LONDON — When Catalans voted for independence 10 days ago, Scottish independence activist Math Campbell-Sturgess traveled to Spain to observe the voting process, which was marred by thuggish attacks by police trying to shut down the disputed referendum.
Campbell-Sturgess said the struggle in Catalonia may heighten interest in independence for Scotland, where a movement to split from Britain narrowly lost in a 2014 referendum.
“I do think it will push the idea of independence for Scotland further up the agenda a little more and put it in the forefront of more people’s minds,” he said. “People in Scotland are watching what is happening in Catalonia with interest.”
The unpredictable events in Catalonia – where independence from Spain has been declared but put on hold – are watched closely in other parts of the world where secessionist movements seek to challenge long-established national boundaries.
A look at some independence movements worldwide:
Fervor for independence has cooled since the referendum defeat in 2014, but First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her Scottish National Party say they remain committed to the cause.
Sturgeon had called for a second independence referendum to be held by early 2019, but she put that on hold in June after her party lost a substantial number of seats in Parliament in the national election.
Gordon McIntyre Kemp, leader of the pro-independence group Business for Scotland, said events in Catalonia and Scotland are part of a global movement toward the decentralization of power.
He believes the rapid growth of information technology has spurred the trend, making it much easier for people to exchange views and influence the democratic process.
“There’s about 100 independence movements around the world,” he said. “It’s part of an overall global trend of people wanting to take control of their communities and their lives at a more local level. Scotland and Catalonia are ahead of the curve.”
In France, some fear the Catalan declaration of independence could trigger similar claims from leaders of the Corsican separatist movement, who have long wanted to cut ties between their Mediterranean island and mainland France.
But Jean-Guy Talamoni, head of Corsica’s local assembly, said the island is far behind Catalonia on the road to self-determination. Corsica doesn’t enjoy the high degree of autonomy or flourishing economy that Catalonia already boasts, he said. He believed Corsican independence will not be on the agenda for at least another decade.
For the French government, the more pressing separatist danger comes from the Pacific island of New Caledonia, a French territory set to take part in an independence referendum by the end of 2018, despite fears that the vote could strengthen divisions between the indigenous “Kanaks” and the “Caldoches”, the descendants of French settlers.
The territory east of Australia has been listed for decolonization by the United Nations and has enjoyed strong autonomy for many years, with a legislative assembly and a local government with executive powers.
French President Emmanuel Macron said before he won the recent election that he would prefer the island to remain “within the national community” but that France would respect the voters’ decision – giving the planned referendum the legitimacy that Catalans have sought in vain.
The Kurdish Region
The standoff in Catalonia bears some resemblance to the unfolding situation in Iraq’s Kurdish region, which voted for independence in a non-binding referendum one week earlier. The result, while hardly surprising, jolted Iraqi politics, and the aftershocks are still being felt in Baghdad, the Kurdish capital Irbil and in neighboring Turkey and Iran.
The central government in Baghdad immediately demanded the Kurdish regional government disavow the results.
It has so far refused, while Baghdad is steadily escalating the cost of intransigence. First the federal government prohibited international flights to and from Kurdish airports. Then it demanded Kurdish-based network providers relocate their headquarters to Baghdad. And on Tuesday it ordered the restoration of an offline oil pipeline to ship oil from the disputed city of Kirkuk directly to Turkey, bypassing the Kurdish region.
Turkey and Iran, normally boasting of their friendly ties with Iraq’s Kurdish region, have both threatened to invade if the Kurds declare independence. They are clearly afraid independence will fuel Kurdish separatist movements inside their own borders.
Turkey has threatened to halt its oil imports, a form of economic retaliation that could jeopardize a key source of revenue for the landlocked Kurdish region.
The Kurdish region’s position is tenuous. Its neighbors are aligned against it, and Kurdish President Masoud Barzani has yet to indicate he will declare independence – he seems intent on taking the result to Baghdad to demand a better deal for his region. But he may not have anticipated the scope of the backlash the movement has provoked.
In Southeast Asia, notable separatist movements have been able to force governments to the negotiating table and secure significant autonomy for their regions by waging relentless armed insurgencies.
The Acehnese in Indonesia battled state security forces for decades – former fighters now occupy leading positions in their region’s government, holding sway over all areas except defense and foreign affairs.
Rebels in Muslim-majority provinces in the southern Philippines secured a peace agreement with the central government in 2014, and gained greater autonomy following decades of rebellion, though the arrangement is still to be ratified by the country’s Senate.
The international attention generated by Catalonia’s independence movement is widely envied by those yearning for autonomy in other simmering but low-profile separatist movements in Southeast Asia, including the ethnic Muslim Malays in southern Thailand, and indigenous Melanesians in Indonesia’s easternmost provinces of West Papua and Papua.
Story: Gregory Katz