Literature Review: Burma had the first lawyers in Asia?!?

Citation: Myint Zan, Woe Unto Ye Lawyers: Three Royal Orders Concerning Pleaders in Early 17th Century Burma, 44 The American Journal of Legal History 40-72 (Apr. 2002)

Today, we think of the Burmese legal system as, if anything, a farce. Andrew Huxley, Buddhist law historian at SOAS, famously claimed that since 1988 the military has delegalized the entire system. Lawyers and judges are widely considered corrupt or incompetent. Yet, it was not always so. Before British colonialism, the Burmese empire had one of the most advanced legal systems in Asia.
Given our stereotypes about Burma (and Asia more widely), it might be surprising that lawyers played an important role in pre-colonial Burmese society. According to Huxley, Burma was “the only country between Japan and the Middle East to develop a legal profession independently of European influence.” Historians differ over when the first Burmese lawyers – the shay-nay – began their practice. Burmese Buddhist legal mythology (yes, there is such a thing) places lawyers way back in the 5th century B.C. Some Burmese historians, such as Dr. Maung Maung, claim lawyers existed even during the Pagan era. However, scholars place the latest date for the development of lawyers at 1550.
According to Myint Zan’s article, lawyers had become such a pest that the government had to regulate them. In 1607, King Anauk Hpet Lun (1606-28) issued three edicts regulating the legal profession.

1) Royal Order A

The first order prescribes a code of dress for the shay-nay: a conical hat, cloth-sling bag, carrying cup, and fan. It regulates attorneys fees to 37.5 ticals of copper. Perhaps most interesting, the order prohibits lawyers from living within the royal city walls because – I love this – “shay-nay could not help themselves from breaching the Buddhist precept against telling untruths on a daily basis.” Yes, in 1607 the Burmese king did not want lawyers to sully his court because they lie too often!

The Burmese people criticized lawyers as habitual liars long before the rest of Asia even had lawyers – and hundreds of years before the rise of ambulance chasers in America. Burma accumulated quite a repertoire of lawyer jokes. One of my favorites: “the tongue of a lawyer would not burn even in the fires of hell.”

2) Royal Order B

King Anauk Hpet Lun issued another edict regulating oral advocacy in the courtroom. The edict lists the 10 permissible styles of argumentation. This list isn’t simply about roadmapping your legal argument. They 10 styles include exotic techniques such as “duck and weave as though running away from an elephant” and “a cock’s retreat and attack.” I never studied anything like this on for the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure! Fortunately, Myint Zan provides wonderful explanations for each. For example, “duck and weave as though running away from an elephant” means evasive speech (i.e., evading an elephant). A “cock’s retreat and attack” is somewhat similar to our expression of letting somebody “hang himself with his own noose.” In the U.S., the closest equivalent might be the Model Rules of Professional Conduct or the Federal Rules of Evidence, which govern attorneys’ conduct during litigation.

3) Royal Order C

This order is both the most complex and interesting edict. It governs judicial procedure and judicial conduct. Under the edict, judges are supposed to interrogate both sides of a dispute, somewhat like the inquisitorial system in civil law countries. The judge’s role was to listen to all the testimony, weigh both sides, and discern the truth. Myint Zan also argues that the edict gives judges some discretion to interpret Buddhist law to fit the contemporary context of the dispute in the case. This has been interpreted by some scholars as the stirrings of judicial independence.

The article is an excellent piece of historical legal scholarship. The edicts employ colorful similes and examples. Myint Zan does a great job navigating the Western reader through these cultural nuances. Sadly, the British uprooted much of Burma’s legal tradition after 1886. However, scholarship like Myint Zan’s will hopefully help the Burmese legal profession regain a sense of professional pride and independence that it so desperately needs.

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