Report of visit by Professor Adrian Briggs to Yangon, delivering classes in September 2014

1           Classes given:

Private International Law: 24 classes of 1 hour, at Yangon University

Contract Problem classes: 8 classes of 1.5 hours, at Yangon University, 1 class of 2.5 hours at Dagon University, 1 class of 2.5 hours at East Yangon University

Legal Concepts course: 4 classes of 1.5 hours at Yangon University, 2 classes of 1.5 hours at Dagon University, 2 classes of 1.5 hours at East Yangon University

2          Course preparation and delivery

I wrote the course materials for the Private International Law classes, unearthing as much Myanmar law as I could (which really only existed in statutory form, incompletely for jurisdiction and foreign judgments, but nothing else), and filling in the rest – which was most of the material on choice of law – from the general principles of the common law. As the printed materials available for teaching in Myanmar are not suitable for modern use I wanted to leave something usable behind. The preparation of this naturally took some time, but it proved to be reasonably robust, as I appeared to have found pretty much all there was to find. It produced a booklet of about 80 A4 pages, which was printed and bound in Yangon.

For Contract, I put together about twenty problem questions of the kind used in FHS revision classes, and every afternoon at 3.30 we talked through a couple of these. It was done mostly by reference to the Contract Act 1872, which required some work on my part, but which was good to use as a teaching tool. Sections 73 and 74 on remedies, in particular, are an excellent vehicle for all sorts of discussion and analysis of core legal terms. It was great fun, and was important to be able to do it by using Myanmar law to do it.

I was asked to give some lectures on jurisprudence, a difficult and rather unpopular first year course in Myanmar. I stuck to property, obligation, ownership, possession, contractual rights as property, &c, which seemed to go down better than some other selections might have done.

The classes were delivered to mixed audiences, containing teaching staff, doctoral students, masters’ students, some lawyers from downtown, and some others who did not identify themselves. Those in conflicts went reasonably well, for the commercial side of private international law, or the private international side of commercial law, is terribly important in Myanmar at the moment. Their law is in a state of arrested development, and unless someone does something about it, and fast, the country will simply abandon its law and dispute resolution to foreigners, which seems a very bad thing. I think the work done in these classes was valuable, though some will have sailed over the heads of those who came along. No matter: one has to start somewhere, and they have the materials so that next time around it will be easier.

The contract classes were, as I see it, probably the most successful. It is evident that no-one has ever taught, or been taught, in this way: teaching involved and still appears to involve delivery and memorising of lecture notes, then substantially reproduced in the examination. The people in my classes were prepared, however, after some cajoling and warming up, to make contributions to discussion. Even where these were rudimentary, they were greeted with enthusiasm, on the footing that one must work with what one has, and build on it, rather than hold back until the conditions are perfect. These classes were, as I saw it, classes in a teaching style which could instantly be seen to be a good one.

3          The Law Schools

Yangon University, which sits on a leafy, once-beautiful, estate in the city, is in an exhausted physical condition. The lecture rooms, large and equipped with heavy wooden desk-benches, like a Victorian classroom, do not have aircon: no joke when it is 35C and the humidity is about 90%. With the doors and windows open it is possible to teach, but it is hard work, especially when the electric power goes down and the microphone and fan do not work. Otherwise I was kindly given ‘the foreign professors’ room’, which had aircon and a fan, and perfectly decent wifi. But facilities for staff are rather poor.

Dagon University, and East Yangon University, exist because of a governmental policy which decided to locate universities and students at remote distances from what was then the centre of governmental power. By car, each takes a good 90 minutes to reach; by the kind of overcrowded, groaning, bus which is the basic public transport in Yangon, rather longer. As a result, a significant number work by private study (‘distance learning’) and the occasional intensive course, as though at the Open University.

Practically everyone one meets is a delight: though the conditions of work are extremely challenging, draining, one is greeted with enthusiasm and welcomed with a generosity of such depth and warmth that one id left feeling utterly undeserving. This was certainly true in YU; but it was true several times over in Dagon and in East Yangon, where visitors rarely go and never stop to teach. The idea of sending an Oxford representative to these places, to be seen to be treating them as the equal to YU, was inspired. The staff, and the students, work there almost entirely without materials (a ‘library’ in each comprising maybe a couple of hundred books, with most of them actually being rather fuzzy photocopies) and any other means of intellectual support, but even though they are making bricks without straw, and with very little clay, there are good and diligent people there, quietly keen to receive all the help which we can give.

Instruction, and examination, is required to be in English. The country was cut off from the outside world from 1962: no-one educated in Myanmar after that date will have ever have had his or her abilities in English assisted by any contact with a native speaker of the language. Though this insane closing of the national doors has now been reversed, the damage done to those aged 20 to 60 is not quick or easy to eradicate. The language gap is constantly referred to as a real barrier for people. It may be better to see it as a language chasm.

4          What to do ?

If donors decide to help, make a proposal and offer it, the response will naturally be to accept it. This because of the perception, that all manner of help is needed, but also because of the absolute social impossibility of refusing a gift offered by a superior. But the result risks being that though the donor feels good about the donation, the recipient feels less grateful for the receipt. Yet if one asks a law school what it needs, the temptation for it to say ‘everything’ is overwhelming. This means that we must tread with real care.

Six things come to mind. One, sending people to convey doctrine, has a value, but it may be easy to exaggerate it. The temptation to treat YU as though it were a brother institution to Oxford, and to see ourselves as being called on to bring its mastery of doctrine up to date, would take far too little account of the extent to which law has been denigrated and held in low esteem by the state. The time is not yet ripe for an infusion of full-blooded, Oxford-level, doctrine to be feasible.

A second is to view our help as a form of teacher training. I do think that this is realistic and sensible, and right, for it allows us to do something which was once our raison d’être in a way which will leave transmissible skills behind. There is quite a lot of this going on, in one form or another, in the country, and the British (quite a lot of which coordinated or overseen by the British Council, for whom everyone has high praise) are heavily involved in it in a variety of contexts. It seems that it matches needs to capacities. Related to this is the devising of syllabuses: if it were to be welcomed, we could certainly offer something on that front.

Third, to donate books. It is not the right time to be doing this at YU, for the law school does not have rooms suitable for the arrival (storage, shelving, and protection) of books: Dagon and East Yangon would be a very different case. For YU, much better might be to do what may be done to give electronic access to material which, in hard copy form, may never be read and may not be preserved for others to use.

Fourth, there is the kind of help which takes the form of self-appointed groups, with rather large egos, going to Myanmar to tell them that they need to revise their constitution, which does not comply with modern conceptions of human rights and the rule of law, &c, and which invites – and appears to invite and expect the attendance of – the Union President, the Speakers of the Parliamentary chambers, and all these other people who do actually have jobs to do. To my mind, and while accepting that there are other perspectives on this particular issue, this is not something with any appeal at all. If we were to be asked for our specific help on such issues, of course we should offer to give it. But when you come across bodies which are inviting themselves into the country to lecture or hector on the inadequacies of their constitution and state, you do rather wonder about the rightness of this kind of thing.

Fifth, after my day at East Yangon (where I did not do private international law) I was told by the two professors and one vice-Rector, all admirable people, that what they really needed was a book from which to teach the conflict of laws. They have no books, of course, but wanted to have one which would work. There is a real problem with that, for nothing in England will work any more (we have gone all European); and it is neither sensible nor kind to suggest that they might look to Singapore. I did say - incautiously, but never mind - that I reckoned that I could write one. The response was enthusiastic, and while I said immediately that any such idea would depend on my university considering that it was a proper thing to so, I do think that there is something in the idea that some of us could make useful contributions this way. We have people here who could produce books of Clarendon-ish length, or books-plus-materials which were a bit longer; and we might be able thereby to make a contribution to the lifting of standards which would play to what was once our strength and which would not require a long sojourn away from Oxford. I will return to this below.

Sixth, anything we can do to foster ties between practitioners downtown and the law schools – these barely exist, at the moment – would be good. There is reason to think that we may be able to make progress with that, and more reason to think that some at least of the foreign law firms now setting up shop in Yangon would be ready, willing, and able to help.

5          Other points

It should be said, loudly and clearly (and probably should have been said long before this point), that the Head of the law department, Daw Khin Mar Yee, was extraordinarily kind and helpful. She is by any reckoning an admirable and multi-skilled individual, of whom it impossible to be anything other than quickly and very fond. But she is completely overwhelmed by her existing duties. The idea that she has significant spare capacity to look after a visiting foreigner is unreal. One is, in effect, left to one’s own devices, and one has to have reasonably robust devices to rely on.

One hopes that we did leave something of tangible value. Intangibly, though, I am sure we contributed a lot: partly in showing a different style of teaching, but also in terms of morale: in terms of the kind of self-esteem which money can’t buy but which payment and presence can give. There is a world of difference between zooming in to give a lecture and zooming out again, and being prepared to get your hands dirty in the classroom. I think that was really important, perhaps especially for those labouring away in Dagon and East Yangon. When I was thanked for my time, and for Oxford’s effort, I am sure that it was meant in complete sincerity.

I do think the question whether we might provide help in the sense of writing (or otherwise compiling) books from which to teach, in certain subjects where we are able, is well worth thinking about. It might require a companion trip to deliver and explain, but it would allow us to show that we were making our contribution across the law schools of the country, not just in YU. If there were anything in it, we would need to get clear approval in advance (from, for example, Khin Mar Yee, but maybe not just from her), but the more one reflects on it, the more it seems like the kind of thing which Oxford could do.

There were occasions on which I was temporarily defeated in accomplishing simple tasks, and had a bit of a moan by e-mail to Oxford; but in Yangon you are just left entirely to your own resources and native wit. As I had been to Yangon a couple of times before it was perhaps not as frustrating for me as it might have been for a first-time visitor accustomed to slicker standards or to having everything done instantly or dealt with by assistants; I also had access to Myanmar relations of family friends, available as a safety net were there to have been a need, which there was not. Yangon is fascinating, occasionally magnificent, though it is changing fast and may soon be less so. Some find Myanmar beguiling; others are more immediately appalled at the degraded chaos of it all. For the reasonably self-reliant visitor who is prepared to get up before dawn and take advantage of the two hours of daylight before classes begin and the traffic grinds to a complete halt, and work as hard at weekend sightseeing as at weekday teaching, there is much to see. But this trip was really hard work. Anyone who fancies a holiday in Yangon should go ahead and book one. Taking part in this scheme is a different thing altogether. Yangon is, and will always be, a hardship posting.

Adrian Briggs