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Friends or Foes? Cohesion and Fragmentation in Self-Determination Movements

When we think about self-determination movements, we tend to envision them as cohesive, unitary actors with a single goal: achieving greater autonomy or independence from their ‘parent’ state. Indeed, this image is often promoted by the movements themselves, as their demand for the right to self-determination largely relies upon claims of unity and a homogeneity of interests among their members. In practice, however, this image of internal cohesion can turn out to be a rather superficial one. While some self-determination movements do unitedly pursue their ultimate goal of statehood, many others consist of multiple factions that are embroiled in competition or even violent conflict with one another.

Indeed, we find divided self-determination movements across space and time: examples include the Chechens in Russia, the Southerners in Sudan, and the Tamils in Sri Lanka.The fact that divided movements are thus not anomalies is rather puzzling, as one would expect them – even more so than other kinds of rebel or insurgent groups that fight a common enemy – to be united in their efforts. Apart from their struggle against their parent state, they need to convince both their own population and the international community that they are a viable alternative to the incumbent state. The chances of meeting this dual challenge of both controlling and governing the territory they lay claim to are expected to be seriously hampered when valuable time and resources are wasted on internal rivalries.

Why is it, then, that some self-determination movements remain united while others fragment into competing factions? Bringing together the research strands on rebel governance and fragmentation, my PhD project  investigates the ways in which a movement’s interaction with its constituency, its external sponsor(s), and the incumbent state affect its unity; as well as how the movement’s creation of internal governing structures can manage these interactions. Identifying the factors that help avoid internal conflict, this project will improve our understanding of civil wars and facilitate their prevention.