Ten Other Independence Movements You Should Know About This Fourth of July
This Saturday, countless Americans will flock to parks with burgers and beers to celebrate our nation’s independence. It’s easy for us to celebrate our struggle for freedom in a cheery, light manner today, given how far in the past the Revolutionary War is for us. But that distance also means that it’s easy for us to forget about the many valid, ongoing struggles for freedom around the world. Some of these struggles resonate with our own history, or even greatly surpass the slights Americans suffered under the British. Yet even on independence-sensitive days like the fourth, many of these struggles often go overlooked.
Granted, ever since Scotland’s independence referendum last September, there’s been a renewed interest in separatist movements. Despite Edinburgh’s failure to break away from London, the publicity and success of their campaign had the English quaking and scrambling. And beyond the U.K., the Scottish wave seems to have inspired a number of other separatist movements, from Catalonia in Spain to the Kurds in the heart of the Middle East, to make their own new ripples in the pool of global politics.
This momentum following the Scottish referendum has been beneficial to the public’s understanding of modern breakaway movements. Articles on separatism have pointed out that these movements are not just petty regional ethnic squabbles agitating against a comfortable status quo, but instead often well-supported and theoretically justified attempts to bring sovereignty closer to the people. And they’ve helped people to remember that separatism is not always about a violent struggle, but can be achieved through mutually beneficial and peaceful splits, as between Norway and Sweden at the start of the 20th century or the Czech Republic and Slovakia in the 1990s.
For all the benefits of this renewed interest, though, it’s hard not to notice that most conversations focus on breakaway factions in the West. And the few independence movements we talk about in the wider world (like Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, or the Kurdish movement) are discussed insomuch as they fit into prevailing narratives of conflicts involving the Western world, from tensions with Russia over Ukraine to the fight against the Islamic State.
Partly, this is because there are just a lot of separatist movements in the West—at least 40 in Western Europe and just about one in every state in the U.S. (about a quarter to a third of Americans support some sort of secession for their state). Yet while we fixate on minute Western movements, there are actually hundreds of other new states and secessionist groups active in the rest of the world. It’s admittedly hard for outsiders to figure out which ones to take seriously, or even how to decode many of these conflicts—a fact that’s especially true in countries like India or Myanmar where there are dozens of tiny, hyper-regional independence movements.
But there are a few independence movements in the wider world with real and present powers to shape geopolitics in a way that could reverberate around the globe. In the name of bringing at least some of these groups to greater attention and in an effort to expand conversations on independence beyond their current Western focus, the following is a list of ten global independence movements you really should know about. They’ve been selected (unscientifically) for their scale, level of support, and potential for global impact.
Illustration by Tom Eichacker
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When the borders of post-colonial independent nations were drawn up in the last century, nomadic groups whose homelands extended over vast and sparsely populated lands often got the short end of the stick. But of all the peoples divvied up amongst many petty, conflicting states, the two million Tuaregs of the Sahara were divided, their lands split amongst Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, none of which have done much to alleviate the poverty and disenfranchisement of the population.
As a result, the Tuareg have started agitating en masse for their own state, leading highly effective armed uprisings. Unfortunately this nationalist movement is often falsely conflated in popular discourse with jihadist movements in West Africa. But it is true that the fate of the Tuareg independence movement will have a huge impact on one of the most contentious yet underreported battlegrounds of the modern era: the vast Sahara.
Image: Tuareg Secessionists. By russavia via Wikimedia Commons
One of those movements you might vaguely remember hearing about from time to time, the over eight million Baloch of Afghanistan, Iran, and (mainly) Pakistan have long argued they were promised their independence in the early 20th century, only to find themselves wrapped up in the furor of the India-Pakistan partition and subsequent South Asian conflicts. Since then, a very powerful independence movement has managed to make Pakistan’s Balochistan province a veritable no-go region. While the movement has not made much progress in advancing its independence, it has played a huge role in robbing Pakistan of its territorial control and thus plays a vastly underrated role in shaping the hair-trigger future of the region.
Image: Balochistan coat of arms
One of the entries that very few people in the West have heard of, the nearly two million Karakalpak peoples (who inhabit the western half of Uzbekistan) are also perhaps one of the most grievously wronged and hopeless peoples seeking independence on this list. Attaining their independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, they agreed to join Uzbekistan on the condition that in 2013 they would be allowed to hold a referendum on independence. But after 20 years of environmental degradation (Uzbekistan’s agricultural policies have dried up the Aral Sea, the lifeblood of the Karakalpak) and oppression, that deadline came and went, leading a desperately poor and desolate region to start advocating for itself. In the face of overwhelming odds and opposition, the Karakalpak are driven by the sheer conviction that they may be wiped off the face of the earth.
Image: Boats abandoned after the Aral sea dried up. Image by sunriseOdyssey via Flickr
While some colonized regions have chosen to stay with the European powers that annexed them for subsidies and governmental participation, New Caledonia is the poster child for those who always wished for independence but missed the mid-20th century decolonization wave. Almost since its acquisition by France in 1853, locals on the (fairly large) island chain have been agitating for independence, even managing to secure a promised independence referendum in the 1980s, though it never materialized. Despite some delays, the referendum is now scheduled for 2018, and if they choose independence (especially if Bougainville, an island off of Papua New Guinea, votes for independence in its 2020 referendum) it could breathe new life into a whole series of separatist movements currently simmering in the European-controlled Pacific. These shifts could change the rules of the game for modern colonialism, shipping, and fishing, to name just a few potential fallouts.
Image: Graffiti portrait of Jean-Marie Tjibaou, a leader of New Caledonia's Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front in the contentious '80s. Image by ReinerausH via Wikimedia Commons
It’s almost hard to pick just one independence movement from Ethiopia. Almost every region (each of which is named after its predominate ethnic group) has some kind of uprising. But one of the longest-lived and most consequential may be the movement for an independent Ogaden. Composing the bulk of Ethiopia’s geographical south, this region is inhabited primarily by Somalis conquered by Ethiopian imperial force and treaties between Addis Ababa and European colonial powers. The area has been kept subservient ever since. After an independent Somalia was crushed in its attempts to liberate the region in the 1970s, a native movement for independence sprung up and persevered despite intense security crackdowns.
Concerns over the future of its Somali regions are among Ethiopia’s key reasons for continually meddling in the politics of neighboring Somalia. Accordingly, you could say that if the Ogaden achieved independence it might rewrite the calculus of conflict in the Horn of Africa, long one of the world’s most shattered regions. Especially if it were accompanied by the federalization or fracture of Somalia to accommodate other Somali separatists with their own quasi-functional governments, it could resolve one of the world’s most enduring states of chaotic and largely stateless conflict.
Image: Ogaden National Liberation Front rebels praying. Image by Jonathan Alpeyrie via Flickr
For all the focus commentators place on European separatist movements, very few ever mention the drive for independence in the Italian region of Sardinia. As of 2014, support for separation from Italy had reached about 45 percent, and an independence party was part of the ruling regional coalition government. Sardinians are often overlooked because their independence movement is heavily fractured, but at the same time they are an ethnically and linguistically distinct population, which feels both financially and culturally slighted by the central Italian government. If their movement gains credence and visibility, it will be yet another huge shot in the arm for regions like Catalonia and Scotland, further catalyzing a growing wave of separatism.
Image by Núria via Flickr
Better known to many as Easter Island, Rapa Nui is one of those Pacific islands that never managed to escape colonialism. But rather than fleeing a European master, Rapa Nui is currently trying to escape the orbit of another post-colonial power, Chile, which acquired the island in 1888. For locals on the island, the worst of their colonial experience is still a part of living memory—their armed resistance movement raged from 1965 to 1984, and in the ‘80s massive immigration and anti-local language policies progressively eroded the local culture in favor of a Latino influence. Rapa Nui’s struggle for independence is a David-and-Goliath conflict, and also one of the more urgent and popular on this list. As with New Caledonia, events on this island could play a huge role in determining the future path of other still-quasi-colonies worldwide.
Image: The famous moais head statues of Rapa Nui. Image by Arian Zwegers via Flickr
Although most people think Tibet when they think of independence movements within China, the province of Xinjiang to the north of the Himalayan plateau, inhabited by the Turkic Uyghurs, is an even more restive and dire independence movement. Like Tibet, the local population experienced brief moments of outright independence in the mid-20th century before being conquered by China, and now they face massive Han immigration, cultural degradation, and political marginalization. The Uyghurs often rise up and try to wrest their independence back through violent attacks, which has only allowed China to label them as Islamists and terrorists, eroding global support for a valid separatist movement. But while the world turns a blind eye, the fate of the Uyghur independence movement can be seen as a canary in a coalmine, portending the future of separatism, minority populations, and dissidence in China.
Image: "Free the Uighurs" protest in Washington, D.C. Image by www.Futureatlas.com via Flickr
West Papua New Guinea
Despite efforts by local groups to achieve independence in 1961, this massive half-island was granted to Indonesia by the United Nations in 1963 to end a series of disputes over the future of the Netherlands’ former Southeast Asian colonies. Although they were offered an independence referendum in 1969, it’s widely thought that this was a sham ballot, infuriating many local peoples. In the aftermath of this disappointment, the region’s been locked down, as Indonesia fiercely protects what it sees as its territorial integrity against dissidents. But over the past few months the area has opened up again, with local leaders speaking more freely about independence, raising the specter of a vast chunk of Indonesia breaking away on its own.
Image: Protest for a free West Papua in Melbourne. Image by Nichollas Harrison via Wikimedia Commons
The Western Sahara and its Sahrawi peoples were occupied by Morocco in 1976. The nation had just attained their independence from Spain a few years earlier and had won international court cases affirming their sovereignty free of neighboring states’ claims. But ever since the occupation, the local peoples have lived in atrocious camp conditions as Morocco benefits from their natural resources. Support for independence is quite high both in the nation and abroad, but despite international condemnation of Moroccan actions, almost no one is doing anything about it. Despite a legal right to sovereignty, the scope of the Sahrawi independence movement and its perpetual failures may act as a chilling factor for other independence movements—proof that despite all our talk about the merits of freedom and self-determination, the wider world just doesn’t care all that much about peoples outside our own narratives and immediate experience.
Image: West Sahara demonstration in Spain. Image by Western Sahara via Flickr