Opposing the Rule of Law: How Myanmar's Courts Make Law and Order by Nick Cheesman (review)
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Opposing the Rule of Law: How Myanmar's Courts Make Law and Order. By Nick Cheesman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 338 pp.

Opposing the Rule of Law is an empirically rich and thoughtfully written book. It is highly relevant to scholars and practitioners interested in the past and present of Myanmar, where ethnic conflict, land grabs, corruption, police abuse of power and other rule-of-law [End Page 419] concerns continue to trouble people's daily lives. It is also relevant to scholars and policymakers not necessarily focused on Myanmar but nonetheless interested in the rule of law, democratization and legal reform.

Cheesman draws from the records of 393 criminal cases in eighty-six courts at various levels across Myanmar, and on other published and unpublished sources, to interrogate the meaning of the "rule of law" in the country, from the era of British Burma up to the present day. He finds that the rule of law is not a recent concept, one associated exclusively with Aung San Suu Kyi and the elected government that she leads. Rather, it "has long been a part of the Burmese political lexicon, common to the language of democrats and dictators alike" (p. 4). Furthermore, he argues, the rule of law has become conflated with "law and order" (p. 29). The latter represents a political ideal that is diametrically opposed to the former, because it justifies the use of the state's coercive power to achieve order without adherence to legal limitations.

The book is divided into a short introduction, nine chapters and an appendix concerned with the sources of data employed. Chapter 1 explains and justifies the book's approach — to interrogate the meaning of the rule of law by studying an oppositional concept, law and order. This second concept has its own normative contents. It inhabits the space vacated by the concept of the rule of law in Myanmar. Chapters 2 and 3 trace the ways in which the concepts of the rule of law and of law and order took on certain meanings from the British colonial period to the decades of military rule in Myanmar. Chapters 4 to 7 focus on particular features of Myanmar's courts and their production of law and order: the prosecution of public enemies, the use of judicial torture to extract confessions, corruption and bribery, and the state's response to the anti-government protests of 2007. Chapter 8 turns towards citizens who mobilize a rule-of-law ideal that does not share the same normative contents as the prevalent concept of law and order. Chapter 9 returns to discussion of opposing concepts and calls for empirical study of the rule of law that situates the concept in local political struggles and thus attends to shifts in its normative contents. [End Page 420]

One of the book's strengths is its impressive use of empirical sources that researchers on Myanmar have for the most part not considered. The records of 393 criminal cases consist of primary materials such as police correspondence, citizens' letters of complaint, first information reports on alleged offences, search-and-seizure forms, arrest and charge sheets, court diaries, courtroom testimonies, verdicts, and appeal submissions. To supplement these materials, Cheesman also draws from interviews with and notes from lawyers, journalists and activists, as well as media reports and other published and unpublished materials in English and Burmese. As Cheesman notes in the appendix, he has sought to break away from the usual body of primary sources and secondary literature on which scholars of Myanmar have habitually relied. This aspect of the book makes it an important contribution to a new generation of studies on the country.

This first strength of Opposing the Rule of Law is related to a second one, its empirical approach to the study of the rule of law. The book speaks to calls from scholars such as Martin Krygier, whose work the book cites, for more empirically informed theorizing of the rule of law. The concept is an elastic one, on to which scholars, activists and policymakers have seemingly latched as rule-of-law programmes have proliferated. However, we should not assume...


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