9 Modern-Day Independence Movements
by Jeff Fleischer
You've heard all about Palestine and Tibet, Quebec and Chechnya. But those aren't the only places that want to be sovereign. Here are 9 more would-be countries looking forward to paying U.N. dues.
1. Saving up for Independence: Greenland
Like a recent college graduate, Greenland wants to be on its own but just can't afford it yet. Denmark took control of the ice-capped landmass in 1721 and has been gently nudging it out the door for decades. In 1953, the Danes upgraded Greenland from a colony to an overseas county and gave it representation in parliament. And in 1979, they backed off even further, handling little more than Greenland's foreign policy and defense. Yet, Denmark still pays about half of Greenland's domestic budget, at a cost of about $650 million annually. Polls in Denmark show that the majority of the population supports the idea of letting Greenland's 57,000 inhabitants vote for independence. In other words, Greenland can be free if it wants.
Strangely, global warming may give Greenland the financial boost it needs to leave Denmark. As Arctic ice melts, the island's natural resources will become more accessible. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that Greenland's northeast coast alone could produce more than 30 billion barrels of oil, and a few major oil companies have already bought permits to explore the land. The mining of gold, zinc, and other minerals is on the rise, too. Last year, aluminum giant Alcoa announced its intention to build the world's second-biggest smelter there. Plus, Greenland is investigating how to use the melting ice to expand its hydroelectric power industry. If it all adds up, Greenland may be moving away from the motherland sooner than it thought.
2. Cold Feet: Alaska
For decades, a well-organized separatist movement has campaigned to turn America's largest state into its own nation. The bitterness dates back to 1958, when Alaska's citizens were given a simple yes-or-no vote on statehood. Many Alaskans felt they were denied more options on the issue, prompting a land developer named Joe Vogler to organize a re-vote that would offer Alaskans four possibilities—remain a territory, become a state, take commonwealth status, or become a separate nation.
Using the vote as his platform, Vogler ran for governor in 1974—and soon made a habit of it. With colorful slogans such as, "I'm an Alaskan, not an American. I've got no use for America or her damned institutions," Vogler spearheaded the Alaskan Independence Party (AIP), and his campaign has twice topped 5 percent of the vote. More surprisingly, former U.S. interior secretary Wally Hickel got elected governor on the AIP ticket in 1990. Unfortunately for the party, Hickel only ran on the ticket because he lost the Republican primary. Never a supporter of the plebiscite idea, Hickel left the AIP and rejoined the Republicans in 1994.
Today, the AIP continues to draw about 4 percent of voters statewide. And in 2006, Alaska took part in the first-ever North American Secessionist Convention, joining other groups from Vermont, Hawaii, and the South. As for Vogler, he was murdered in 1993—reportedly the result of an argument over a business deal. On a brighter note, honoring his wish to never be buried in U.S. soil, Vogler was laid to rest in Canada's Yukon Territory.
3. One Man is an Island: Sealand
If the existence of Sealand proves anything, it's that one country's trash can be another man's treasure. After World War II, Great Britain abandoned a series of military bases off its eastern coast. Seeing potential in one of the empty forts, former Major Roy Bates decided to claim it for his family. Then in 1966, he dubbed the island Sealand and declared independence. The following year, he fired warning shots at British naval vessels that dared to breach his waters.
When the British government brought Bates to court following the incident, they found they couldn't arrest him. Sealand was in international waters, just far enough off the coast to fall outside of British jurisdiction, so the island effectively got its sovereignty. But that was hardly the last time Bates had to fight for Sealand. In 1978, while Bates was abroad in Britain, a group of Dutch businessmen came to the island to supposedly discuss a deal. Instead, they kidnapped Bates' son and captured the fort. Naturally, Bates returned with a small army, fought the invaders, imprisoned them, and negotiated their release with their home country.
4. Wheat Power: Australia's Hutt River Province
For an island-continent, Australia has had a hard time keeping its people unified. The Northern Territory never opted for official statehood, and the state of Western Australia tried to secede in the 1930s. In fact, a slice of Western Australia is still trying to go it alone.
The area belongs to a wheat farmer named Leonard Casley, who claims his farm is its own nation. In the 1960s, Casley disagreed with Australia's policy on wheat-production quotas, and his legitimate complaint soon devolved into madness. On April 21, 1970, Casley declared his 29-square-mile wheat farm an "independent sovereign state" and named it the Hutt River Province.
Since declaring independence, Casley has dubbed himself Prince Leonard of Hutt and his wife Princess Shirley. Stranger still, he prints his own stamps and periodically publishes a newspaper online, called The Hutt River Independence, filled with "national" news. He even gives out visas and stamps passports.
Unfortunately for Casley, the Australian government hasn't taken his secession seriously. In 1997, he became so offended by Australia's dismissive position that he declared war on the motherland. To date, Casley has successfully defended his territory—mainly because the enemy has never bothered to invade.
5. Buyer's Remorse: Somaliland
Depending on whom you ask, Somaliland has been independent since 1991. The United Nations and African Union, however, have refused to recognize the largely stable and self-governing region because they still consider it part of chaotic Somalia. So, why the confusion?
The situation dates back to 1960, when the colonies of British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland became independent and then joined forces to form the Republic of Somalia. But buyer's remorse set in rather quickly for the British region, as the Italian portion assumed most of the power. In a few short years, Somalia saw a presidential assassination, a military coup, and a civil war. By 1991, the situation had become so desperate that Somalia's central Mogadishu government finally collapsed. In the ensuing chaos, a group of human rights activists called the Somali National Movement took control of the formerly British portion and declared independence as Somaliland. Since then, the region has governed itself through a series of democratic elections, while the rest of Somalia has been in constant upheaval.
After 17 years of pseudo-independence, there is hope for recognition. Organizations such as the International Crisis Group have urged the African Union to give Somaliland sovereignty, and in 2007, one Rwandan official even seemed open to the idea. Perhaps the fact that Somaliland doesn't need to worry about disturbances from the rest of Somalia bolsters its case. The current president of Somalia, Abdullahi Yusuf, says that he won't bother Somaliland until he "successfully restores peace and security to Somalia." Unfortunately, that could take a while.
6. Between a Rock and Hard Place: Gibraltar
Great Britain officially acquired Gibraltar from Spain in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, and Spain has been trying to get it back ever since.
The truth is, Britain would love to grant independence to the 2.5-square-mile island, but there's a catch. According to the treaty, Spain gets the territory should Britain ever relinquish it. And the people of Gibraltar don't want that. In 1967, Gibraltar's citizens voted on which country they'd rather belong to. With a 96 percent voter turn-out, they favored Britain over Spain 12,138 to 44. Of course, Spain didn't take kindly to the decision and closed its border with Gibraltar, cutting it off from Europe by land for 16 years.
More recently, talks between Spain, Britain, and Gibraltar produced a 2006 agreement in which Spain agreed to ease its customs process and restrictions on air traffic. And in 2007, a new constitution gave Gibraltar greater autonomy under the crown, setting aside the Utrecht fight for another day.
7. Not-So Syrupy Sweet: Vermont
Alaska isn't the only state that yearns to break away. In Vermont, a group called The Second Vermont Republic wants the state to return to independence. After all, Vermont was a republic from 1777 to 1791, when it became the 14th state in the nation.
The guiding principles of the Second Vermont Republic are generally progressive, with a focus on equality, green energy, sustainable agriculture, and strong local government. While most people in Vermont endorse these values, secession has been a tough sell. Still, the state independence movement is gaining ground, and one poll estimates that 13 percent of the populace supports the idea. Of course, the state's disenchantment with current American politics may have something to do with those high numbers. In March 2008, two Vermont towns voted to arrest President Bush and Vice President Cheney should they ever show their faces there. [Image courtesy of VermontRepublic.org.]
8. Chile Conditions: Easter Island
Positioned about halfway between Tahiti and Chile, Easter Island is the most geographically isolated spot on Earth. Yet, its motherland of Chile has still managed to erode the island's native Polynesian culture from 2,300 miles away.
In 1888, Chile annexed the island that Polynesians call Rapa Nui. Before long, the Chilean government had turned most of the land over to sheep herders and relocated many of the Rapanui people to the western edge of the island. Then, under the rule of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the native Polynesian language was banned until 1987. The results were effective. Today, more than one-third of the island's people are transplants from Chile, and most schools and media outlets use Spanish.
Fed up with the bullying, native Alfonso Rapu led an armed rebellion in 1965 to force Chile to return some of the land to the Rapanui. Fearing international attention, Chile relented, and Easter Island was allowed its own democratic elections. Rapu's brother Sergio became the first indigenous governor in 1984 and helped restore native culture, including the moai (the giant stone statues the island is famous for). Today, a Rapa Nui Parliament on the island pushes for decolonization and bilingual education. But with Chile still ruling supreme from two time zones away, that independence may take a while.
9. The Slow Stroll Toward Independence: Aruba
Considering Aruba's laid-back image, it's fitting that the island's march toward independence has been more of a stroll.
Aruba is in the Lesser Antilles island group off the northern coast of Venezuela. The Netherlands control other nearby islands, but the Dutch largely leave them alone. While Aruba hasn't had problems with the Netherlands, it's had embittered relations with many of the other islands—particularly with CuraÃ§ao, one of the more populous and more powerful islands in the chain. In the 1940s, Aruba began to distinguish itself from the rest of the Netherlands Antilles. By 1976, it had a new flag and a new national anthem. The following year, more than 80 percent of Arubans voted in favor of independence, which the Netherlands granted to them in 1986. The catch? Aruba would be cut off from Dutch funding within 10 years.
As planned, the Aruba Island Council passed laws allowing for secession, with full independence to follow a decade later. But as the deadline approached, the island's economic reality and lack of natural resources quickly dawned on Aruban leadership. Sheepishly, Aruba asked the Netherlands to postpone independence. For now, the island continues to hold the same complicated status it adopted in 1986.