Passion and pain: why secessionist movements rarely succeed

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Catalans protest the Spanish government crackdown after voting for independence.
Reuters/Yves Herman

Damien Kingsbury, Deakin University

Calls for “independence” have been increasingly heard on the streets of Barcelona in recent days. Those powerful emotions can drive people to extremes, which in some cases include killing and dying. Yet for the high price often paid, independence movements are rarely successful and their outcomes are usually less than hoped for.

Catalonia’s recent vote for independence provoked a heavy-handed response from the government in Madrid. This has, in almost textbook style, conversely increased support for independence.

The Spanish government’s response was wrong if the intention was to secure Catalonia’s loyalty, but perhaps the right response if the intention was to shore up falling nationalist support elsewhere.

Independence movements commonly start with a small number of idealists, yet quickly grow when central governments respond with repression. In such circumstances, the desire for “freedom” takes root and flourishes. So the first responses of central governments to secessionist movements are critical to their outcome.

There are currently well over 100 secessionist movements, including four in the Philippines, dozens in India, around eight in Myanmar, and several dozen in Africa. Many of these have produced bloodshed and trauma well in excess of possible practical gains. Yet, despite their numbers, very few secessionist movements are ultimately successful, while the costs for governments imposing a nominal unity can be high for all involved.

With high risks and limited chances of success, secessionist movements are rarely about pragmatism and more about fervour. Even with popular support, these movements rarely have the political or military capacity to impose their will on the state from which they intend to secede.

Such limited examples of secessionist success that there are have relied on either external intervention – such as Bangladesh and Kosovo – or agreement by a weakened parent state, such as Eritrea and South Sudan. Timor-Leste achieved independence on the back of both factors.

Having overcome daunting odds of achieving independence, the success of post-secessionist states has, on balance, been poor. Bangladesh has struggled between periods of incapable civilian government, military coups and a state of emergency. Since independence in 1991, Eritrea has been an authoritarian one-party state with no political activity allowed.

Kosovo has been marked by divisive ethnic politics, while South Sudan has been wracked by ethno-political fighting since independence in 2011. Timor-Leste is a successful democracy, yet survived intact only due to international intervention ending civil conflict in 2006.

Of the world’s separatist movements, the most recent and notable, next to Catalonia, is Kurdistan. A Kurdish state would have a potentially sound oil-based economy and a very capable military.

Further reading: Catalans and Kurds have a long battle ahead for true independence

Yet even an independent Kurdistan would require access to trade routes to export oil. This is currently blocked by its parent state, Iraq, and suspicion or hostility from neighbouring Turkey, Syria and Iran. Kurdistan may continue to pursue independence, but it would likely have a more viable economic future as an autonomous state in a federated Iraq.

Even when successful, the cost of independence can be high. It can bring destructive wars, lack of economic activity and independence leaders failing to translate as wise politicians and capable administrators. The skills needed to win independence are not those required to rebuild and run a successful state.

So the record of successful secessionist movements is, overall, poor. The rhetoric of freedom and reward is more usually reflected in little of either.

Catalonia is luckier than most, having an experienced set of politicians and administrators. It also has, for now at least, an intact infrastructure and a vibrant economy. Its chances of success, should Madrid let it go, would be better than most.

Yet what is now more practically needed in Catalonia, and for most other secessionist movements, is a relatively high level of regional autonomy. Loosening the ties that bind can ease tensions and make states more stable, if in federated or similar form, rather than being tightly controlled and therefore resented.

Spanish President Mariano Rajoy’s threat to revoke Catalonia’s autonomy is, therefore, precisely the wrong response for a leader wishing to quell secessionist demands. It was, after all, Spain’s Constitutional Court’s decision to restrict Catalonia’s existing autonomy that sparked the present calls for independence.

Spain’s governing People’s Party may strengthen its faltering support base by appealing to a wider nationalist sentiment in favour of state unity and imposing control over Catalonia. But imposed control will likely prompt further and more deeply entrenched separatist sentiment.

Given their vast differences, the fate of the handful of successful separatist movements cannot be used as indicators of an independent Catalonia’s future. But the drivers of separatism, and impediments to achieving independence, are shared.

Catalonia has been at the forefront of Spain’s domestic battles, and it could be that the current push for independence will spark another. Should it come to this, the cost of such conflict would exceed any possible benefits, for both Catalonia and for Spain.

The ConversationThe question, then, is how Spain’s national government and the Catalan independence movement can step back from a showdown. Failure to do so may mean the consequences become irretrievable.

Damien Kingsbury, Professor, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Detained since January, Alimjan Yimit awaits new court date.

DUBLIN, November 11 (Compass Direct News) – Chinese officials have yet to declare a new court date for Alimjan Yimit, a Christian house church leader and ethnic Uyghur in China’s northwest province of Xinjiang detained since his arrest on Jan. 12.

Alimjan’s name appears as Alimujiang Yimiti in Chinese documents.

State prosecutors in mid-October returned Alimjan’s case to a Xinjiang court for consideration, China Aid Association (CAA) reported. Court officials have refused to release details of the case to the public, but sources told Compass that further legal action is expected imminently.

Charges against Alimjan include “inciting secessionist sentiment to split the country” and “collecting and selling intelligence for overseas organizations,” CAA reported in June. Officials have threatened to hand down a sentence ranging from as much as six years in prison to execution.

Once a Muslim, Alimjan converted to Christianity more than 10 years ago and became active in the growing Uyghur church. Friends said they believe his faith is the real reason for his arrest.

His wife Gulnur has consistently proclaimed his innocence, pointing out that as an agricultural worker he had no access to information affecting national security and therefore could not be guilty of leaking such information.

Alimjan’s hair, dark when police arrested him on Jan. 12, is now graying as a result of harsh conditions in detention, sources said.

During Alimjan’s employment with two foreign-owned companies, officials from the State Security Bureau (SSB) regularly called him in for interrogation, forbidding him to discuss the questioning with anyone.

In September 2007, they closed the business Alimjan worked for and accused him of using it as a cover for “preaching Christianity among people of Uyghur ethnicity.”

Lawyers had hoped for an early acquittal for Alimjan based on evidence of unfair treatment due to his Christian beliefs. A lengthy bureaucratic process, however, has dimmed these hopes.

A trial was initially scheduled for April but postponed while court documents – including interrogation records from the Xinjiang SSB – were translated from Uyghur into Chinese.

When the case was heard on May 27, court officials allowed Alimjan’s two lawyers to be present but banned his wife from entering the courtroom due to the “sensitivity” of the case. After deliberations the court returned the case to state prosecutors citing insufficient evidence. (See Compass Direct News, “Court Cites ‘Insufficient Evidence’ in Christian’s Trial,” May 30.)

In September, Public Security Bureau officers in Xinjiang returned the case to state prosecutors, who again presented it to the court for consideration in October.


Another Uyghur Christian’s Appeal Denied

A second Uyghur Christian, Osman Imin, has aged dramatically and his health has deteriorated due to conditions in a labor camp where he is forced to work 12 to 15 hours per day.

In Chinese documents, Osman’s name appears as Wusiman Yaming.

The State Security Bureau in Hetian City, Xinjiang in September 2007 sentenced Osman to two years of re-education through labor for “revealing state secrets” and “illegal proselytizing.” Associates, however, said his arrest had nothing to do with disclosure of state secrets but with the fact that he was an outspoken Christian and a leader in the Uyghur church.

Authorities first arrested Osman in October 2004, holding him in a detention center in Hotan, southern Xinjiang, for an unspecified “violation of law,” according to CAA.

During his initial detention, Osman was chained to a metal bed and beaten repeatedly during interrogations, a source that spoke on condition of anonymity told Compass. (See Compass Direct News, “Uyghur Christians Arrested, Jailed in Xinjiang,” February 11.)

Osman was released on bail on Nov. 18, 2004 and bail was canceled in October 2006. On July 26, 2007, however, he was again placed under supervised house arrest and finally detained by police on Nov. 19 for allegedly leaking state secrets.

Officials had called for a 10- to 15-year criminal sentence, but after international media attention they reduced the term to two years in labor camp.

When Osman’s lawyer Liang Xiaojun appealed his sentence in June, court authorities insisted on a closed hearing on grounds that the case involved confidential information, CAA reported. They turned down the appeal, refusing to explain why and denying Osman proper access to his lawyer, which violated normal court procedure.

Compass previously reported that officials had arrested and detained a third Uyghur believer, a woman from southern Xinjiang. Further investigation revealed that both she and her husband were arrested on charges of theft.

Report from Compass Direct News