This countdown list, of nations and peoples fighting for independence or just for their very existence, is selected on the basis of variety and interest. So while some may be pressing cases and deserving of the world's attention, others are untroubling or else irretrievable lost causes. Like, I'm afraid, my Number One stateless nation, down the bottom.
I thought I should start off the list with an example of a nation which is trying to do it politely. There are no terrorists/freedom fighters to speak of, unless you count the football supporters at Scotland-England matches. There is a Scottish National Party campaigning for full independence, but it seems as if most Scots are happy with the status quo, especially since some of the most visible symbols of the new Scotland, like the new Parliament, have been outrageous examples of scandalous overspending and mismanagement. The English are very fond of the Scots in a patronising sort of way, and have done very well out of Scotland's oil.
I'm not really sure what this should call itself. Or whether the people(s) concerned consider themselves distinct ethnically or politically. Chiapas is the most South-Eastern of Mexico's states, and does have a high proportion of Mexico's indigenous peoples, still retaining traditional culture to some extent. If you've heard of it, it's because of the activities of the political movement of these dispossessed peoples, fighting for their land and rights. I don't know how successful they will be, because all over Latin America the descendants of the Spanish have remained very much at the top of the social pyramid, and their armies and police have been as brutal as required to keep it that way. My feelings are mixed. The thing is, suppose those peoples and tribes unite and achieve some autonomy; how distinct will they be, culturally? They possess a myriad of languages, some related to those of the Aztecs and Mayans, some not at all. But between themselves, they use Spanish... shrug.
learn about Tibet, and about the Dalai Lama, you can't help but feel
a rising anger at what the Chinese got away with when they invaded in
the Fifties. Worse, really, is what they continue to do now, which is
cultural genocide. They have a programme of immigration designed to ensure that the Tibetans will become a minority in their
own land. Lhasa the capital is now a Han Chinese city, and expressions
of Tibetan culture and religion are oppressed and marginalised.
The Chinese despise Western attitudes like I've just given you. They argue that (1) Tibet was always part of China. No, it wasn't, it was a tributary state in medieval times, which is another thing entirely, and anyway, we're supposed to be against colonialism now, and you couldn't describe what China has done to Tibet in any other way. (2) The Chinese argue that Tibet was a primitive feudal land, and they are a modernising force. To be honest, this has some validity, when one looks at the existence of ordinary Tibetans from old accounts. However, nothing the Dalai Lama has said suggests anything other than that he is a man who would have gently led his people along a path into the modern world, if given the chance. The Tibetans had the right to choose for themselves, and not to have their identity obliterated forcefully.
I thought I should pick one of the difficult cases. Of a country it's very hard for most of us to sympathise with, after the incidents of shocking terrorism which have been perpetrated in the name of Chechnyan independence. It's natural to find it hard to witness what happened in that school, and balance it with the facts of history. But maybe we should, because history explains it. The Russians did invade and colonise, and Stalin even sent the whole Chechen population away into Central Asia for a while, but the Chechens have never given up their right to independence. It's awkward for us, because we in the West haven't wanted to alienate the Russians. If only they'd defined Chechnya as an S.S.R. like Georgia, Armenia etc., then there'd be no problem, Chechnya would have been out of their hair like all the rest back in the early 90s. But it was deemed an A.S.S.R. ie. 'part of Russia'. So for the Russians, letting Chechnya go would be to invite the dissolution of Russia itself. They're wrong, in my judgement, there are many reasons for seeing Chechnya as a very special case. But... oh yes, there's oil.
Where? Ah, you probably know this as Nagorno Karabagh. This is another example of the trouble caused by empires drawing arbitrary lines on the map. This flag (right) is the same as the flag of the Republic of Armenia, with the addition of the white detail. It emphasises the fact that here is an example of a pseudo state which actually doesn't want to be independent at all, but which can't openly unite with Armenia for political reasons. See how the flag distinguishes a separate segment of Armenia on the right hand side? It's an ethnically Armenian region, going right back into history, East of the official Republic of Armenia. It was always autonomous, but officially made part of Azerbaijan, to avoid antagonising the Turkic Azeris. When the Soviet Union started to unravel, they voted to join up with Armenia, resulting in carnage amongst Armenians living in Baku the Azeri capital. To be blunt, the Turks have not shaken off their hatred of the Armenians going back to their 1915 genocide of them. The Armenians have since fought to win the territory but this remains unrecognised by anyone. The Azeris have, yes, you guessed it, oil.
I'm afraid the Turks are going to be mentioned again in this one. For many, the Kurds would be Number One in this list, because they are famously the world's most numerous people without a state or homeland. Currently, the nearest thing they have to it is their autonomous region in Northern Iraq (and it's Iraq which shouldn't exist, it only came into being so Britain and France could protect their oil interests). And that could well be crushed when the Americans go, by the Turks and the Arabs. The Kurds did briefly create a 'state' 1920-ish, but they were the victims of a four-way carve up between Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. I did mention oil, didn't I?
At which all Americans are no doubt outraged. Well, we the British have some blame, as the Hawaiian state flag shows, with its inset Union flag. However, what the Americans did, at the height of their late 19th Century expansion into the Pacific, was nothing less than a land grabbing coup. The Hawaiians were politically weak. It's hard to imagine any independence now, most native Hawaiians can see they do quite well out of being Americans, but there has been some cultural revival, and one might imagine some future assertion of autonomy on one of the smaller Hawaiian islands... nah, maybe not.
To be honest, a major problem the Basques have is that people are probably bored with hearing about them. They have tried to make a comparison with the struggles of the I.R.A., but they don't have a Basque constituency working for them in other countries, and really, they are a different case. I think their main difficulty was that there never was a Basque nation state as such. But they have maintained their uniqueness to an impressive degree, if one looks back to how they remained apart from the Indo-European invasion which swamped all the other languages of prehistoric Europe. They have a fascinating history, for instance in the voyages of their fishermen. I can't help but feel sympathy for a group such as theirs, which has been on the receiving end of so much arrogance and oppression as displayed by Imperial and then Fascist Spain. Remember Guernica. And don't forget that a large chunk of their land is in France - yes, like the Kurds, they were the victims of a carve up.
The Karens are a people of Eastern and Southern Burma. This is a tale of imperialism, and I'm afraid another one for the British to feel shame faced about. Not that we ever gave the Karens a hard time, but as so often, we took them for granted - they gave important and loyal support to us in the war against Japan - and then we neglected them. They wanted some independence at the end of the war, but we ignored them and left them to the less than tender mercies of the Burmese. So what makes them different from many other tribal groups? Just that they maintained 'statehood' to a great degree for a very long time. They even had a properly uniformed army. What brought thewhole thing down, apart from the lack of support from anywhere else, was the discovery of, no, not oil, but gas, in the Southern panhandle. At last the Burmese Army had the motivation to go in in earnest. Any independent Karens now live a precarious existence in refugee camps on the Thai border. Even if Burma ever shakes off its present hideous military government, it's hard to imagine the Karens could now revive their national aspirations.
I bet this is the one most people reading this would draw the biggest blank on. Well, Araucania was the 19th Century name for the kingdom of the Mapuche people of South America. Their home territory is the Southern end of the Andes. They're interesting historically because unlike almost every other indigenous nation of the Americas they tried to do the nation state thing on our terms. They made a treaty with Spain in 1641. They declared a border, on the Bio Bio River in what is now Chile, held off the Spanish for a long time, and even copied the European habit of importing a royal family wholesale and setting up a court. Unfortunately the Spanish (by now, we're talking about the Chileans and the Argentinians) had never taken any native government seriously and weren't going to start now. They seized a military opportunity and quashed the would-be state in 1885. The entirely non-Mapuche Araucanian royal family swanned around the more decadent saloons of Europe for a generation or two until giving up the farce. These days, the Mapuche are working to recover some identity, but whether it'll be enough to stop their language and other crucial cultural characteristics from disappearing, I don't know. The Chileans aren't going to offer any encouragement.
Up right was the original 19th Century flag of Araucania. This (right) is the new Mapuche flag:-
And why are they the Number One in this particular list? Because of the poignancy of their situation. When one looks at the European conquest of the Americas, it's a bit miserable that none of the indigenous states and empires could assert themselves. Here was one which tried to do it in a way we'd recognise, and their failure exposes the lie we sold them about how to be 'civilised'. There isn't a single state in North or South America ruled by its indigenous peoples. And when globalisation smothers even their native tongues, we won't really notice will we?
There isn't actually any real right of self-determination at all, is there?
4 December 2004
I'm sure you realise that websites devoted to the causes of some of these forlorn hopes come and go like ghosts. You're best off doing a search, really. But, based on the last time I did that myself, and with no promises that these still exist, here are some to get you started:-