Former Burma prisoner of conscience ordained as priest

UK (Wednesday, August 3, 2016, Gaudium Press) A human rights activist who was jailed for over a year in Myanmar has been ordained as a Catholic priest.

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Fr James Mawsdley was freed in 2000 after 415 days spent in solitary confinement. He was sentenced to serve 17 years in jail for protesting against the Burmese government’s slaughter of ethnic minorities.

He was released after his family’s consistent campaign efforts. Fr Mawdsley claims to have had a difficult time whilst incarcerated; at one point sustaining a broken nose and two black eyes after a severe beating from one of his guards.

The Lancashire-born activist said he survived his imprisonment – in which was only allowed to leave his cell for 20 minutes a day – through his faith. In an article for the Daily Telegraph in 2008, Fr Mawdsley recalled: “The greatest help came from Christ. The Crucifixion makes sense of suffering. Jesus turned my misery into joy, even in that earthly hell, Insein prison.”

A Bible and missal were the only two objects Fr Mawdsley was permitted to keep in his cell.

The plight of the Burmese Karen tribe was revealed to Fr Mawdsley on a chance encounter with some refugees whilst he was in New Zealand. After hearing their stories of genocide, he decided to go to Myanmar to see the situation for himself. He was deported from the country twice before facing his jail sentence.

After his release, Fr Mawdsley wrote The Heart Must Break: The Fight for Democracy and Truth in Burma about his experience in prison and The Iron Road: A Stand for Truth and Democracy in Burma about the political climate in Myanmar.

Fr Mawdsley’s first Mass took place at the start of July in Bavaria. He is now assigned to the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter in Warrington as Assistant to Fr Armand de Malleray (According to The Guardian on 9 January 2000) … in an exclusive interview with The Observer on the eve of a trip to see his son, David Mawdsley, manager of a large residential building in London’s Knightsbridge, admitted that ‘a large part of me wants him to stay [in jail]’.

He said: ‘I know that the moment he’s back here, that will be the end of the public interest in the situation in Burma. James is a huge embarrassment to the Burmese authorities. The fact remains that he has been in prison for four months now, and if anything he’s stronger than when he went in.’

A committed Catholic, James only became involved in Burmese politics four years ago. After getting five A grades in his A-levels at school in Lancashire, he went to Bristol University to study maths and physics, but dropped out, bored, after three terms. Backpacking in New Zealand, he met a group of refugees from Burma’s ethnic minorities who told him of their experiences of genocide, rape and repression at the hands of the ruling Burman majority. Astonished, James made his first foray across the Thai border, was captured by the police and quickly deported. It was too late. The sight of burning villages and mass graves had made him resolve to focus international attention on the situation in Burma.

‘By putting his life on the line, he’s giving more than money,’ says David Mawdsley with pride. The last time the Mawdsleys were together as a family was on 24 July last year when they gathered in Devizes for a family wedding. Jeremy, a captain in the Army, was the bridegroom; his twin brother, James, was the best man. It was a happy day, but a long shadow fell across it.
‘As the evening wore on, you could see it on everyone’s faces: we all knew what James was going to do,’ added David Mawdsley. ‘You could see the family enjoying themselves, and then you could see the knowledge flash across their minds: James is going inside again. I drove him to Heathrow on the 28th. And of course he was captured on the 31st of August.’

James, 26, flew to Thailand and from there surreptitiously crossed the Burmese border to the north-eastern town of Tachilek, where he was caught distributing pro-democracy leaflets. It was the third time he had been arrested in Burma in two years, and the second time he has been sent to prison. At his trial on 1 September, he was summarily convicted of illegal entry and sedition, and given a 17-year sentence.

His previous conviction, in 1998, had ended in Rangoon’s Insein jail, following a 15-hour torture session after he was caught handing out stickers and playing pro-democracy songs on a cassette recorder: a protest that lasted for 45 minutes and ended in a five-year jail term. He served 99 days in solitary confinement before deportation, his cell measured eight feet by six, his sleeping mat was infested with bedbugs, and he suffered from scabies and recurring ear infections.

Conditions are better in Kengtung, but they would still make any British prison look like a holiday camp. Because James is barred from making contact with other prisoners, he is not given regular access to the exercise yard. ‘He’s meant to have an hour’s exercise in the fresh air every day,’ says David Mawdsley. ‘Last September the prison authorities promised to build a wall to divide off the exercise yard, so that he could exercise in solitary, but that hasn’t happened. At the moment, he’s getting about 20 minutes.’ Since space is restricted, James concentrates on press-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups.

Source Catholic Herald and The Guardian

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