When he visited Myanmar earlier this month, United States Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting Ben Rhodes laid out the US vision for Myanmar in one sentence: “We see the story as just beginning.”
But Mr Rhodes and his colleagues in Washington are more than aware that Myanmar’s story is not beginning now, in 2013. Nor did it begin in November 2012, when President Barack Obama swept into Yangon to plant a kiss on the cheek of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and a friendly hand in the palm of President U Thein Sein. It also didn’t begin in 2009, when Washington initiated a policy review that would eventually lead to the Obama administration engaging Nay Pyi Taw.
It is, in many ways, a process that began at independence and was never completed. The recent anniversary of the August 8, 1988, uprising, which prompted state security forces to massacre hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent civilians, is but a poignant reminder of this.
What Mr Rhodes, a key Obama adviser on Myanmar, has made clear is that the US will only look forward in Myanmar. It has no plans to play an active role in the pursuit of accountability for past injustices.
“I think that sorting through the past is an incredibly difficult issue,” Mr Rhodes said.
Washington has cosied up to more than a few unsavoury characters in the past so it is not likely to be concerned about supporting an investigation that could dig up fresh allegations of atrocities.
Washington is, however, afraid of putting Myanmar’s reform process in jeopardy or threatening its own influence in a geopolitically important country.
Wading into Myanmar’s past, or urging the government to do so in an effort toward reconciliation, could leave Washington on the outer here. It is hardly what the Obama administration wants given Myanmar is a bright spot among a growing list of foreign policy failures.
Mr Obama’s refusal to fully cut support to Egypt despite a bloody coup that has claimed the lives of hundreds, the messy conclusion of long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the fallout from revelations of National Security Agency spying have left him with very few ticks in the foreign policy win column.
Myanmar, where change has come at an unprecedented rate and largely without violence, has become Washington’s token victory trotted out at every chance as an example for other embattled nations.
If the people of Myanmar are to enjoy justice, they will have to bring it about themselves.
“The people of Myanmar will have to find a way to do that through political dialogue and through the political process and it would be very difficult for the United States to prescribe how that is done,” Mr Rhodes said.
No, Washington will not prescribe ideas for dealing with crimes from Myanmar’s past. But prescriptions on how to invest in Myanmar? Or how the constitution should be reformed to enable Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to be considered for the presidency? Yes, the US has plenty to say on that.
Washington needs Myanmar now, perhaps more than ever. But it needs to come with a clean slate and that means putting on blinkers to the past and stepping back from calls for accountability.
Don’t expect the US to look to the past – unless it is to justify calling the country “Burma”.