Book Review: Opposing the Rule of Law-How Myanmar’s Courts Make Law and Order by Nick Cheesman, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2015, 317 Pages
The ‘rule of law’ is the new buzzword which seems to have taken precedence over the discourse on human rights. Tension between the need for maintaining law and order along with an imperative concern for the rule of law is clearly palpable. Nick Cheesman delves into this fascinating area of research in his book on Myanmar where the rule of law, in his own words, is ‘lexically present but semantically absent’. By utilizing rich empirical research of court room politics and perspectives of common people, public officials, police, lawyers and judges, his book brings alive the intricate but well coordinated functioning of the massive law and order machinery in opposition to the ideals of the rule of law.
Cheesman begins by stating that the rule of law has been a part of the Burmese political lexicon for a long time with politicians, bureaucrats and soldiers all professing their concern for upholding it. The concept seemed to convey different things to different audiences in different contexts. The contested meaning of the concept is interestingly examined by the author by not only looking at how it is embodied in action but also by analyzing how opposite ideals are likewise embodied. Thus, the rule of law (taya-ubade-somoye) is studied by examining its opposite in Myanmar which is law and order (ngyeinwut-pibyaye). Those interested in history and gender studies will find the saga of the endurance of colonial criminal laws and the existence of gendered differentiation in law utterly fascinating.
The book discusses various paradoxical facets of legal institutions and their functioning in post colonial Burma. The manner in which the concepts of public enemy, enclosed courts and judicial pardon are defined and used in everyday life gives us an idea of the power of sovereign authority along with the importance of maintaining secrecy and order. Judicial torture for gaining confessions, money making and bribery (helped by the politics of disguise and pretense), expected standards of behaviour and innumerable ways of breaking rules are some of the issues raised which the readers will find extremely captivating. Cheesman also touches on the critical and current aspect of ‘voices’ in favour of the rule of law with complainants approaching the media outlets (both visual and print), calling press conferences and using blogs and Face-book pages to post/host accounts of wrongdoings by officials.
The book is very well researched with records pertaining to 393 criminal cases in 86 courts at all levels from across Myanmar and is a ‘must read’. Law Reports, Supreme Court Gazettes, Legal Journals, Police Manuals, private citizens’ (letters of complaint), FIR’s about alleged offenses, search and seizure forms, arrest and charge sheets, court daily diaries, courtroom testimonies, verdicts and appeal submissions have been meticulously studied. It successfully holds the attention of the reader through its easy language and flowing rendition of an otherwise difficult and complex subject of law and justice.