me; I was too nervous. "Release the student leader Min Ko Naing and all political prisoners! Reopen the universities!" I shouted. The vendors stared. Nobody would understand my appalling Burmese pronunciation, but the message was there on the flyers. I wanted to cover as much of the market as possible so it didn't look like I had selected a special area. "Demokrasi! Khinmya dob ayey-ha, janore ayey bar beh!" The locals hid their surprise. It was not safe for them to show an interest. Many tried to pretend I was not even present, they looked right through me. But that was perfect; it would be a disaster if anyone joined in. "Your cause is my cause! I called out, feeling a touch self-conscious. Protesting like this is not at all dignified. Fumbling, I dropped the last dozen cassettes in a clattering heap, not even looking behind me to see if anyone moved forward to swipe one. And then I was out of the market, heading down a muddy lane that was becoming quieter and quieter. I felt scared and doubled back. Whatever was about to happen to me, I wanted there to be witnesses. "Shi lay lone sait dat, shin tan yey!" Then a woman, perhaps twenty years old, ran up from nowhere. Her dark cheeks were decorated with thanaka , a yellow powder used to keep the skin young, and her wide brown eyes were fixed on the flyers still in my hands. What a thirst there was in her eyes for something to read! And something that was pretty obviously to do with freedom, to do with a fight against the brutal military junta. I gave her a couple of flyers and she bounded off. For a few moments my soul sang. Yes, what I was doing was right; it did mean something to the Burmese. But it looked ridiculous even so. "Hey, you!" screamed a uniformed man in front of me. "Hey, you! What are you do!" He and another barred my path. "Stop!" "Are you a policeman?" I asked him aggressively, and barged past, shouting "DEMOCRACY!" I managed one more lap of the market, now shedding the flyers very quickly. One fluttered onto a table where three old men were drinking tea. They looked at it as if it were a bomb, not daring even to brush it away in case it appeared that they were reaching out to read it. The nearest man had prickly white stubble on his drooping chin and his face was a sketch of sorrow, alarm, and fear. Around the next corner there were five men glaring at me, two of them in brown uniforms. "What you do?" they demanded in fury. "Stop now." As I passed they grabbed my arms and shirt, but I shook their hands off and kept moving. They were uncertain. How rough could they be with a foreigner? "Khut daung sait dat, shin tan ja!" By now a crowd had gathered. They snatched glances at me but I did not want to make eye contact with anyone in case an informer took notice. I had been going for about ten minutes, and that was enough. It was clear that I was hollering about democracy and that I was not well pleased with the authorities. And today, the last day of August 1999, they moved quite fast. Suddenly a dozen angry men surrounded me. "Lut lat yey! Freedom!" I said, and reached down to my feet where I had stuffed two handfuls of stickers down my socks in case my bag was confiscated. As I bent low the eyes of one uniformed man opened wide with shock: was I going to pull out a knife? "Koe lay lone," I cried, and threw a fistful of stickers over their heads. They shot their arms up to stop me. "DEMOCRACY!" I threw the other fistful. Now they'd had enough. Hands came from everywhere and gripped me tightly. A big bearded bear of a man twisted my shirt round in his fist. It hurt. The hatred burning his face fell on me like a blow. Then my arms were behind my back and handcuffs were squeezed on. A considerable crowd had gathered. They watched silently, worried and shocked. "Keitsa ma shi bar bu!" I cried as I was frog-marched away from the market. "No problem." I was trying to smile bravely, but gulping in apprehension. At the station house the police sat me down in a large room: a few desks, a few guns, lots of people milling about. I was left alone as they searched my bag. There was very little in it. They had recovered a few of the cassettes I had dropped, and they went into a side room with a tape deck to listen to them. The songs were about freedom; the singer was Mun Awng, a Burmese exile. I hoped the police enjoyed them. Two officers began searching me, and as a hand went into my back pocket I was overcome by dread. I had done the stupidest thing in my life. In the pocket was a scrap of paper with the telephone numbers of four of my friends, Burmese exiles in Thailand. I had meant to destroy it before entering Burma. The officer put it with my bag and the rest of my belongings in a corner of the room. Now I felt really sick. If they examined it, my friends might be in danger too. I wondered how on earth I could retrieve it. A policeman decided to handcuff me to the chair. Oh Lord! I started to sniffle and twitch my nose. In my bag was a roll of tissues. Maybe-just maybe-they would pass me the bag to get a tissue and then I could snatch the list. I asked for my bag, said there was a tissue in it. They looked amused and got me one from elsewhere. Did I think they were born yesterday? Oh Lord, I was dying of shame. This was the third time I had been arrested in Burma for supporting democracy. Until now I had not let anybody down. The second time, in Moulmein, I had refused to give the names of my comrades despite being tortured. But this time I was giving telephone numbers away for free. There were no names with the numbers, and perhaps the regime knew the numbers already, but it was a galling mistake. After inspecting my passport, a jowly senior officer telephoned his bosses in Rangoon. I listened in to the conversation and eventually heard the name "Moulmein." That meant they now knew my history in Burma, which would at least make the interrogation easier. Then a miracle happened. Another officer decided he wanted to search my belongings again and called for his subordinates to put them on the table in front of me. Now the list was only about six feet away. There was a gaggle of men pawing through the kit. Though I was handcuffed to a chair, this was my chance; but if I failed in my attempt, then I would only be drawing attention to its significance. I sprang forward, dragging the chair with me, barging my arm and shoulder between two men and seized the note. I stuffed it into my mouth and swallowed. Once again hands from everywhere grabbed me; they held my head and squeezed my mouth open-but I had felt the paper go down. In blessed relief I did not resist as they opened my jaws and peered and poked, more astonished than angry. I felt then that they could do what they liked, there was no way I was going to betray anybody. The senior officer was not impressed. My belongings were removed and I was told to take off my shoes and socks, my belt and watch. I did not care; they had not got the list. The wooden floor felt cold to my feet. "What is your name?" asked one of the chiefs. "You have my passport. You can see for yourself." "Are you Mr. James Mawdsley?" "Yes." "What is your nationality?" "You have my passport." "You are British." "Yes." "What is your year of birth?" "You have my passport." "14 February 1973?" "Yes." "Why do you come to Burma?" "To talk about freedom, justice, democracy, human rights ..." "How many people are with you? Who helped you?" I smiled at him and said, "I am under no obligation to answer your questions. You are not the government. You are part of a terrorist regime." They soon moved me from the police station to the immigration office. Sometimes they left me alone, sometimes they tried to question me, but they got nowhere. A colonel from the Military Intelligence (MI) came to try his luck. The Military Intelligence are Burma's not-so-secret "secret police." They are ruthless, cruel, and without morality. They have informers everywhere, and even the generals at the top of the junta are afraid of them. "Why have you come to Burma?" asked the MI colonel. "Because I love Burma, I love the people here, and I hate what your regime is doing to them." "It is not your country. Why do you interfere?" "It is one world. It is my sisters and brothers that you are torturing, raping, and murdering. It is absolutely my business to protest against that." "Tell us who helped you. Do you know anybody in Tachilek?" "I am under no obligation to answer that question." He looked at me for a few moments. The conversation changed tack. Whenever I was being questioned in Burma I wanted to make sure that the interrogator knew that I respected the country, that I was not out to destroy anything or calling for the West to take over (as their crazy propaganda claimed). We got on to the subject of Burma's natural beauty-common ground on which everyone can agree no matter which side he thinks he is on. There was an interpreter present, and he began rambling on about the loveliness of Shan State, and I agreed with everything he said. As I learned his story, I felt sorry for him. He did not belong with this regime. His father, who had been a military attaché in London, was flying from Ireland, one day and the plane had crashed. That was in the 1950s. Forty years on, he was still pining for Burma's glory days, when the Japanese were gone, the British were gone, and the Burmese had won their independence. Burma was Asia's brightest star-a parliamentary democracy, the world's foremost exporter of rice, with unheard-of literacy rates and natural wealth: oil, teak, jade, gems, pearls, metals, and magic. But the promise had miscarried. "Oh, Shan State," he enthused, "the mountains so beautiful, the trees and rivers, the birds and the flowers by the roadside ..." "And the poppies!" I added, unable to resist. The poppies are for opium; the opium is for heroin. More heroin is produced in the Golden Triangle than anywhere else in the world (except perhaps Afghanistan). Laos forms one corner of the triangle. Yunnan province in southwest China has replaced Thailand as a second corner. But the heart of it has always been Burma, Shan State. The Burmese junta work with local drug barons to produce and traffic heroin and methamphetamines. The drug trade is a vast source of revenue for them. "What?" mumbled the interpreter, waking from his reverie. "The millions of poppies on the roadside, very pretty too, hey?" "No, no!" he snapped, and I thought my ambitious joke had met its inevitable end. But then he delighted me. "They don't grow the poppies by the roadside, they grow them further back so they cannot be seen." I clapped in delight. Brilliant! If it were in a script it would be corny. The MI colonel was livid. "And there are no poppies there," he insisted through clenched teeth, "because our drug eradication program is cutting all that out!" He fumed at the interpreter, then stood up and walked to the door, where he delivered his final warning. "You know they will take you to Kengtung. They can torture you there." "They can do what they like, pal, I'm not saying anything." He scowled and left. The handcuffs were too tight; my wrists were cut. I asked for them to be loosened. The police, with great sport, pretended that the keys were lost. I had been through this before. I was taken to a small cell with a reeking bottle of urine in the corner. One of the guards, who looked about fifteen, toyed with an automatic rifle on his knee, seemingly unaware that he was pointing it right at me. That was more unnerving than threats of torture. I was prepared to face anything the regime might do to me; but the idea that I might die in a senseless accident frightened me. Half an hour later a long thick chain was attached to my handcuffs and I was led out into a nearby building. I sat on a bench against the back wall, with police on either side and a knot of men outside the door. I was told to stand as three men filed in. It was only as witnesses were summoned to testify that I realized with astonishment that this was my trial. There were four witnesses. The first, a policeman, said he had seen me causing a disturbance in the market and had arrested me. Through a translator, I was given the chance to question him. "From where do you get your authority?" I asked. "Who made you a policeman?" He did not respond. The second witness said I had been caught distributing antigovernment literature. "What did I do that was antigovernment?" I asked. "Is it antigovernment to call for freedom and justice? What have I written that is antigovernment?" The judge intervened. He said it did not matter what I had written in the flyers. It was an offense to give out any literature that had not passed the censors. But still they persisted in referring to antigovernment literature. "Tell me exactly what words I have spoken or written which are antigovernment. What I have written is prodemocracy. It is protruth. It is not antianything." I was telling the truth. They could not show evidence of anything antigovernment. I had been extremely careful in what I had written. (It was forthright, but legally unobjectionable.) "The letters ask for three things," I said. "That the universities be reopened. That all political prisoners be released. And that the SPDC [the military regime] hold dialogue with the National League for Democracy. Continue... Excerpted from THE IRON ROAD by JAMES MAWDSLEY Copyright © 2001 by James Mawdsley Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.