Report of Professor Adrian Briggs' visit to Yangon Auust-September 2015

I was in Yangon for the week of Sunday 30 August to Saturday 5 September 2015. As I was in the region for various reasons, it was convenient and comparatively inexpensive to fly up to Yangon, even though this had necessitated a substantial amount of prior planning and organisation (and could possibly have done with a little more of the same). The principal purpose of the trip was data gathering from lawyers, from various backgrounds, whose work involves contracts and contracting: this as part of the Contract Act 1872 project. A note of the questions, and of the kinds of people who were kind enough to speak to me about it, in anonymised form, below.

There are, of course, many things which one learns in the course of a trip like this which may have practical value for those proposing to travel to Myanmar in the future. This information is not given here (and anyway, some of it probably does not count as information), but there are many aspects of a trip to Yangon which are not predictable, and long forward planning is essential. So is a willingness to accept that the best made of plans can fall apart, and that keeping calm and carrying on is the only socially acceptable reaction.

Data gathering: the contract project.

We decided to use a standard list of questions, but with liberty to adjust these in the light of experience. The patience and generosity of those who allowed themselves to be interviewed was quite wonderful. With a few exceptions, it is probably fair to say that those who had had their legal education and training in Myanmar, which means in times and conditions which were very difficult, not least by reason of the isolation of the country in general and of its universities in particular, showed less familiarity with the kinds of issue with which commercial contracting is now concerned than those who had had some or all of their legal education outside Myanmar. But all the answers were valuable in building up a picture of the way in which the law of contract is used and not used in Myanmar today.

It was clear that, whatever else may also be true, resources are scant. Access to Myanmar law reports from before, say, 1970, is very infrequent and evidently unreliable. Information as to whether there was a law library or other collections in Yangon were conflicting but discouraging. Whether these resources would be used if they were available is debatable, but there would certainly need to some training in how to conduct legal doctrinal research (that is to say, the research necessary to do what is done at the Bar or in a good university). It is ironic that we have a far better collection of primary materials in the Bodleian than appears to exist anywhere in Yangon. Local practitioner reliance tends to be, if on anything at all, on pretty ancient Digests of headnotes, which may have been the best which could be done, but it is a poor form of preparation for battle. As to textbooks, which did not appear to be inspiring, the general view was that textbooks were not ‘the law’, even if written by ‘our masters’. If legal education has been – by necessity, if not otherwise – really confined to rote learning of basic texts, passing or failing an examination by simple reproduction, or not, of these texts, legal analysis or other thoughtful writing may not seem to be immediately helpful. But the lesson I would take from this is that the only way to show a better way to legal education in contract, at least, is to write a book as example of what can and should be done. Otherwise those locally educated and trained will continue to depend on foreigners for their law and legal services, and that cannot be good.

In terms of relations with international law firms, we have good relations with some, which will be invaluable as we go along. It seems likely that the best lawyers in private commercial practice are those who work in association with foreign firms. It may well be necessary to try and develop links to lawyers in government service. The point was made to me on several occasions that the government is completely uninterested in the views of Myanmar lawyers who are not in government service. This may be an exaggeration, and if it is not, it may change with time; but we may need to feel our way towards making and then reinforcing contact with Nay Pyi Taw, the Office of the Union Attorney General, and the Union Supreme Court.

Law: relations with the university law schools.

Even though the timing, which was dictated by my personal circumstances, was not optimal, as examinations were soon to begin, a day spent at Yangon University seemed to be worthwhile. I gave two hours of classes, problem solving in contract law and dealing in particular with a number of issues on which the Act seems to be silent and on which the principles of justice, equity and good conscience (Myanmar Laws Act 1898, s 13(3)) might be brought to bear. It seemed to go well, even though a tremendous burst of monsoon tempest, just as I was about to begin, took out the electric power (lights, fan, microphone) and provided an almighty racket from outside. I gave a lecture on this topic more generally in the afternoon, and that seemed to go well, even though I had to cut down the text to which I had sought to speak.

Our relations with the four law schools (YU, Dagon, East Yangon, YUDE) are good. It was a pity that Khin Mar Yee was away (in Oslo), and that Mon Mon Tar (from Dagon) was unable to come to the dinner which was hosted for all the Associate and Full (present and former) Professors in the four law schools. All those who came seemed happy that we had returned. The dinner, which had been arranged at Shan Yoe Yar was a splendid exercise in public relations, for it was obviously a very nice occasion with very nice food, and it was possible to hand over (pre-OUP publication) copies of the book on private international law while expressing our intention to find similar ways to help out in the months to come.

Some next steps.

The point about trying to compile a useful, but also exemplary, book on contract law has been made. It seems right. The contract law project has had the great benefit of some excellent research work conducted in various libraries in Oxford and London, and it may be that we are getting closer to the point at which we could try to compile a contract law textbook which would show one version of how these things can be done. As we go, however, we should aim to post information on the website, not least because it may prompt or provoke others into expressing interest, which would be very welcome.