Myanmar's Courts and the Sounds Money Makes

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    In 2007, Deputy Township Judge U Sein Lwin lost his job and went to jail. His alleged crime was to have solicited bribes so that three women would not become co-accused in a case before him. A prosecutor charged the judge under the 1948 Prevention of Corruption Act, and a court in Taunggyi promptly sentenced him to seven years in prison. The Supreme Court dismissed him from office immediately (Supreme Court 2007a). If the facts of the case were more or less as set out on paper, then, frankly, the judge should have known better. The cases against the three women fell under the Unlawful Associations Act (1908). In other words, their alleged crimes had a political character — and if there is one type of case in which a judge ought under no circumstances solicit or accept bribes in Myanmar, it is a political case. In contrast with political cases, judges can and do accept money in exchange for adjustments to rulings in most other types of cases. From the accounts of people intimately involved in Myanmar's judicial system, it appears that perhaps the majority of judges are open to offers. Kyaw Min San in his chapter in this publication writes that one experienced lawyer estimated to him that currently over 50 per cent of courts are riddled with corruption. Others privately reckon that some 70 per cent of judges issue orders in part or in full on the basis of payments received from parties coming before them. Such estimates should not come as any surprise. While successive governments in Myanmar (and in Burma before it) have rhetorically condemned judicial corruption, instead of stamping out the activities described as corrupt what they have done has, rather, merely encouraged the development of alternative language and practices which enable people to engage in and negotiate the justice trade more effectively. The official and unofficial languages and practices of the justice trade, the sounds that money makes in and around Myanmar's courts, are the subject of this chapter. To examine them, I draw upon James Scott's study of public and hidden transcripts, where the former consists of gestures, speech, and practices in open interaction between dominant and subordinate groups, whereas the latter takes place beyond direct observation (Scott 1990, pp. 2, 4). Broadly speaking, the anti-corruption speechifying of officeholders, media reports, and government records constitutes the public transcript.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationMyanmar's Transition Openings, Obstacles and Opportunities
    Editors Nick Cheesman, Monique Skidmore and Trevor Wilson
    Place of PublicationSingapore
    PublisherInstitute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS)
    ISBN (Print)9789814414166
    Publication statusPublished - 2012


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