Former U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld could have been describing Burma when he famously said: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know.” In Burma, it’s a bit of both.
Despite the Burmese regime’s secrecy and paranoia, one known known is how the people feel about decades of oppression under a dictatorship. However many votes the Burmese regime decides it “won” in Sunday’s fraudulent elections, the Burmese electorate long ago rejected military rule. Burma’s last election two decades ago was won overwhelmingly by the National League for Democracy (NLD), the opposition party led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The results were ignored and the NLD eventually forced to disband. This year, perhaps because the process was so crudely manipulated, hundreds, possibly thousands, of soldiers braved punishment to defy strict orders to vote for the regime’s proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party.
An opposition party, the National Democratic Force, has called for all parties not to recognize the ballot counts “without a clear explanation about the suspicious advanced votes and other irregular activities in the vote counting.”
A known unknown is why junta leader Senior General Than Shwe felt the need to go through the charade of elections in the first place. Was it to keep a promise to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to complete his seven-point road map towards “a discipline-flourishing democracy”? Perhaps to put in place a trusted successor who wouldn’t treat him as shabbily as he did his predecessor, General Ne Win? Maybe it was to make the incessant international critics back off. Or, did the fortune-teller make him do it? Regardless of the reason, managing and manipulating a huge, nationwide operation is apparently a lot more complex than the generals bargained for. Two years ago, in the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, it was relatively easy for the regime to stage-manage a desperate electorate and claim a 93 percent vote in favor of a constitutional referendum.
Though fraudulent, this year’s elections have already had some unintended consequences. Than Shwe and his lieutenants are suddenly faced with appeasing newly assertive ethnic forces, sullen soldiers, demoralized bureaucrats and a growing battalion of restive youth representing 30 percent of the population. This new generation of potential rebels who weren’t yet born or were too young to have experienced the 1988 nationwide uprising against military rule, includes writers, singers, comedians and hip hop artists—most of them virtual global citizens, savvy about information and communication technologies that give them a huge advantage over what one rapper called “clueless censors.”
Still, the biggest known known of Burma is the challenge for any government, military or civilian, to peacefully and finally resolve the ethnic “problem” in Burma. Ever since the pre-independence era of colonial British rule, ethnic nationalities have unsuccessfully tried to establish a genuine federal union with the majority Burmans.
Over the last two decades, the Burman-led military regimes have divided and ruled, cutting separate ceasefire agreements with ethnic “insurgents.” An attempt earlier this year to force ethnic armies to become border guards under central Burman control quickly backfired. Violent clashes between Burmese and ethnic forces near the sensitive Chinese order sent 30,000 refugees streaming across from Kachin State to Yunnan , spooking Beijing, Burma’s protector and patron. Soon after the skirmishes, the regime-controlled Election Commission refused to allow certain Kachin candidates to contest the vote. The prospects for renewed fighting in the northern border are real; ominously, on election day, fighting broke out at the Thai-Burma border town of Myawaddy between regime troops and a breakaway Karen brigade that did not want to be border guards.
A major known unknown is what the international community will say or do now that the Burmese generals have blatantly ignored calls by the UN secretary general, the UN General Assembly, Asean and individual governments around the world, for free, fair and inclusive elections. Asean used to justify Burma’s membership as a means of elevating the Burmese to the higher standards of the community. Asean refused to contemplate that being pulled down in the opposite direction was also possible. So far, the “Burma issue” has dominated every Asean summit agenda since the country became a member. The generals, however, know that talk is cheap. Burma is resource rich and relatively undeveloped, so the regime is betting that its neighbors’ thirst for energy, raw materials, and a docile consumer market will help suppress known knowns about the country, and help keep everyone in a state of denial.
To those who still want to “wait and see,” a brief reminder that Rumsfeld’s ruminations conclude with: “There are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” Or, in other words, be careful what you wish for.