Book Review: Dr. Maung Maung: Gentleman, Scholar, Patriot

Dr. Maung Maung was perhaps the most important person in Burmese history you’ve never heard of. For a time, he was Burma’s preeminent lawyer, scholar, judge, attorney general, constitutional drafter, and, briefly, president. Robert Taylor, a longtime scholar of Burmese politics, has produced a very useful compilation of Dr. Maung Maung’s writings. Most of these date from the 1950s and provide useful insights into Dr. Maung Maung’s thinking back then. However, some of the articles are themselves interesting pieces of scholarship. After a brief introductory biography of Dr. Maung Maung, Taylor divides his writings into several parts:

  1. Approach to life; 
  2. Biographical sketches of famous Burmese leaders; 
  3. Foreign and domestic travels; 
  4. Burmese army (tatmadaw); 
  5. Constitution of 1947; and 
  6. Papers from Dr. Maung Maung’s presidency in 1988. 
These essays are overall scholarly and intelligent, yet also very easy to read. Dr. Maung Maung comes across as sincere and passionate about Burmese democracy and its constitution. Given subsequent events, sometimes he seems too optimistic. 
The biographical sketches are not only of the famous post-independence leaders such as Aung San and Ne Win, but also of lesser-known figures, such as judges and soldiers. He is generally sympathetic towards his subjects, but the essays aren’t hagiographies. The essays were written during the 1950s, so they don’t necessarily reflect the latest details of each person’s life. As such, it would have been useful if Taylor had written a brief note after Dr. Maung Maung’s essays explaining what happened in each person’s life after the essay was first published. However, there hasn’t been much scholarship on the less famous personages, such as the Burmese judges, so some of these essays may be the only biographies we have in the English language. For that fact alone, this book is invaluable. 
The articles Taylor includes on Burma’s 1947 Constitution aren’t nearly as in-depth or scholarly as Dr. Maung Maung’s magnificent Burma’s Constitution. Also, the articles Taylor chose to include become a bit repetitive – almost like a cheerleading squad for the constitution. Nonetheless, they provide insightful observations about both the man and the document. The articles in the compilation begin in the late 1940s and end right before the 1962 coup, allowing the reader to trace subtle shifts in Dr. Maung Maung’s attitude toward the constitution and politics. At the beginning, he is full of praise. By the end, he sounds more defensive, justifying Ne Win’s caretaker administration and the lack of political stability. Indeed, by the late 1950s, he calls the constitution a “cut-and-paste” job (mostly from Ireland and Yugoslavia) – something he would never have admitted earlier. In fact, the articles are taken from speeches and op-eds he wrote to reassure the public that the 1947 constitution still had meaning. His second thoughts on the constitution, combined with his evident disgust with Burma’s politicians, perhaps help explain his decision to join the Ne Win government after the 1962 coup. 
I was disappointed that, except for the brief chapter on Dr. Maung Maung’s presidency, the book seems to end in 1962. Almost all of the essays and articles included in the compilation are from the 1950s. Of course, to a large extent, that is when Dr. Maung Maung did most of his writing, before he joined the bench. Yet, Taylor alludes to several opinions written by Dr. Maung Maung while he was on the bench in the 1960s. Unfortunately for the reader, rather than including these precious texts, Taylor concludes “It would take another book and detailed knowledge of Myanmar’s legal traditions to undertake a study of Dr. Maung Maung’s judicial decisions during the 1960s.” I do hope somebody writes that book soon.
Dr. Maung Maung remains a very controversial figure among Burma scholars. One prominent American scholar I know criticizes Dr. Maung Maung for “whoring” himself out to General Ne Win. Whatever your views on Dr. Maung Maung, he was the country’s foremost legal academic in post-independence Burma. It’s certainly worth reading through some of his articles and trying to understand the man a bit better.

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