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How an Authoritarian Regime in Burma Used Special Courts to Defeat Judicial Independence


  • Nick Cheesman

  • The author wishes to thank Ed Aspinall, Hilary Charlesworth, Robert Cribb, Ben Kerkvliet, Harold Crouch, Myint Zan, Dom Nardi, and three anonymous reviewers for comments that they gave on versions of this article, and for other advice. Thanks also to Allison Ley for editorial assistance. Finally, thank you to Saowapha Viravong and staff at the National Library of Australia for making available materials without which the article could not have been written. Please address correspondence to Nick Cheesman, Department of Political and Social Change, Hedley Bull Centre, Australian National University, Acton, ACT 0200, Australia; e-mail:


Why do authoritarian rulers establish special courts? One view is that they do so to insulate the judiciary from politically oriented cases and allow it continued, albeit limited, independence. In this article I present a contrary case study of an authoritarian regime in Burma that used special courts not to insulate the judiciary but to defeat it. Through comparison to other Asian cases I suggest that the Burmese regime's composition and character better explain its strategy than does extant judicial authority or formal ideology. The regime consisted of war fighters for whom the courts were enemy territory. But absent popular support, the regime's leaders could not embark immediately on a radical project for legal change that might compromise their hold on power. Consequently, they used special courts and other strategies to defeat judicial independence incrementally, until they could displace the professional judiciary and bring the courts fully under executive control.