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The quest for national sovereignty

Lisa Hänel
December 11, 2019

Independence movements are gaining momentum in the Pacific. These areas are bound by a common history of colonialism, minority repression and a geopolitical tug-of-war.

Papua-Neuguinea Unabhängigkeits-Referendum in Bougainville
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Post Courier

Bougainville, an island of just 250,000 inhabitants, belongs to Papua New Guinea — but it may not be for long. The tiny Pacific island has held an independence referendumand, according to official results released Wednesday, Bougainville's residents have overwhelmingly backed the nonbinding vote. The results now require ratification from Papua New Guinea's Parliament.

While independence movements like those in Catalonia and Scotland have made headlines in Europe lately, independence referenda and movements are much more widespread in Oceania and the surrounding area today. East Timor, previously annexed by Indonesia, was the first country in the region to gain independence in the 21st century.

"There is one thing that unites all pacific island states: namely their colonial past," said Hermann Mückler, a professor of social and cultural anthropology at Vienna University. Some states, he added, were even colonized by more than one power. The Netherlands, Australia, Germany, Japan, Spain, Portugal, France and the US — there was hardly a powerful state that did not colonize parts of the southwestern Pacific.

Karte Ozeanien Inselstaaten EN

Pacific states remain dependent

To this day, Oceania remains of special geopolitical significance to global powers like the US and China. The US was keen on expanding its influence in this area especially during the Cold War era. These days, however, both the US and China are vying for power in this region, with Beijing seeking to win over Pacific island states with a lending splurge. Some of these states, however, recognize the self-governing island of Taiwan as an independent nation, even though Beijing considers it part of its territory. And this is a matter that China finds hard to stomach.

The Pacific region's colonial past and its geopolitical importance have caused conflicts and dependencies, as illustrated by the case of Chuuk State, one of the four states of the Federated States of Micronesia. Chuuk has a population of only 49,000 and has been striving for independence since 2015. Its referendum has been postponed again and again but is now planned for March 2020. Chuuk, however, depends on the millions of dollars the US pays to keep military bases there. If the island does become independent, the US will cease its payments.  

Mückler says apart from this, the region lacks economic independence. "All of these island states can barely exist on their own, they rely on money coming in mainly from Australia, the US and the EU — and most recently China," he said.

The reason for their reliance on foreign money is that they are in remote locations and have barely any natural resources. Any goods they do produce are too costly to sell due to the significant transport costs involved. And so effectively, these states remain reliant on large states even though the colonial era has passed.

Read more:Exiled West Papuan leader: 'A referendum is the only solution'

Suppressed minorities

Even so, many regions nevertheless yearn for independence. This has to do with the fact that many ethnic groups feel their rights are not being respected, which becomes clear in West Papua, the western half of the vast New Guinea island, an area that is rich in natural resources — particularly copper.

After the colonial era, West Papua became part of Indonesia, a Muslim majority country, which waged a violent campaign against the local, Christian minority. "A civil war has been raging there (over Papuan rights) for decades, but it has been largely overlooked by the global community,"  said Mückler.

The odds that Indonesia will grant the resource-rich area independence are very slim, he added. 

Protests in Papua over Indonesia
Papuans have protested against racism in Indonesia and demand more autonomyImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Burhan

What do independence movements have in common?

In Oceania, the combination of a colonial legacy, geopolitical interests and suppressed minorities has spawned numerous independence movements. Yet Mückler says this cannot be applied to understanding independence movements elsewhere in the world, as each is unique. Some emerge over current conflicts, while others date back to arbitrarily drawn borders in the colonial era, stretching back hundreds of years ago.     

Mückler says these Oceanic independence movements could "set an example" if they manage to strike a balance between respecting regional dependencies while also maintaining their cultural identity. But, he says, "Right now it does not look like they will achieve this."

"Many global independence movements exist for a good reason," Mückler said, but adds that these are also often hijacked by charismatic leaders with an ax to grind. This, he says, leads to old dependencies simply being replaced by new ones, without bringing the freedom and independence that supporters had hoped to see come to fruition. 

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