Visiting Myanmar (formerly called Burma) in January 2012 was like watching a country wake up from a long sleep. Aung San Suu Kyi, pro-democracy advocate and winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, had been released after years of house arrest; U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had marked Suu Kyi’s release with an official visit; and there was a new sense of optimism and openness in the air after more than two decades of international isolation.
For a visitor, the country’s history of isolation is a mixed blessing. Myanmar lacks the elaborate tourist infrastructure of neighboring Thailand, but it is possible to experience the country with a sense of freshness and directness that would never be possible though the window of a tour bus.
In Myanmar, strangers greet one another with the word mingalabar, meaning “auspiciousness,” “blessing,” or simply “good luck.” The people and the culture seem to be infused with the spirit of this greeting, be it in the smiles of a person buying vegetables in a rural market, the crowd that drifts through the corridors of a Buddhist shrine, or the fisherman who casts his net in the shallow waters of Inle Lake.
In an essay published in 1990, Suu Kyi quoted Jawaharlal Nehru: “The greatest gift for an individual or a nation . . . was abhaya, fearlessness, not merely bodily courage but absence of fear from the mind.” In Burmese tradition, this sense of fearlessness grows out of the life story of the Buddha. With luck, in the spirit of mingalabar, this virtue will help the Burmese navigate the perils of entry into a postmodern market economy.