Table of Contents in the Asian Legal Encyclopedia

Burma in Asia


COLONIZED BY THE BRITISH IN THE 19TH CENTURY, Burma was governed as a province of the Indian Empire until 1937. It gained independence in 1948. Bordered primarily by China, India, and Thailand, Burma has recently been defined by its struggle for democracy against the military dictators who have run the country since 1962.

The best hope for democracy came in 1988 when government mismanagement—including a move based on astrological signs to make the country’s currency divisible by the number nine—led to mass street demonstrations. The junta nearly collapsed, but retained control by slaughtering several thousand students who were protesting in Rangoon, Burma’s capital. Two years later, the government held elections, apparently to curry international favor. Aung San Suu Kyi became leader of the newfound National League for Democracy, which won more than 80 percent of the vote. She was soon put under house arrest, where she has remained, with a few breaks, ever since. Not long after jailing Suu Kyi, the junta renamed the country “Myanmar,” the historical name for the pre-colonial kingdom controlled by the Burmans. But most of the world’s nations, acknowledging the wishes of the duly elected government, continue to call the country Burma.

The leaders of the government were ethnically Burman, a group that comprises somewhere around three-fifths of the country’s population of 40 million. That number is a loose estimate, however, since Burma hasn’t had a thorough census since 1941. The rest of the country is an ethnic mélange, cramped within haphazard borders drawn by Britain in the late 19th century. Of the country’s 14 political regions, seven are “divisions” populated largely by Burmans and the other seven are “states” named after the ethnic groups that predominate inside them.

By Nicholas Thompson

Historical Legal Issues

Burma was a province of British India, including the former kingdom of independent Burma, as well as British Burma, acquired by the British Indian government in the two wars of 1826 and 1852. (…)


The British government has administered the law in Burma on principles identical with those which have been adopted elsewhere in the British dominions in India. That portion of the law which is usually described as Anglo-Indian law (see Indian Law) is generally applicable to Burma, though there are certain districts inhabited by tribes in a backward state of civilization which are excepted from its operation. Acts of the British parliament relating to India generally would be applicable to Burma, whether passed before or after its annexation, these acts being considered applicable to all the dominions of the crown in India. As regards the acts of the governor-general in council passed for India generally—they, too, were from the first applicable to Lower Burma; and they have all been declared applicable to Upper Burma also by the Burma Laws Act of 1898. That portion of the English law which has been introduced into India without legislation, and all the rules of law resting upon the authority of the courts, are made applicable to Burma by the same act. But consistently with the practice which has always prevailed in India, there is a large field of law in Burma which the British government has not attempted to disturb.

It is expressly directed by the act of 1898 above referred to, that in regard to succession, inheritance, marriage, caste or any religious usage or institution, the law to be administered in Burma is:

  • the Buddhist law in cases where the parties are Buddhists,
  • the Mahommedan law in cases where the parties are Mahommedans,
  • the Hindu law in cases where the parties are Hindus, except so far as the same may have been modified by the legislature.

The reservation thus made in favour of the native laws is precisely analogous to the similar reservation made in India (see Indian Law, where the Hindu law and the Mahommedan Law are described). The Buddhist law is contained in certain sacred books called Dhammathats. The laws themselves are derived from one of the collections which Hindus attribute to Manu, but in some respects they now widely differ from the ancient Hindu law so far as it is known to us. There is no certainty as to the date or method of their introduction. The whole of the law administered now in Burma rests ultimately upon statutory authority; and all the Indian acts relating to Burma, whether of the governor-general or the lieutenant-governor of Burma in council, will be found in the Burma Code (Calcutta, 1899), and in the supplements to that volume which are published from time to time at Rangoon. There is no complete translation of the Dhammathats, but a good many of them have been translated. An account of these translations will be found in The Principles of Buddhist Law by Chan Toon (Rangoon, 1894), which is the first attempt to present those principles in something approaching to a systematic form.


The province as a division of the Indian empire is administered by a lieutenant-governor, first appointed 1st May 1897, with a legislative council of nine members, five of whom are officials. There are, besides, a chief secretary, revenue secretary, secretary and two under-secretaries, a public works department secretary with two assistants. The revenue administration of the province is superintended by a financial commissioner, assisted by two secretaries, and a director of land records and agriculture, with a land records departmental staff. There is a chief court for the province with a chief justice and three justices, established in May 1900. Other purely judicial officers are the judicial commissioner for Upper Burma, and the civil judges of Mandalay and Moulmein. There are four commissioners of revenue and circuit, and nineteen deputy commissioners in Lower Burma, and four commissioners and seventeen deputy commissioners in Upper Burma.

There are two superintendents of the Shan States, one for the northern and one for the southern Shan States, and an assistant superintendent in the latter; a superintendent of the Arakan hill tracts and of the Chin hills, and a Chinese political adviser taken from the Chinese consular service. The police are under the control of an inspector-general, with deputy inspector-general for civil and military police, and for supply and clothing. The education department is under a director of public instruction, and there are three circles—eastern, western and Upper Burma, each under an inspector of schools.

The Burma forests are divided into three circles each under a conservator, with twenty-one deputy conservators. There are also a deputy postmaster-general, chief superintendent and four superintendents of telegraphs, a chief collector of customs, three collectors and four port officers, and an inspector-general of jails. At the principal towns benches of honorary magistrates, exercising powers of various degrees, have been constituted. There are forty-one municipal towns, fourteen of which are in Upper Burma. The commissioners of division are ex officio sessions judges in their several divisions, and also have civil powers, and powers as revenue officers. They are responsible to the lieutenant-governor, each in his own division, for the working of every department of the public service, except the military department, and the branches of the administration directly under the control of the supreme government.

The deputy commissioners perform the functions of district magistrates, district judges, collectors and registrars, besides the miscellaneous duties which fall to the principal district officer as representative of government. Subordinate to the deputy commissioners are assistant commissioners, extra-assistant commissioners and myoôks, who are invested with various magisterial, civil and revenue powers, and hold charge of the townships, as the units of regular civil and revenue jurisdiction are called, and the sub-divisions of districts, into which most of these townships are grouped. Among the salaried staff of officials, the townships officers are the ultimate representatives of government who come into most direct contact with the people. Finally, there are the village headmen, assisted in Upper Burma by elders, variously designated according to old custom. Similarly in the towns, there are headmen of wards and elders of blocks. In Upper Burma these headmen have always been revenue collectors. The system under which in towns headmen of wards and elders of blocks are appointed is of comparatively recent origin, and is modelled on the village system.

The Shan States were declared to be a part of British India by notification in 1886. The Shan States Act of 1888 vests the civil, The Shan States. criminal and revenue administration in the chief of the state, subject to the restrictions specified in the sanad or patent granted to him. The law to be administered in each state is the customary law of the state, so far as it is in accordance with the justice, equity and good conscience, and not opposed to the spirit of the law in the rest of British India. The superintendents exercise general control over the administration of criminal justice, and have power to call for cases, and to exercise wide revisionary powers. Criminal jurisdiction in cases in which either the complainant or the defendant is a European, or American, or a government servant, or a British subject not a native of a Shan State, is withdrawn from the chiefs and vested in the superintendents and assistant superintendents.

Neither the superintendents nor the assistant superintendents have power to try civil suits, whether the parties are Shans or not. In the Myelat division of the southern Shan States, however, the criminal law is practically the same as the in force in Upper Burma, and the ngwegunhmus, or petty chiefs, have been appointed magistrates of the second class.

The chiefs of the Shan States are of three classes:

  • sawbwas;
  • myosas;
  • ngwegunhmus.

The last are found only in the Myelat, or border country between the southern Shan States and Burma. There are fifteen sawbwas, sixteen myosas and thirteen ngwegunhmus in the Shan States proper. Two sawbwas are under the supervision of the commissioner of the Mandalay division, and two under the commissioner of the Sagaing division. The states vary enormously in size, from the 12,000 sq. m. of the Trans-Salween State of Kêng Tung, to the 3.95 sq. m. of Nam Hkôm in the Myelat. The latter contained only 41 houses with 210 inhabitants in 1897 and has since been merged in the adjoining state. There are five states, all sawbwaships, under the supervision of the superintendent of the northern Shan States, besides an indeterminate number of Wa States and communities of other races beyond the Salween river. The superintendent of the southern Shan States supervises thirty-nine, of which ten are sawbwaships. The headquarters of the northern Shan States are at Lashio, of the southern Shan States at Taung-gyi.

The states included in eastern and western Karen-ni are not part of British India, and are not subject to any of the laws in force in the Shan States, but they are under the supervision of the superintendent of the southern Shan States.

The northern portion of the Karen hills is at present dealt with on the principle of political as distinguished from administrative control. The tribes are not interfered with as long as they keep the peace. What is specifically known as the Kachin hills, the country taken under administration in the Bhamo and Myitkyina districts, is divided into forty tracts. Beyond these tracts there are many Kachins in Katha, Möng-Mit, and the northern Shan States, but though they are often the preponderating, they are not the exclusive population. The country within the forty tracts may be considered the Kachin hills proper, and it lies between 23° 30′ and 26° 30′ N. lat. and 96° and 98° E. long. Within this area the petty chiefs have appointment orders, the people are disarmed, and the rate of tribute per household is fixed in each case. Government is regulated by the [v.04 p.0841]Kachin hills regulation. Since 1894 the country has been practically undisturbed, and large numbers of Kachins are enlisted, and ready to enlist in the military police, and seem likely to form as good troops as the Gurkhas of Nepal.

The Chin hills were not declared an integral part of Burma until 1895, but they now form a scheduled district. The chiefs, however, are allowed to administer their own affairs, as far as may be, in accordance with their own customs, subject to the supervision of the superintendent of the Chin hills.

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)


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