While humanitarian catastrophe in Burma’s Arakan or Rakhine State, the nuclear proliferation in North Korea and the risk of a nuclear war, earthquake in Mexico, and United Nations General Assembly stories dominated the headlines during these days, the referendum on independence in Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan Region are also capturing quite an attention and concern by international community, especially the concerned nation-states that are reluctant to accept the fact that new countries would be carved out of their existing territories with such actions.
Ethno-nationalism or the aspiration to rights of self-determination, including total independence, are not a new phenomenon that the international community has to deal with, but has been there for many decades, especially in the aftermath of the Second World War.
In today’s BBC report “Reality Check: Do referendums bring about change?”, it wrote:
“With controversial independence votes in Iraqi Kurdistan and Catalonia in Spain, some are hoping that the ballot box might create new countries.
The trouble is, history has shown that in only half of the cases where people have voted for independence, did they get it without violence.
Independence referendums are even more likely to pass. Since the early 1800s there have been 54 independence votes, of which 43 have passed.
Of those, peaceful independence followed in 22 of them, while in the rest independence either did not happen or did occur after a period of violence.”
According to Matt Qvortrup in his research piece titled, “The History of Ethno-National Referendums 1791–2011”, he wrote:
“There have been 157 ethno-national referendums since the Second World War. Thirty-four of these were held between 1989 and 1993 and were all more or less direct consequence of the fall of communism. That such momentous events shake the political kaleidoscope is not surprising, nor, perhaps, is it surprising that the developments left their mark on legal practice. There is a bit of a sea change in the new doctrine adopted after 1989. As Matthew Craven has observed, “Of the new states that were to emerge in the 1990s … most held plebiscites or national polls by way of authorization.”
But cautioned that not all the ethno-national referendums held after 1989 are related to the end of the Cold War. The referendums in Canada in 1992 and in Quebec in 1995 are a result of an internal dynamic, and the same is true for the polls held in St. Kitts and Nevis in 1998 and the plebiscite in Burundi in 2005.
He further pinpoints the fact that democracy and rights of self-determination goes hand in hand as follows:
“The history of ethnic and national referendums started in the wake of the French Revolution. Nationalism and self-determination went hand in hand, and this was resolved through referendums. E. H. Carr, the British historian and theorist of international relations, observed correctly that self-determination and democracy went hand in hand. Self-determination might indeed be regarded as implicit in the idea of democracy; of if every man’s right is recognized to be consulted about the affairs of the political unit to which he belongs, he may be assumed to have an equal right to be consulted about the form and extend of the unit.”
Also touching on the issue of “Independence Referendum”, Wikipedia has collected data, which are highly interesting.
Accordingly, from the period between 1990 to 2014, there have been 26 independence referendums, which mostly gained independence, with some achieving de facto independent status.
In 2014, the Scottish and Catalan independence referendums were held, where the Scottish voted for better together or no to the independence camp won with 55.3% and the in the Catalan case, the pro-independence camp prevail with 80,8% over the naysayers.
Catalonia will vote again on independence referendum soon for the second time on October 1 and Iraqi Kurdistan has just voted for it on September 25 for the first time.
Catalonia and Kurdistan independence referendum are not legally endorsed or agreed by the concerned government. But New Caledonia and Bougainvillea referendums, which are to be held in 2018 and 2019 receptively, are officially recognized by their respective government.
But first let us have a brief look on independence referendum of Catalonia and Kurdistan before we make some comparable assessment on how this kind of controversial issue that also concerned Burma could be and should be applied beneficially.
After the successful yes vote of over 80% gathered by the pro-independence camp in 2014 referendum, which was symbolic and also not accepted by the Spanish government, Catalonia is going ahead with the second referendum despite prohibition and lack of recognition from Madrid, it is understood the ruling parties in the Catalonia region will declare independence from Spain within 48 hours of a promised referendum on October 1, if voters say “yes”, according to various media reports.
Facts crucial to understand the present situation are compiled from various media sources as below.
As it is, the position between the Spanish government and Catalonia regional government has hardened with neither side backing down. For now it is hard to predict whether the referendum will take place or not.
The independence referendum has been carried out on September 25, in the Kurdish controlled territory of Iraq governed by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
According to Rudaw Media Network which is a Kurdish media specializing in news and information about Kurdistan and the Middle East, Kurdistan’s independence referendum is explained as below, including its historical context, in its September 25 report.
By all available indications, an overwhelming yes vote for independence would be the outcome, even though the final outcome result would be made known within 72 hours. But the outright independence declaration would not take place immediately due to various factors.
According to Rudaw Media Network, the election commission announced that voter turnout was 72.16%, of which out of 4,581,255 eligible voters, 3,305,925 have cast the ballots, Shirwan Zirar, commission spokesperson said in a press conference on Monday 25 September evening.
Understandably the Iraqi government officially opposes the referendum, deeming it unconstitutional and therefore illegal. The Iraqi parliament has voted to reject the referendum and the Supreme Court has issued an interim ruling to suspend the vote.
Iran and Turkey both opposed to the referendum, while most nations, led by the United States, have asked Kurdistan to postpone the vote until at least after the Iraqi elections due to be held in 2018. The US and others worry the referendum may distract from the war against terrorism, specifically ISIS, and may lead to further destabilization in Iraq. They have encouraged dialogue between Kurdistan and Iraq.
Only Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come out in support of the vote.
The Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government delivered remarks after voting in Monday’s independence referendum.
“Today is a historic day. Our message on this day is: The people of Kurdistan with all of its components who live here want to peacefully and democratically express their opinion about their future, and how it should look like,” said PM Nechirvan Barzani.
He reiterated that independence is a process and it will not be declared tomorrow.
“What we see today in the Kurdistan Region, as part of the voting process for independence referendum, is not to declare the independence of Kurdistan the following day,” said the PM.
The central government in believes the vote to be “unconstitutional” and regional countries have said it threatens the unity of Iraq.
“It is not to draw the borders of Kurdistan through this referendum either,” Barzani retorted.
“These two issues are of great importance for our neighbors and Baghdad to understand. We only want to show the will of our people to the world — that we want to walk towards independence through a serious process and democratic negotiation with Baghdad,” Barzani said.
Erbil has maintained that the current arrangement that they committed to with Baghdad is not working, according to Rudaw Media Network.
At this writing it is not sure if the referendum in Catalonia would take place, given that Madrid is going to do everything to block it. It is thus likely that the referendum might be conducted clandestinely that could call into question the final vote count as it would be hard to have independent observers monitoring the process.
The voting in Iraq Kurdistan as expected will be overwhelmingly yes, but would stop short of declaring independence so as not to upset a lot of stakeholders in the region and beyond.
The glaring point that could be observed in both cases is that the demand for rights of self-determination of non-state nations remains very much part of the unresolved, ongoing international issue that has to be tackled.
Catalonia’s national identity has been suppressed for hundreds of years and continues to be the main focal point of the Catalan achieving their goal of statehood and likewise, the Iraqi Kurdish aspiration for nationhood, with a place to call a country of their own, is stronger than ever after decades-long suppression by successive Iraqi governments.
To sum up, firstly, the rights of self-determination for non-state nations and ethnic groups is very much alive and the tendency is increasing, rather than decreasing. Secondly, if the count of ethno-national referendums, specifically, the independence referendum, are of any indication, the non-state nations and ethnic groups will continue to exercise and struggle for their rights of self-determination, if given a chance. If not, or suppressed, open conflicts would flare up and continue to be the order of the day. Thirdly, all ethno-national referendums are not only striving for secession and many will be happy to practice harmonious, peaceful co-habitation, if there would be a proper give-and-take, power-sharing mechanism, like genuine federal union, confederation arrangement and the likes for example.
Last but not least, the Burmese government should learn from all these episodes that by merely pressuring the other ethnic groups to refrain from leaving the union coercively is no guarantee that they won’t exercise their rights of self-determination in the future, as the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, after hundreds of years living with England, has explicitly shown. In addition to the recent Catalan and Kurdish recent referendum cases, the upcoming ones in New Caledonia and Bougainvillea will be held in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
In fact, Burma is fortunate that it is placed in a better position, as all ethnic nationalities are not demanding secession or total independence any more like in the past for various reasons but only the establishment of a federal union anchored in equality, right of self-determination and democracy.
And the best way for the powers that be in Naypyitaw would be to make use of the existing voluntary participation mode of the non-Burman ethnic nationalities and try to grasp the existing opportunity and cement it by being fair and equal to all the other ethnic groups, in power-sharing and resources-sharing through political negotiation and settlement. If not, the present armed conflict stalemate would go on and perhaps the conflagration might as well set in, when either side of the conflict parties would opt for a higher stake like only military solution, instead of political means, for any reason.
It is actually an appropriate time, at this juncture of rising rights of self-determination demand, to rethink on how the ongoing peace process stagnation could be overcome.
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