Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ten Separatist Movements to Watch in 2012

2011 was a busy year for independence, secession, and autonomy movements—Palestine’s application for United Nations membership, the independence of the Republic of South Sudan, all the tumult of the Arab Spring including Libya being divided between rebel- and loyalist-controlled territories for much of the year, a regionally divisive election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Kenyan invasion of Somalia’s Jubaland region, the death of the former president of Biafra, Basques in Spain laying down their arms, the weakening of the European Union by a currency crisis, more and more Tibetan monks immolating themselves, and a U.S. presidential candidate mocked for statements in support of Texan secession.  Some of those stories will persist into 2012, some have crested, and there will be new ones as well.  Here is my list of separatist movements to keep an eye on in the new year, listed here in order of increasing significance.  (Please suggest others in the comments section if you like.)

10. Flanders and Wallonia

As I reported on this blog earlier this month, Belgium—perennially divided by political fault lines that map the boundary between French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemings—ended nearly two years without a working government a few weeks ago in an attempt to address the European currency crisis.  The new Socialist prime minister, Emilio Di Rupi, is neither a Fleming nor a Walloon—he is an Italian raised in a Belgian orphanage—and hopes to be a uniter.  But now that Belgium is actually starting to do things and implement policies, there have been street demonstrations against expected austerity policies just as there are in Greece and elsewhere.  If the Di Rupi government falls, it will likely be replaced by a more pro-Flemish one.  Flemings, who tend to be more right-wing and more separatist than Walloons, dislike the foppish Di Rupi (continental Europe’s first openly gay prime minister) and resent his poor mastery of their language.  This may be the year Belgium finally splits apart.

A Francophone view of Belgian politics (the lion is Flanders, the rooster is Wallonia)

9. Baluchistan

Some of Pakistan’s divisions are well aired in the Western media—the dispute with India over Kashmir, the government’s half-hearted (to put it generously) war with Islamists in their lawless Waziristan region, and the corrosive effects of their intelligence service, ISI, on Pakistani politics.  But the dispute that has been taking the largest toll in this most fractious of all hodgepodge nations is the brutal government war against separatists in Baluchistan (also spelled Balochistan), Pakistan’s largest province, which covers 44% of its territory.  Nearly all parts of Pakistan have secessionist movements or have had them, including Punjab, Kashmir, and Sindh, and Waziristan is in the de facto control of local warlords.  But it is in Baluchistan that separatist national feeling is strongest.  The Baluch people, who speak a language related to Persian and utterly distinct from Pakistan’s official Urdu, never wanted to be part of Pakistan and still feel that their king sold them out in 1947.  Pakistan has put down several pro-independence uprisings there over the years, sometimes assisted by Iran, which has its own Baluchistan province over the border.  The ISI is widely seen responsible for the thousands of reporters, activists, their families, and others “disappeared” in recent months.  Human-rights observers are not having much luck getting the West to notice this ongoing “dirty war.”  The international community seems so worried about Pakistan’s nuclear arms falling into the wrong hands that they are willing to turn a blind eye to any atrocities that help preserve unity.  But sometimes oppression merely fuels separatism all the more.  If Pakistan ever does split apart, it will happen in Baluchistan first, and it will be bloody.

The flag of Baluchistan

8. Padania

The Euro Zone crisis has exposed many cultural rifts in the European Union, reinforcing stereotypes of thrifty, responsible, hard-working Northerners and lazy, welfare-dependent spendthrifts and coddled civil servants along the Mediterranean rim.  See #10 above for how this dynamic plays itself out in microcosm in Belgium; but it is also the motivating psychological and cultural force behind Italy’s Lega Nord per l’Indipendenza della Padania (Northern League, in English), founded in 1991 with the idea of separating Italy’s more industrialized, prosperous north from its (as northerners characterize it) dysfunctional, Mafia-ridden, impoverished south, where the capital is.  Padania is a more-or-less invented name for a northern Italian homeland, and it consolidates several previous autonomist movements identified with individual regions like Tuscany, Lombardy, and the South Tyrol.  Europe is full of such small regional movements, in places like Cornwall and Savoy and Lapland where there is no real hope of secession.  But the Northern League crowds out national parties in northern regions and is the main political party in Veneto and the second-largest in Lombardy.  In 2008 it joined Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right coalition government as a clinching junior partner, and this put the push for greater devolved federalism in Italy squarely on the table.  But then came the 2011 currency crisis.  Many Northerners shared the general northern European view that it was a culture of laziness exemplified in places like Greece, Spain, and southern Italy that created the Euro mess, and this galvanized separatist feelings.  At the same time, disputes over how to confront the crisis brought about Berlusconi’s downfall.  The new, more left-leaning government of Mario Monti left the right-wing Northern League out in the cold.  So, now, with the currency crisis as a galvanizing emergency and exile from coalition politics as a grudge that can be nursed, the Northern League may see 2012 as the year in which they flex their muscles and push their agenda for independence like never before.

The flag of Padania

7. West Papua

Indonesia, the world’s most populous predominantly-Muslim country, has always been full of restive ethnic groups and has always cracked down on them with an iron fist.  It took decades for East Timor, which Indonesia had illegally invaded after its Portuguese colonizers departed, to break free, which it did in 2002.  Aceh, on the northwestern tip of Indonesia’s northwesternmost major island, Sumatra, agitated for independence for decades as well, but those ambitions were swept away in the Indian Ocean “Boxing Day Tsunami” of 2004, which left Acehnese more dependent than ever on federal largesse and perhaps skeptical that they had a viable state.  But in many ways Indonesia’s fiercest separatists have been those of West Papua, or Irian Jaya, comprising the western half of the island of New Guinea (the eastern half being Papua New Guinea).  Initially, the departing Dutch colonizers agreed with Australia, which was running Papua New Guinea, to eventually reunite both halves of New Guinea as one state.  But Indonesia moved in precipitously to annex it in 1962, with the connivance of both the United Nations and the Kennedy Administration, a supporter of Indonesia’s anti-Communist dictator, Sukarno.  The Netherlands succeeded in inserting into the U.N. resolution a promise of an eventual referendum on independence, but, as with a similar promise to East Timor, Sukarno had no intention of keeping it.  In 1971, rebels declared a Republic of West Papua and wrote a constitution, but Indonesia cracked down on the separatists and sealed the province off.  For decades, West Papua has been mostly closed to foreigners, so it is hard to know exactly what form the repression is taking, but during 2011 violence escalated and more Indonesian troops are being sent in.  To all appearances, West Papua’s national aspirations have reached a boiling point.  Here is West Papua’s “Morning Star Flag,” which is banned in Indonesia; many of the shooting incidents in the West Papua violence begin with illegal hoistings of this banner by separatists.  To me it looks a bit Americophilic, no?

6. Kawthoolei

When Burma became independent from the U.K. in 1947, many of its minority peoples, with their own long histories as independent states, were given deferred promises that their national aspirations would be met.  The Shan and Karenni states were told that after ten years they could secede, but the Karen (a.k.a. Kayin), angry at having been overlooked by the British earlier on, boycotted discussions of the subject and got nothing.  Nor did a succession of dictatorial regimes (the current one calls the country Myanmar) have any intention of fulfilling what promises had been made.  For these and other reasons, the Karen have been the most militant, the crackdown on them has been the most grievous, and the Karen struggle for an independent state called Kawthoolei is sometimes called the oldest ongoing armed struggle in the world.  In 2011, cracks appeared in the Myanmar junta’s repression of dissent, and the U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, traveled to Rangoon (Yangon) in December 2011 as part of a series of negotiations to end Myanmar’s international isolation in exchange for some democratization.  It seems natural that freedom for Myanmar’s subject peoples should be on the agenda, especially for a secretary of state who helped usher South Sudan to independence.  Expect that if Karen autonomy is not on the agenda, the insurgency may intensify, and that, if it is, Burma may start to unravel—in a good way, of course.

The Karen national flag

5. Northern Nigeria

Those mourning Chukuwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the Biafran separatist hero, in November 2011, recalled his dream of a federalized Nigeria, if not necessarily a dismembered one.  With Igbos in the southeast (Biafra would have been their homeland), Yorubas in the southwest, Hausas in the north, and scores of smaller national and tribal groups, this most populous of African nations, with more than half as many people as the U.S., never made much sense as a unitary country.  After the federal government put a bloody end to Biafra’s aspirations in 1970, would-be Nigerian separatists have largely toed the line.  Exploited Ogoni people in the oil-soaked Niger delta seeking autonomy and a share of their homeland’s natural wealth have been an exception, though not a particularly well organized one.  But in 2011 that seemed to be changing with the rise of Boko Haram, a radical Islamist organization operating in the predominantly Muslim northern states of Nigeria.  The above map shows the twelve of Nigeria’s 36 states that have already imposed sharia, Islamic law, on their own.  A little less than half of Nigerians are Muslim, the same proportion, roughly, that are Christian.  Most Muslims are in the arid north.  They are emboldened by some of the events of 2011—sub-Saharan Muslims in neighboring Mali and Mauritania aiding (sometimes as mercenaries) Moammar Qaddafi’s last stand against European powers in Libya, and a Western-sponsored partition of Sudan into a Muslim Arab north and a Christian and tribal south.  The Islamist uprising in Nigeria has been haphazard—there is no flag, no borders of a proposed state, not even a name for a state, no constitution—and has been led by a radical extremist terrorist organization called Boko Haram, whose full name means People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad but whose leadership is utterly unknown.  Boko Haram not only call Christians infidels worthy of death, but they reject the notion of evolution, the notion of a spherical Earth, and the Satanic decadent notion that the formation of rainclouds is a byproduct of evaporation.  Their methods have mostly been random murder.  In 2011, they claimed responsibility for terrorist incidents which killed nearly 500 people, including bombings of Christian churches.  Not all Hausas or northerners are separatists or fundamentalists, not by a long shot, but Nigeria is a mess, and Boko Haram could spark the first true attempt to break up Nigeria since Biafra.

The flag of the Hausa people

4. South Yemen

From 1967 to 1991, Yemen was two countries: the Arab Republic of Yemen, a.k.a. North Yemen (succeeding a Kingdom of Yemen that rose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1916), and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, a.k.a. South Yemen (comprising the territory of the former British-ruled Aden Protectorate).  (To look at a map, you’d think they should be called West and East Yemen, but North Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, is close to due north of Aden, the southern capital.)  This division was intensified by the two Yemens’ becoming client states of opposing sides of the Cold War.  After the fall of Communism, North Yemen absorbed the Communist south (almost simultaneous with the Federal Republic of Germany’s absorption of the Communist east), to create the Republic of Yemen.  But the old border also mapped tribal divisions, and those remained, resulting in a brief civil war in 1994.  (Among other differences, North Yemen tends to be more predominantly Shiite, while South Yemen has more Sunnis.)  With the Arab Spring of 2011 and the people-power movement that removed Yemen’s long-time dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh from power, those divisions, and some old grievances, have returned to the fore.  Separatists are becoming a more prominent part of Yemen’s ongoing violence, and it is common to see militias dusting off their old South Yemeni flags in demonstrations.  South Yemen is high on my list of possible next members of the U.N.

The flag of South Yemen

3. Kurdistan

As I discussed in a recent blog post following the official end of the United States’ war in Iraq, there are legitimate fears that this is the moment when Iraq will beginning splitting up in earnest.  Already, with U.S. troops barely gone, Shiite Arab and Sunni Arab factions within the government seem close to a shooting war.  The U.S. never really tried to dismantle the sectarian militias that turned Iraq into a bloodbath during the mid-2000s under U.S. occupation; some of them continued to be useful.  A division of the southern two-thirds of Iraq into a Sunni homeland centered on Baghdad and a far-southern “Shiastan” will be long and bloody if it happens at all, but Kurdistan, in the north, has a far better chance of escaping with some form of sovereignty.  Kurdistan-in-Iraq already has many of the trappings of an independent state, and the Obama administration is already sort of treating it as a separate diplomatic entity in the region.  Much of this grows out of the autonomy they enjoyed under the protection of the U.S. “northern no fly zone” in the years between the last two Gulf Wars (1991-2003).  But the areas where Kurdish people live also extends into northwestern Iran, a sliver of northern Syria (see my earlier discussion of sectarian and ethnic dimensions to Syria’s civil war), and, most famously, a huge chunk of southeastern Turkey.  The Turkish government has done a fine job of keeping itself well outside the European definition of a civilized country with its brutal, almost genocidal suppression of Kurdish language, culture, and identity.  Turks will complain the loudest about any moves toward a Kurdish state in northern Iraq, and Turkish troops and bombers routinely foray across the border to attack alleged rebel positions in the mountains of northern Iraq.  But Turkey is no longer as strategic a country as it once was.  It used to be NATO’s bulwark against the Soviet Union in the Middle East and the state to whose quirks and preferences other NATO countries were willing to defer as they operated in the region.  But the Cold War is over, and Turkey’s relations with the West continue to sour, especially after two U.S.-led Gulf Wars.  If Iraq goes up in flames in 2012, as many expect, and Kurds try to declare independence, we will see how important it really is to cater to the Turkish government’s paranoia and prejudices.  My guess is: at the end of the day, not that important at all.

The flag of Kurdistan

2. South Sudan

But wait, didn’t the Republic of South Sudan already gain independence from the Republic of Sudan in July 2011?  Well, yes, and it is now firmly a member of the United Nations, but in reality the south’s decades-long war for secession from the Arab Muslim north is far from over.  When plans for Sudan’s referendum on separation were drawn up (the vote was held in January, with more than 98% choosing to secede), three areas were deliberately left out, with the idea that separate referenda would be held there later (though it’s now clear that won’t happen).  These were South Kordofan and Blue Nile provinces, and the Abyei district, all of them areas where the presence of oil and recent migrations and population shifts make it difficult and contentious to draw a precise border.  Fighting and even ethnic cleansing started occurring in Abyei before independence was even declared, and it has now shifted rather intensively to South Kordofan and Blue Nile.  All are currently under the control of the north, with its much more powerful military.  Ideally, the Sudans should learn how to cooperate—the south has the oil, and the north has the resources and coastline to get it to market—but a badly drawn frontier and a referendum that deferred all the difficult questions for later have resulted in a civil war that some fear may never end.  Look for some bloody fighting over this border well into 2012.

The flag of the Republic of South Sudan, on independence day

And finally, at number one, ...

1. Palestine

The biggie.  The idea in 1949 was that there would be two states in what was the British protectorate in Palestine: one for Palestinian Arabs and one for Jewish settlers.  We all know what happened next: Palestinians rejected the idea of sharing their homeland, Israel was established, Palestinians were made refugees in neighboring Egypt and Jordan, Israel’s neighbors tried to wipe it off the map, Israel prevailed and conquered bits of three neighboring countries as a security buffer, and over long years of rebellion—and the withdrawal of Egypt’s claims on the Gaza Strip and Jordan’s on the West Bank—these areas became first a de facto, then a semi-official, and increasingly a recognized State—sort of—of Palestine.  Palestine, with its self-governing, U.N.-recognized Palestinian Authority, was already a sovereign state in all but name by 2011, when it took the step, against Barack Obama’s stern advice to be more patient (sic!), of applying for membership in the United Nations.  The application passed the General Assembly, where all states have an equal vote, but stalled at the Security Council, where the major nuclear-armed states wield vetoes—here, most relevantly, the United States, Israel’s closest (some would say only) ally.  This was predicted, and the whole move was largely symbolic.  It has not had much effect on the ongoing sporadically violent relations between Israel and Palestine.  And there was already a large number of countries, and not just Muslim ones, that recognized Palestine back in 1988, when the Palestine Liberation Organization declared independence from its exile in Tunisia.  Moreover, nearly all Arab countries still refuse to recognize Israel.  So this is merely a new dimension to a very old stalemate.  But U.N. membership would change a lot.  It would make any movements by Israel against Palestine not simply infractions against U.N. resolutions but an attack by one state upon another—the very sort of thing that could authorize a vast international response, as in the Iraq–Kuwait War.  Israel, which encircles Palestine like a prison camp and reserves the right to attack it at any time, obviously wants to avoid that.  But now that U.N. membership is on the table and one by one countries are supporting it (western military powers like the Czech Republic, Iceland, and Luxembourg have already done so), this originally symbolic move may gradually prove, in 2012, to have been the game-changer.

Map showing the 128 countries that recognize Palestinian independence (note that Somaliland, South Sudan, and Eritrea refuse to recognize Palestine, just to piss off the countries they seceded from)

Happy new year!

[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook.]


  1. The Flag of #9 Balochistan is not that one but this one

  2. You're very right! I was using the flag of the Pakistani state of Balochistan rather than that of the nation and aspirant state. Thank you.

  3. what about the separatist movement in europe, we have seen in France what happen to President Sarkozy, plz vist the below blog to know about the separatist movement in US (which many people donot know)

  4. what about Rif Republic ????

  5. Kaledonia, Scotland, Wales, Chechenistan, Dagestan, Kosovo..

  6. What about, Kashmir, Asam Behar, Arunachal Perdesh, Utter Pardesh, Gujrat, and Hyderabad


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