On August 30, Timor-Leste will celebrate the referendum that gave it independence from Indonesia. For the people of this small island, it has been a long battle – one that continues today. You can read our companion story on the island nation’s vexed relationship with Australia here.
Indigenous myth attributes the high mountain chain that runs like a spine down the centre of the crocodile-shaped island of Timor to Mother Earth’s dying movements when she retreated underground. This mountain chain is more pronounced in the east, in the territory of Timor-Leste, and often protrudes directly down into the sea along the rugged northern coast.
The island is also surrounded by significant waters. To the south are the vast and disputed oil reserves. To the north is a deep exchange pathway for warm water moving from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, creating conditions for a major “cetacean migration” highway for 24 different species of whale and dolphin.
In 1944, the anthropologist Mendes Correa described the Portuguese colony of Timor as a “Babel … a melting pot”, and a diverse mix of traditions is still strongly felt today.
The island is a bridge between the Malay and Melanesian world and has as much in common with Pacific Island cultures as Indonesia. The diverse indigenous societies cross the spectrum of matriarchal and patriarchal organisation.
Women are accorded a sacred status within Timorese cosmology and the divine female element is prominent in much indigenous belief. Female spirits dominate the sacred world, while men dominate the secular world. So, while women may hold power in a ritual context, they generally do not have a strong public or political voice. But they are fighting to change this and now make up a third of members in the national parliament.
By the early 16th century, Portuguese colonisers arrived in the Spice Islands of which Timor was part. This was the beginning of a colonial relationship now 500 years old.
Revolts by Timorese against Portuguese rule were frequent and bloody. Famous Timorese rebel Dom Boaventura lost an armed uprising against his Portuguese colonisers in 1911, leaving East Timor to be ruled directly from Portugal by the fascist dictatorship of Salazar for most of the 20th century.
The marginal colony remained neglected and closeted from any modern liberalising trends. But in the early 1970s the Timorese independence movement Fretilin, partly inspired by Dom Boaventura, began to oppose Portuguese colonialism, while developing a revolutionary program that included the emancipation of women.
Rosa “Muki” Bonaparte was one of the founders of the nationalist movement and the leader of its women’s organisation. While Bonaparte participated directly in the struggle against colonialism, she also stood against “the violent discrimination that Timorese women had suffered in colonial society”.
After the colonial regime collapsed in 1974, a three-week civil war, secretly manipulated by Indonesian military agents, was the precursor to the larger war and invasion to come.
The victors of the civil war, Fretilin, reconstituted the faction of loyal Timorese soldiers serving in the Portuguese Army as resistance army Falintil. This army, and the civilian resistance, countered the massive and brutal attack of US-and-Australian-backed Indonesian military for 24 years. The horrors were kept as secret as possible, even to the point of covering up the deaths of those trying to report them, such as the “Balibo 5”.
After the Indonesian invasion of December 7 1975, much of the population of East Timor retreated to the mountains, with the resistance living in free zones for the next three years.
However, in November 1978, the Indonesian campaign of annihilation finally encircled the remaining resistance leadership and 140,000 civilians on Mount Matebian, in the east of the island. Most surrendered. They were placed in prisons and “resettlement camps” where many slowly starved to death. The violence of the 24-year Indonesian occupation affected and traumatised the whole of Timorese society.
After the collapse of the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia in 1998, President B.J. Habibie agreed to let the Timorese decide their future in a ballot. In his honour, they recently named a bridge after him.
Timor’s pre-eminent leader, Xanana Gusmao, was the key negotiator with UN representatives. He conducted negotiations from his prison house in Jakarta where he’d been since 1992, serving a 20-year sentence for fighting Indonesian forces in his homeland. He persevered with ballot preparations despite growing Indonesian military and militia violence.
In the August 30 1999 referendum, nearly 80% of East Timorese voted for independence by indicating the blue and green National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) flag on the ballot paper.
Extensive military and militia slayings followed the announcement of the vote. An estimated 1500 East Timorese were killed and more than 250,000 forcibly displaced into Indonesia. About 80% of infrastructure was destroyed. Survivors struggled to feed and look after their families while recovering psychologically from the mayhem.
Stories from the resistance period and 1999 are constantly remembered in Timor-Leste and are hugely significant in the new society. A hierarchy based on past service to the resistance has been established. Pensions and payments to male veterans are one of the biggest expenses for the government.
Anthropologists have described an indigenous belief that those who fought and sacrificed “purchased” the nation with their own lives and are owed a living.
Along with celebration there will be much reflection in Timor in the next weeks about the last 20 years of building a nation from “zero” and the 24 years of struggle that came before that. It will consider what they have achieved and what still needs to be done.
Hopefully, Timor-Leste can build a free and fair future for the over 1 million citizens, 60% of them under 18. They include many inspiring, educated young leaders who are ready to take up the responsibility.
As we watch and cheer from the sidelines, we hope for a less eventful and more peaceful future for all Timorese.
The November 4 referendum in New Caledonia was a breathtaking example of democracy in action, with new consequences for the French territory, France and our region.
The vote had been long-deferred, long-awaited and for some, long-feared. It took place peacefully, a major and poignant achievement that was unimaginable 30 years ago, before the Matignon/Noumea Accords were signed. They were designed to end civil war, promising the hand-over of a number of autonomies, to be followed by this referendum.
The result favoured staying with France by 56.4% to 43.6%. Key characteristics were the strong turnout, especially by young Kanaks, the relatively strong vote for independence, and bitter division between the two sides.
Voting queues were long, with many waiting two hours to vote. Voting is not compulsory in New Caledonia, and the turnout was an extraordinary 80.63% of those eligible to vote (all Indigenous Kanaks, and a large proportion of those from other communities with longstanding residence in New Caledonia). This is the highest in recent history, with levels at the last French national elections 37% (2017) and provincial elections 67% (2014).
As French President Emmanuel Macron noted hours after the polls closed, France has fulfilled its promise and delivered a transparent process, legitimised by the unprecedented high turnout, the attendance of 13 UN observers and a Pacific Islands Forum observer team.
What does it mean for New Caledonia?
This relatively close result is probably the best all round for stability. The campaign has been bitter, and even commentary between leaders in television coverage of the results saw strong denunciation, particularly by loyalists.
While potentially stoking fear among loyalists for the future, the sizeable independence vote nonetheless may give pause to their tendency to triumphalism, challenging opinion polls and their own belief that they would win at least 60% and possibly 70% of the vote.
In their confidence, just days before the vote, the loyalists declared that with a massive win, they would seek to reverse the Noumea Accord guarantee of a second and potentially third referendum, an inflammatory step for independence supporters.
For independence leaders, the result vindicates their careful strategy of negotiating under the Noumea Accord for potentially two more votes in 2020 and 2022 in the event of a “no” vote, automatic participation for all Indigenous Kanaks, and mobilising the young.
Young Kanaks voted in large numbers, peacefully, and apparently for independence. This was so even in mainly European Noumea, which returned a surprising 26.29% “yes” vote.
With natural population growth, their numbers will increase as 18-year-olds become eligible to vote in 2020 and 2022. In contrast, the number of voters from other long-standing communities will vary little during this time-frame.
Independence leaders can also work to improve the vote from Kanak island communities, whose turnout remained at traditional lower levels, and those who may have responded this time to one independence party’s call for a boycott.
What does it mean for France?
The relatively close result means both sides may be more likely to participate constructively in the ongoing dialogue process set up by France.
Macron has urged New Caledonians to overcome division and continue the 30-year process “in favour of peace”, emphasising dialogue. He referred to a future within France and the Indo-Pacific. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe visited the territory on November 5 to continue dialogue and urge calm.
The task of France remains delicate: to manage, impartially, a process respecting the positions of both sides. It’s complicated by the fact the 43.6% favouring independence are largely Indigenous Kanaks. They are not leaving, they have regional support, and their interests must be considered in any long-term future.
On the positive side, positions canvassed by independence and loyalist parties alike threw up areas of shared interest that can form the basis of future cooperation. Provincial elections in May 2019 will clarify their support, but risk being undermined by extremist parties on both sides.
What are the implications for the region?
The result guarantees continued regional and international interest in the next steps. Reports of the Pacific Islands Forum and UN observer teams will be considered by their organisations. New Caledonia continues to be represented by the pro-independence Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) at the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG).
Separatists in Bougainville (Papua New Guinea), set for their own independence referendum next year, and West Papua, both the subject of MSG attention, will take heart.
Macron’s invocation of his Indo-Pacific vision engaging New Caledonia specifically to counter China gives a new edge to the interest in the referendum process by regional countries and partners.
Australia, meanwhile, will continue to retain a close interest in stability in our near neighbour, respecting the process while continuing cooperation with France.
Update: Justin Milne has now resigned as chair of the ABC board.
Behind the extraordinary events engulfing the national broadcaster lies a rather ordinary and clear statement of principle enshrined in the ABC Act. It clearly stipulates that one of the functions of the board is to maintain the corporation’s independence and integrity.
Has Justin Milne, as chairman of the board, done that?
Reports from Fairfax Media this week revealed email correspondence between Milne and the then managing director, Michelle Guthrie. In the emails, Milne called for chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici to be sacked over a report on government funding for research and innovation.
Then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had complained about the article; this followed complaints in February about two other pieces by Alberici on corporate tax, also critical of government policy. The ABC amended and reposted one of these pieces and eight days later republished the other, an analysis.
An internal ABC review found fault with both earlier articles, which had attracted considerable attention.
Another report this week in The Daily Telegraph makes further claims that Milne later demanded the resignation of ABC political editor Andrew Probyn, following anger from Turnbull. “You have to shoot him”, Milne is claimed to have said to Guthrie.
On one view, the performance of a journalist is an operational matter for the MD or other executives, not a strategic matter, and there was no cause for intervention by Milne.
But others might ask, isn’t it the role of the board to intervene if there’s possibly severe reputational damage to the organisation and executives are not acting?
Both points seem reasonable, but this is the ABC, not a commercial operation.
It’s hardly contentious to say that its journalistic role distinguishes a news organisations from other businesses. Watchdog, fourth estate – however we describe it – news media are different. Editorial independence, along with editorial standards, is important.
But this is even more pronounced for public broadcasters. While government funds the ABC and SBS using public money, these are not state broadcasters. Being free from state control is a part of the legislation under which the ABC operates. It’s when we look at the ABC Act that we see the problem for Milne.
Although we often speak of the ABC “charter”, this is really just section 6 of the ABC Act. It sets out the functions of the ABC and it’s where we find reference to the ABC providing “innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard”.
But important obligations are found elsewhere. The requirement to provide a news service, for example, is in a later, operational section.
And it’s section 8 where we find the twin requirements of independence and editorial standards. These are worth setting out in full:
8(1)(b) to maintain the independence and integrity of the Corporation
8(1)(c) to ensure that the gathering and presentation by the Corporation of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism
The problem for Milne is that these obligations are not imposed on the ABC as an organisation. They are imposed on the board. The lead-in to section 8 is: “It is the duty of the Board…”
Returning then to the emails, at issue was a report by Alberici on the main 7pm television news bulletin on May 6. According to the Fairfax report, Turnbull sent an email to news director Gaven Morris the next day complaining about the report.
Morris sent it to Guthrie, who contacted Milne. Milne responded, saying “they [the government] hate her” and “get rid of her”.
This apparently is before Communications Minister Mitch Fifield complained about the same report on May 9 and before the ABC’s complaints review unit had a chance to assess the complaint. When it did, it found no problem with the article except for one inaccuracy – certainly nothing that would justify the dismissal of the journalist.
It appears Milne acted to protect the reputation of the ABC. He and the board are required to do that – protecting its “integrity” is a part of their statutory duties. And the board also has a role in upholding standards.
Had the ABC’s complaints unit found there was a serious problem for a second time and executives had failed to act, maybe the board would have been right to intervene. But that step – assessing the validity of the complaint – was skipped, and it seems the main reason for proposing Alberici’s dismissal was to appease the government.
In this case, “independence” should have trumped the reputational aspect of “integrity”, especially when the risk was political. Instead, the chairman of the ABC may have compromised both values.
The people who are turning up at Save the ABC rallies around the country are defending a cultural institution they value because they trust it.
In particular, they trust its news service. Public opinion polls going back to the 1950s consistently show it is by far the most trusted in the country.
So at this time it is pertinent to look at what creates a trustworthy news service. The cornerstone is editorial independence. As opinion polls have shown time and again, where people suspect a newspaper, radio, TV or online news service of pushing some commercial or political interest, their level of trust falls.
Editorial independence does not mean giving journalists licence to broadcast or publish whatever they want or to avoid accountability for their mistakes.
It means encouraging journalists to tackle important stories regardless of what people in power might think, then backing them to make judgments based on news values and the public interest, not on irrelevant considerations such as commercial, financial or political pressure.
Editorial independence is hard won and under constant pressure from outside the newsroom.
In commercial media, this pressure comes from big advertisers or company bosses with financial or political interests to push.
In public-sector broadcasting, the pressure comes from the federal government, which provides the funding and has powerful means of subjecting the broadcaster to intense political pressure.
A robust editorial leadership is essential to resisting this heat. It’s a daily battle. If the senior editorial management wilts, the weakness is swiftly transmitted down the hierarchy.
Middle-level editors and the staff journalists who work to them start looking over their shoulders, tempted to take easy options and avoid possible heat. The easiest option is self-censorship, dodging sensitive stories, leaving out material or watering it down.
This is where the ABC is at a crossroads. It has as its managing director and editor-in-chief Michelle Guthrie, a person with no journalistic background and who until recently showed scant signs of understanding the impact on the ABC’s editorial independence of the Turnbull government’s relentless bullying.
Then last month she gave a speech at the Melbourne Press Club in which she said Australians regard the ABC as a great national institution and deeply resent it being used as “a punching bag by narrow political, commercial or ideological interests”.
It was a start, and now the cause has been taken up by ABC staff themselves and by the wider public in the Save the ABC movement led by ABC Friends.
It is strongly reminiscent of events at The Age nearly 30 years ago, when I was an associate editor there. Then, a Save The Age campaign showed how effective a public outpouring of support for a news outlet can be when they set out to defend one they trust.
The campaign’s origins lay in concerns among senior journalists at the paper over what might happen to its editorial independence when receivers were appointed in 1990. This followed a disastrous attempt by “young” Warwick Fairfax to privatise the Fairfax company, which was the paper’s owner.
A group of senior journalists, including the late David Wilson and the distinguished business writer Stephen Bartholomeusz, formed The Age Independence Committee. It drew up a charter of editorial independence.
The key passages stated that:
the proprietors acknowledge that journalists, artists and photographers must record the affairs of the city, state, nation and the world fairly, fully and regardless of any commercial, political or personal interests, including those of any proprietors, shareholders or board members
full editorial control of the newspaper, within a negotiated, fixed budget, is vested in the editor
the editor alone decides the editorial content, and controls the hiring, firing and deployment of editorial staff.
The Save The Age campaign generated tremendous public support. Former prime ministers Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam, who had barely been on speaking terms since the Dismissal 15 years earlier, joined together at the head of a public demonstration in Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens. One of the campaign slogans was “Maintain Your Age”, a pun on Whitlam’s post-Dismissal election slogan, “Maintain Your Rage”.
Eventually, the receivers signed the charter and so, after some wrangling, did the new owners led by the Canadian-born newspaper baron, Conrad Black. Black is gone but the charter remains.
Like The Age in 1990, the ABC today has strong public support.
Like The Age in 1990, senior journalistic staff, most notably the Melbourne “Mornings” radio presenter Jon Faine, and former presenter of 7.30 on ABC TV, Kerry O’Brien, have shown leadership, lending their profile and authority to the cause.
But unlike The Age, the ABC does not have publicly acknowledged bipartisan political support.
Whatever Malcolm Turnbull’s private views of the ABC, and whatever the stated policy of his government, the facts are that since 2014 the Abbott and Turnbull governments have cut $338 million from the ABC’s funding, and the federal council of the Liberal Party voted last month to sell it off.
It is quite possible that when it reports in September, the present inquiry into the ABC’s competitive neutrality will provide some impetus to this proposition or propose some other ways to clip the ABC’s wings.
It is significant in the context of editorial independence that the inquiry is taking a particular interest in the ABC news service. That is the part of the ABC most detested by politicians, and on which the present government has focused its most intense pressure.
If editorial independence weakens, public trust will weaken too. That would make the ABC an even more attractive political target for a hostile government.
On Sunday, more than 2 million Catalans voted in a referendum on the question:
Should Catalonia become an independent state?
The vote was a milestone in the century-long struggle for self-determination in Catalonia, a region in northeast Spain. The claim for independence, though, was again met with opposition by the Spanish government, with Spanish police seizing polling stations and beating would-be voters.
Further reading: Catalonians and Kurds have a long battle ahead for true independence
Catalonia’s claim for independence
Catalonian President Carles Puigdemont said on Monday that Catalan “citizens have earned the right to [be] an independent state”. Puigdemont sees the 90% referendum win as a self-evident claim for independence.
Catalonia’s claim to independence is historical. It has always considered itself a distinct entity. While Catalonia has co-existed with Spain for centuries, the 1979 Statute of Autonomy under the 1978 Spanish Constitution permitted Catalonia some autonomy, with self-government of education, health care and welfare.
Catalonia has also maintained a culture and language distinct from its Spanish neighbours. For Catalans, strong national identity has been demonstrated through resistance of repressive expressions of Spanish influence – notably the Franco dictatorship’s attempts to suppress Catalan culture and language.
As one of the strongest and most productive economic regions in Spain, the perception among Catalans is that they give more in tax than they receive in state benefits. In 2015, 20% of Spain’s total GDP came from Catalonia, while the state budget for Catalonia received a 6.5% decrease from 2003.
The current Catalan claim for independence has been energised by the perceived economic and political repression of the region by the central government in recent years. Many Catalans believe Catalonia would be more successful if it could self-rule.
Parallel to inequitable economic treatment, the Spanish government has also moved recently to tightly constrain Catalan autonomy. In 2010, the Spanish Constitutional Court struck down an expanded version of the Statute of Autonomy that granted Catalonia the title of a “nation”.
In March 2017, former Catalan leader Artur Mas was banned from holding public office after being found guilty of disobeying the Constitutional Court by holding a symbolic referendum in 2014. Such aggressive responses by Spain to the idea of secession have driven increasing numbers of Catalonians toward the independence movement.
In the context of Sunday’s referendum, Puigdemont argued that his people’s sovereignty lies with the Catalan parliament, and that no other court or political power could ban or suspend the vote.
The referendum’s legality is certainly contentious, notably because it did not adhere to democratic conventions like the requirement for a minimum threshold of votes. Regardless, Puigdemont is looking to make a declaration of independence in the coming days.
Why does the Spanish government oppose Catalonian independence?
While Catalans claim independence, Madrid refuses to recognise the referendum’s legitimacy at all. According to Spanish President Mariano Rajoy:
There has not been a self-determination referendum in Catalonia.
Rajoy labelled the referendum as a “constitutional and democratic atrocity” and slammed the Catalan leaders for creating “serious damage to co-existence” between Spain and Catalonia.
In line with the 2010 Constitutional Court decision, the Spanish government opposes Catalan independence on the grounds of constitutional invalidity. The 1978 Spanish Constitution denies the independence of Catalonia, declaring the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”.
Madrid argues there is no provision in the Spanish Constitution for self-determination, and that a unilateral vote of independence is at odds with Article 155’s requirement for democratic participation of all Spaniards. On these grounds, the Constitutional Court banned the referendum – which nevertheless proceeded on Sunday.
What happened during the referendum on Sunday?
Sunday’s referendum was marred by violence and repression. Spanish national police forcibly blocked voting, seizing ballot boxes and voting papers, physically removing voters from polling stations, and attacking civilians with batons and rubber bullets.
Catalan emergency officials say that 761 Catalan civilians and 12 police were injured during the police actions in Barcelona and Girona.
Catalan and Spanish leaders blame each other for the violence. Rajoy condemned the Catalans for their “radicalism and disobedience”, praising the Spanish police for their “firmness and serenity” in response.
This response sits uncomfortably with images of voters being removed from polling stations by their hair and attacked with batons while raising their hands in peaceful protest.
The UN has criticised Madrid for its disproportionate and violent response to a peaceful attempt at self-determination. Human Rights Watch has condemned the Spanish government for violating Catalans’ civil right to peaceful assembly and free expression.
In contrast, the European Union regards the vote as illegal but has called for unity and peaceful relations between Spain and Catalonia.
As Catalans call for a national strike in response to Madrid’s repressive actions, the world waits to see whether this act of protest will be met with greater repression. Madrid could use emergency powers to take full administrative control of Catalonia.
Catalonia and the struggle for self-determination
On Monday, Puigdemont said the Catalan people:
… have sent a message to the world, we have the right to decide our future, we have the right to be free and we want to live in peace.
Catalonia is effectively asserting the right of its people to self-determination. This is a collective human right, enshrined in common Article 1(1) of the twin human rights covenants – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
In voting at a referendum and preparing for a declaration of independence, Catalonia is following a similar contested path to the emerging state of Kosovo. In 2010, the International Court of Justice found that Kosovo’s declaration of independence did not violate international law.
Spain is the only major country in Western Europe to refuse recognition to Kosovo as an independent country. Spain’s insistence that unilateral secession cannot be permitted for Kosovo is intertwined with its determination not to lose Catalonia.
Self-determination can be realised in a range of ways, including through forms of autonomy within a nation-state. It may be that a negotiated arrangement that would preserve Spain’s sovereignty over Catalonia would still be possible.
However, by meeting Sunday’s assertion of self-determination with repression, Spain has undoubtedly fuelled Catalonia’s determination to establish an independent state.
Other EU member nations, including the UK, will be watching with concern that Catalonia may inspire separatist movements in Scotland, Bavaria and Flanders.
Secession movements come not in ones but twos, it seems. In the space of a week, two regions in which national groups have chafed at central government diktat have voted overwhelmingly for independence.
In both cases, these protest votes are having ramifications far beyond the nationalist movements that have been agitating for a separation from the states in which they reside.
In each case, central government resistance risks further upheaval, even civil conflict in the case of the Iraqi Kurds, whose cause is threatened not simply by the Iraqi government in Baghdad but by surrounding states.
Meanwhile, there was confirmation overnight of overwhelming support in a referendum in the Catalan region of Spain for independence from Madrid.
Of the 2.26 million who cast ballots, more than 90% voted “yes”. However, a significant number of Catalans opposed to separation from Madrid simply did not vote.
After threatening to declare independence within four days, the Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont is now calling for European Union mediation, indicating that he recognises limitations on the validity of the poll. He said:
It is not a domestic matter. We don’t want a traumatic break … We want a new understanding with the Spanish state.
Under Spain’s 1978 Constitution, which ended decades of Franco-led fascist rule, the country’s Constitutional Court declared the Catalan poll had no legal status and so its results were invalid.
On the other hand, Spain’s beleaguered leadership can hardly ignore the Catalan plebiscite. Resorting to force in which scores have been injured over recent days in clashes between police and nationalists is clearly not the answer to this rupture in the country’s unity.
The best case for Spain and European amity would seem to lie in agreement on greater autonomy for Catalonia, Spain’s wealthiest region wedged in its north-east on the Mediterranean coast by a mountainous border with France.
A week ago, in a far more troubled corner of the world, Iraqi Kurds voted overwhelmingly for separation from Baghdad. Of those who cast ballots, 93% voted “yes”.
Commentators were quick to hail the vote as an “irreversible step toward independence”, in the words of Peter Galbraith, a former American diplomat and longstanding advocate for Kurdish separateness.
But that early optimism among supporters of Kurdish independence may prove to be misplaced, given forces arrayed against such an outcome.
The Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad threatened force to prevent oil-rich Kurdistan’s separation, and other players in the neighbourhood have made their opposition clear.
Iran, with a sizeable Kurdish minority of its own living in areas contiguous with Iraqi Kurdistan, closed its borders and made threatening noises if the Kurds persisted.
Turkey, which has its own Kurdish separatist problem that has cost something like 40,000 lives, has warned that it is considering closing border crossings into Kurdistan, thus strangling lifelines to the outside world.
Implied in Ankara’s response to the Kurdish vote is a threat to stop oil shipments via a pipeline across its territory from Kirkuk, stifling struggling Kurdistan’s main source of income.
A decline in oil prices has brought the local economy to its knees.
At the same time, Iraq, Turkey and Iran are planning joint military manoeuvres aimed at further isolating the beleaguered and seemingly friendless Kurds.
Baghdad has stopped flights from its territory to the two Kurdish international airports.
In civil-war scarred Damascus, Syria has also voice its opposition to Kurdish independence, in acknowledgement of its own Kurdish separatist problem.
In Washington, the administration poured cold water on Kurdish aspirations, thereby acknowledging that further destabilisation of a volatile region represents a threat to US interests. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said:
The United States does not recognize the Kurdistan Regional Government’s unilateral referendum held on Monday. The vote and results lack legitimacy and we continue to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq.
Reactions of the putative state of Kurdistan’s neighbours is hardly surprising given the region’s brutal realpolitik. But this does little to disguise the fact that a post-first world war construct in the Middle East is under siege.
In the wash-up of the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the redrawing the region’s boundaries under a secret colonial-era accord between Britain and France, the Kurds can consider themselves hard done-by not to have been given their own state.
A century later, the Iran-backed and Shiite-dominated Iraqi state is under enormous stress, having ousted Islamic State from most of its strongholds in bloody conflict backed by the US and its allies, including Australia.
A sullen and disenfranchised Sunni minority, who had lent their support to a murderous IS, is a residue of longstanding tribal conflicts and tensions across Iraq.
The Kurds have effectively gone their own way since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. But they have found that attachment to a corrupt Shiite-dominated regime in Baghdad has been a drag on their national aspirations.
At the heart of difficulties between the Kurds and Iran-backed rulers in Baghdad is money. The Kurds can legitimately claim they are not receiving their fair share of oil revenues.
This is not to say the Kurds are blameless in the conduct of their affairs. A Barzani political fiefdom led by Maassoud Barzani has its share of critics, not least those who question its democratic credentials.
Barzani himself remains in power two years after his term as president has expired. The Kurdish parliament is virtually defunct, and members of the Barzani family occupy many of the government’s leading posts.
In all of this, it is reasonable to speculate what might have been if a push in 2006 for a separation of Iraq into Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite enclaves had been countenanced.
This was a solution proposed by then Senator, later Vice President Joe Biden. Indeed, back then the Senate passed a resolution supporting the Biden proposal.
A re-emergence of Kurdish separatist demands is merely one consequence of upheavals that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. It was an adventure that has cost the American taxpayer upwards of a trillion dollars and contributed to the de-stabilisation of the entire region.
In their separate bids for independence – or greater autonomy – the Kurds and the Catalans are facing gale-force headwinds.
Neither case has international support – although both the Kurds and the Catalans have their sympathisers. The Scots, for example, have expressed support for Catalan aspirations.
The two also have to reckon with resistance more generally to secessionist movements.
The last nation to win independence was landlocked South Sudan in 2011, with the backing of the international community. In that case, the independence referendum grew out of an internationally brokered peace agreement that ended Sudan’s long-running civil war.
Kosovo is another example of national aspirations that enjoyed widespread international support. Its declaration of independence from Serbia had the backing of the US and its European allies, but was opposed by the Serbian and Russians government.
While Kosovo is recognised by more than 100 countries, it has still not been admitted to the United Nations due to a Russian veto.
The Catalans and the Kurds have some way to go before they realise their aspirations. It is not clear that independence plebiscites shorn of international legitimacy will yield what some believe is their just rewards.
The link below is to an article that reports on the snub given at the UN towards West Papua.