Bow ties in Burma
Law professor and Fulbright Scholar Vincent R. Johnson brought democratic ideas to a university in Myanmar, also known as Burma, this spring.
by Frank Garza
Checks and balances. Ethics in government. Freedom of speech.
These ideas are not new in the West, but for Myanmar — a country still embroiled in civil strife — they are practically nonexistent.
Until recently, the teaching of political science in Myanmar had been banned for five decades. That is why South Texas Professor of Law and Fulbright Scholar Vincent R. Johnson, J.D., LL.D., considers his stay in the country such a treat.
Since December, Johnson has taught courses about law, ethics and anti-corruption; and about international economic law at the University of Mandalay. He starts his mornings the same way he does at home — putting on a suit and one of his favorite bow ties, although shoes are optional.
“I’m teaching a whole range of progressive ideas that have shaped the West. I get the keen sense that they are following what I am saying in class with deep interest,” Johnson said. “There’s no reluctance to delve into these topics, and nobody has suggested to me that it is dangerous territory.”
Myanmar’s first State Counsellor and leader of the National League for Democracy, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is working hard to ensure the future of democracy will be based on federalism principles, Johnson said.
“But the military is spreading misinformation, telling the Burmese that federalism means the breakup of the country. Those of us serving as Fulbright Scholars have asked to speak one-on-one to key decision-makers to ensure that they know the truth about federalism,” said Johnson, who held training sessions in February on the rule of law and judicial independence for three dozen parliament members in the nation’s capital, Naypyidaw.
Even though the future is uncertain, Johnson said day-to-day life in Mandalay is upbeat.
“It’s entirely positive and not a threatening place to be. People are going about their business as you would expect in any part of the world. Scooters are very popular and people are just zipping around,” he said. “It is a great country to have an opportunity to work in, and an important opportunity for the West to invest in. … It’s soil that is going to bear fruit.”