In 2016, 51.9% of voters in the United Kingdom chose to withdraw from the European Union as part of a separatist movement based on sprawling issues such as sovereignty, immigration, national identity, and economic opportunity. Known as Brexit, the move caused political tremors around the world and is considered to be one of the most consequential events in recent European history. The issue remains in flux, and Brexit could still be reversed, but the fact that it happened at all sent shockwaves through governments trying to grapple with their own dissidents and gave a psychological boost to other separatist movements around the world.
Separatist, independence, or secessionist movements—which involve groups of people seeking to establish separate governments—are often the culmination of broad and sweeping issues. Sometimes, religious or ethnic minorities seek independent homelands in order to avoid oppression. Other times, wars or political upheaval result in seemingly arbitrary border drawings that isolate groups from what they perceive to be their lands. In other cases, wealthy regions feel they are disproportionately contributing resources to the state or poorer regions feel that they're being neglected or ignored. In other cases, groups or regions want to break away because they resent their government's policies or foreign allegiances.
Dozens of separatist movements are currently active across the world today on every continent except Antarctica. Some are political; some are violent. Some seek only greater autonomy, while others demand full independence and the recognition of statehood. Some are on the cusp of seeing their revolutions realized while others are fringe or fledgling movements with little hope of achieving their goals. No matter the situation, Brexit has proven that the world's separatist movements have the potential to change the world's political balance and therefore can not be ignored no matter how improbable their campaigns might seem.
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The polarizing Brexit referendum triggered a process that gave the United Kingdom two years to withdraw from the EU. Brexit was supposed to be complete by March 29, 2019, but U.K. and EU leaders voted to delay Brexit until October of this year.
While Brexit put the world's eyes on Europe, homegrown separatist movements are active right here in the United States. According to Newsday, a group called Yes California is advocating for a movement dubbed CalExit, which in 2018 shifted away from calling for complete secession in favor of a new focus on Native American separatism. The campaign calls for the federal government to turn over all federally owned California land—about half the state—to create an "autonomous Native American nation."
In June 2018, the Boston Globe reported on the Kingdom of Hawaii, a separatist movement that does not recognize the islands as a U.S. state. The only U.S. state that was once a kingdom, Hawaii was sovereign until the U.S. overthrew the royal family and annexed the land at the end of the 19th century. It became a state in 1950.
The Cascadia movement is a separatist campaign to create an entirely new country out of much of the Pacific Northwest. Although proposed borders vary within the movement, Cascadia would consist of all of Washington state and parts of California, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, Alaska, and British Columbia. Most of the interest in the movement comes from the U.S. and appears far-fetched, according to a Canadian publication called CFJC Today.
A long-simmering movement for the Canadian province of Alberta to break away from the rest of the country is generating momentum ahead of the country's April 16 elections, according to US News and World Report. Many in the energy-producing province are unhappy with federal policies, and separatist sentiment is the driving force behind the Alberta Independence Party, which in 2018 was awarded official status for the first time in 17 years after registering 63 candidates.
Made up mostly of rural, indigenous people, the Zapatista movement is a militant left-wing organization with both socialist and libertarian leanings. The organization is at war with the Mexican government and has both launched and fended off many violent attacks since the 1990s, when the paramilitary group was formed. The Zapatistas now control large portions of the poor but resource-rich southern state of Chiapas, which they hope to establish as their own autonomous region.
In Europe, Brexit dominates most headlines, but another serious and significant separatist movement is threatening to destabilize the continent. Catalonia is a distinct and semi-autonomous region and community in Spain, one of the wealthiest in the country that includes the city of Barcelona. Large percentages of Catalans feel their cherished autonomy is slipping away and that Catalonia contributes so much to and receives so little from greater Spain that Catalonia would be better off on its own, according to The Independent. A recent referendum on the issue was declared illegal and met with a harsh police crackdown, which is causing turmoil in both Spain and Europe as a whole.
The crisis in Catalonia has created fissures all over Europe, but there are few countries where those divisions are more evident than in Belgium, a divided country that exists under a tenuous, power-sharing government. The former president of Catalonia is exiled in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern part of Belgium that identifies heavily with the Catalan cause. The Catalonian crisis has emboldened Flemish nationalists who have long supported a breakaway movement for Flanders.
Wallonia, located in the French-speaking south of Belgium, is poorer than Flanders, and long-simmering resentment has created a movement that seeks greater autonomy for Wallonia and closer relations with France. Although the crisis in Catalonia has agitated tensions, the Wallonia separatist movement predates World War I.
About 700 miles from Copenhagen are the Faroese Islands, a semi-autonomous archipelago that has been under Dutch rule for centuries. Old and bitter tensions have bred a breakaway movement among much of the islands' population, many of whom consider themselves to be Faroese, not Danes, and are campaigning for full independence, not autonomy.
Both the Catalonian crisis and Brexit weigh heavily on the politics of Scotland, which is part of the United Kingdom but voted against breaking away from the European Union in 2014, two years before the Brexit vote. (Scotland also voted to remain in the EU during the Brexit referendum.) Many Scots support the Catalan cause, but are hesitant to support the fragmentation of breakaway states in Europe. Even so, according to the Globe and Mail, both Brexit and the Catalonian crisis have given a significant lift to Scotland's centuries-old independence movement.
A complicated republic in a complicated region, Artsakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but functions as a de facto country of its own in the South Caucasus, a mountainous region on the border of eastern Europe and western Asia. Artsakh is populated by ethnic Armenians who speak Armenian and, according to a local news report, negotiations are currently underway that would give sovereign status to the Republic of Artsakh. The republic identifies more with its Armenian neighbors to the west than it does Azerbaijan to the east, though this is technically its ruling country.
The Mediterranean island of Corsica is one of the 18 regions that make up France, but since at least the 1960s, Corsica has been home to an intense and often violent movement for greater autonomy or even outright independence. Thousands of bombings have been attributed to anti-French militants in Corsica, the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. Although a ceasefire was called in 2014, the separatist movement never went away, and a recent spate of bombs is stoking fears that Corsican nationalists might once again be resorting to terrorism and violence.
In April 2019, hundreds of left-wing Bangladeshi separatists, labeled extremists by the government, agreed to one of the largest surrenders by the movement in decades, Agence France-Presse reported. The fighters seek autonomy for the poor and remote Chittagong Hill Tracts region in the volatile southwest region of Bangladesh, which borders Myanmar.
The Taiwan independence movement has been a global cause célèbre for generations. Taiwan is self-ruled, but China has claimed control over the region since the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s and has threatened to take Taiwan by force if it tries to secede. A recent report points out that Taiwan's top presidential candidates have all publicly stated that China is Taiwan's most significant external threat, suggesting a new rise in separatist sentiments.
Tibet is another hotly disputed region whose desire for independence has stirred global outcry. Home to the Dalai Lama and Mt. Everest, Tibet was annexed by China in 1950 and has protested for independence ever since—in many cases, those protests were met with brutal force from Chinese troops that led to tens of thousands of deaths. A new rise in Tibetan nationalism is coming from a younger generation, often born in exile. According to Al-Jazeera, these younger dissidents seek to take more aggressive action to secure independence for the land known as the Roof of the World.
China's third most significant breakaway movement comes out of Hong Kong, which is designated a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China. A wealthy former British colony, Hong Kong is home to a fierce separatist movement that often suffers under Chinese rule. Thousands took to the streets and openly marched on New Year's Day 2019, demanding democracy and independence from China.
Northern Cyprus is technically a country that technically doesn't exist. For generations, Cyprus has been the rope in an often violent tug-of-war between Greece and Turkey, a dynamic that has driven Greek-speaking residents mostly to the south, leaving the north to ethnic Turks. Turkey claims control of the Northern Cyprus, which is home to a significant separatist movement that seeks to break away from the island country and claim independence or join Turkey.
The autonomous region of Xinjiang is the largest administrative district in China and home to one of the most ethnically diverse communities on Earth. Xinjiang, which borders Afghanistan, also hosts one of the world's most significant Muslim populations, and the rising sentiment for independence has triggered a ferocious response from China. In 2019, the Council on Foreign Relations was just one of the many organizations to report that China had arbitrarily rounded up and deported more than 1 million Xinjiang Muslims to internment camps.
Bodoland is an autonomous collection of four districts in the poor and remote frontier of India's far northeast. A growing independence movement is currently making a renewed push for statehood, according to the Hindu.
Nagaland is another region in the volatile northeastern portion of India. The separatist movement that rages there was founded on what it sees as neglect and indifference from India, based on its remote location and old ethnic conflicts. The Hindu reports that the Eastern Nagaland People's Organization is campaigning for the creation of what it calls the Frontier Nagaland State.
Jammu and Kashmir make up a hotly disputed region that has been the catalyst for several large-scale armed conflicts between India and Pakistan. Old and complex historical, cultural, religious, and ethnic issues have created a breeding ground for several separatist movements, some of which seek unification with Pakistan. Others campaign for an independent Kashmir. Indian recently closed a major highway to civilians in response to the most recent in a long line of popular upheavals.
The Punjab region of India is home to a separatist movement that seeks to create an independent homeland for Sikhs called Khalistan. The movement is gaining steam, and in March 2019, the ANI News reported that India accused its neighbor and longtime adversary Pakistan of openly aiding the Khalistan separatist movement.
The Kurdish people—spread out across Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey—are a distinct ethnic group that has often found itself the target of regimes that rule their host countries. Sometimes allied with the U.S., the Kurds are concentrated in a region known as Kurdistan, which touches all four countries. In 2017, more than nine in 10 Kurds voted to make Kurdistan autonomous and independent, but the U.N. did not back the referendum, and the movement for Kurdish independence continues on today.
Around one in four Iranians are ethnic Azerbaijanis, who are mostly concentrated in the northern part of the country. They've long sought to be independent of Iran and united with their countrymen in Azerbaijan, which was once controlled by Russia. In 2018, Azerbaijanis staged a massive, social-media based dance to show support for their kin's cause of independence in northern Iran, where dancing is forbidden.
Since the end of World War II, indigenous Okinawans have been suspicious and resentful of Japan's tolerance of a large U.S. military presence on the chain of islands. Known as Ryukyu until it was annexed by Japan in 1879, the islands are home to a separatist movement that wants what is now Okinawa to be independent once again. The Ryukyu independence movement has gained momentum recently since the U.S. began building a large and controversial new base that will destroy a biologically diverse local reef system, according to local reports.
Quartz Africa recently referred to a separatist movement in southern Cameroon as "increasingly determined and bold." These separatists want to form a nation called Ambazonia, and they've recently established their own anthem, their own flag, and even their own cryptocurrency that is out of reach of the Cameroon government.
Systematic human rights abuses are the driving force behind West Papua's decades-long bid to gain independence from Indonesia. In January 2019, 1.8 million people signed an independence petition, which was delivered to the U.N.'s human rights chief.
A large separatist movement in the East African island of Zanzibar bases its campaign on the belief that Zanzibar's union with mainland Tanzania was illegal. The Zanzibar Rights of Freedom and Autonomy group wants full independence for the already semi-autonomous island. In 2018, the group claimed it had 40,000 supporters.
Located off the coast of northwest Africa, the Canary Islands have fostered independence movements since the days of colonialism. An autonomous region of Spain, the Canaries are the farthest outpost of the European Union. Secessionists on the vacation destination island chain have been emboldened by Catalonia's success in building its own movement to break away from Spain.
The 200-plus-year plight of Australia's indigenous people has created scores of largely unsuccessful independence movements. The Australian state of Victoria recently established the First People's Assembly, an elected body to represent all indigenous people free from government interference. Elections are set for July 2019.
When Australia and New Zealand were colonized, the original inhabitants of the remote Pacific island of Caledonia put up fierce resistance, but were brutally subdued. The indigenous people, known as Kanaks, have never let go of the idea of an independent homeland, and their efforts might soon pay off. Caledonians are set to vote on independence, which could result in a break from more than 160 years of French rule.
Inhabited by the descendants of Bounty mutineers, Norfolk Island has been home to a zealous separation movement that came into its own in 2015. That year, Australia took away much of the island's right to self-governance, leading many islanders to worry that their political and civil rights would be next. The Norfolk Island separatist movement has already filed a formal claim to the U.N. expressing their status as a "distinct and separate" society.
Australia is also having a hard timing convincing segments of the Tasmanian population that they, too, wouldn't be better off alone. In January 2019, an editorial in ABC Australia profiled an independence movement that's blossoming on the island, which Tasmanians have long claimed has a unique and separate culture, society, and even wildlife.
South America has fewer active separatist movements than any other continent, but one does exist in Brazil. Sao Paolo Livre calls for the formation of the Republic of Sao Paolo. Supporters claim that the wealthier regions do not see a return on poorer regions, and they argue that Brazilian unity is an oppressive myth.
French Guiana is the only part of the mainland Americas that is still under the control of a European country. France has made huge investments there, most notably in its space program, since French Guiana is so close to the equator. Those investments, though, have not trickled down to the local population, which has bucked French rule and formed a significant and vocal independence movement.
The Falkland Islands are a British overseas territory off the southernmost coast of Argentina on the Patagonian shelf. The islands have long been a hotbed for local independence movements, despite the fact that a 2013 referendum to break away from Great Britain failed overwhelmingly. Tensions were recently exacerbated when the U.K. staged military drills there amid the loud protests of Argentina.
Near the British Virgin Islands in the Dutch Caribbean sits the tiny island of St. Eustatius. Locals of the island, also known as Statia, have long fought for independence from Dutch rule. According to a local report, the sentiment of separatism was heightened and renewed in 2018 when the Dutch government instituted a series of intrusive actions that many in the autonomous region saw as a European power grab.
Adjacent to St. Eustatius is Puerto Rico, an unincorporated United States territory that has long harbored a variety of independence movements. Although the U.S. is obligated to defend and protect the island, whose inhabitants are American citizens, any illusions of equality were largely shattered when Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017. The Trump administration responded with a minimal relief effort and an overall attitude of indifference—even derision—toward their suffering. The moment reawakened the Puerto Rican independence movement, which some U.S. lawmakers have tried to stave off by introducing new statehood bills.
Long divided between Ukrainian nationalists and those whose allegiances lie with Russia, Ukraine was the site of a bloody separatist war starting in 2014 that killed 13,000 people. In 2019, ongoing elections have been mired in controversy. Fierce separatist movements abound on both sides of the pro-Russia/pro-government dividing line.
In 2018, a single town in Switzerland called Moutier successfully voted to switch allegiances from one canton, or member state of the Swiss Confederation, to another. The vote, however, was declared void, and the decades-old territorial dispute continues today.
The Balkan Peninsula was the site of widespread war and slaughter in the 1990s. Long-standing ethnic conflict, resentment, and territorial disputes have bubbled up again recently, leading to the creation of several separatist movements. Both Kosovo and Serbia harbor several aggressive secessionist groups that are split largely by allegiances to either Russia or the West.
Chechnya, a republic in southern Russia, lies in one of the most volatile regions on Earth—the North Caucasus. Russia took control of Chechnya in the 2000s through a widely condemned military campaign and installed a strongman who imposed brutal authoritarian rule that persists to this day. Another thing that exists to this day, according to the Asia Times, is a weakened and terrorized, yet still zealous Chechen independence movement that wants to see the country independent from Russia once again.
Georgia is recognized internationally, but the northern-central region of the country is home to a disputed territory called South Ossetia, which pledges allegiance to neighboring Russia. Neither Georgia nor much of the world recognizes it as a political entity, but South Ossetia remains the home base of a fierce separatist movement that seeks a partition from Georgia.
A recent article in RFI detailed the plight of the last Hmong people, who are still fighting the Vietnam War. Heavily recruited by the CIA due to their hatred of communism, the Hmong—a distinct, separate, and often-persecuted minority in Southeast Asia—were largely left to fend for themselves when Saigon fell. Scattered across Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, many of them—and now their posterity—are still fighting or hiding in the same jungles where they were originally recruited. For generations, the elusive goal has been to establish a separate Hmong homeland in Southeast Asia.
The Yazidi people have long been a persecuted minority in what was once Mesopotamia. Most recently, they were a main target for oppression, forced conversions, terrorism, theft, rape, and wholesale murder during the reign of ISIL. The non-Islamic sect have long called for an independent Yazidi homeland.
The Assamese people are a distinct and separate group living in Assam, a region of India situated along the Himalaya Mountains. The 1970s saw the rise of what is called Assamese sub-nationalism, a separatist philosophy that has spawned several secessionist groups who campaign for autonomy, or in some cases outright independence, from India.
In the heart of Ethiopia lies the Oromia region. According to Ethiopia Insight, the Oromo people have long been the target of persecution—from both their neighbors and the government—on the grounds of their ethnicity and because of traditions set by the ancient and complex clan system that has long established societal norms. In response, a breakaway campaign has gained momentum in Ethiopia.
Police and military forces in Kenya are cracking down on a breakaway group called the Mombasa Republican Council. Growing both in size and militancy, the Islamic organization is believed to be working with terror groups like al-Shabab to wrest control of the Mombasa region from Kenya and establish a land—and base of operations—of its own.