Pathway to Independence: Local, National, and International Dynamics of Civil War and Secession

Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science

First Advisor

Wood, Elisabeth


Secessionism is prevalent across much of the globe, but achieving independence is rare. Often, secessionist and counter-secessionist mobilization can escalate to violent confrontation, including protracted civil wars that are deadly, destabilizing, and difficult to mediate. Under what conditions do secessionist civil wars result in the creation and recognition of independent states? Why do some secessionist conflicts end in independence while others do not? How do local, national, and international dynamics of secessionist and counter-secessionist mobilization shape the outcome of those processes? These questions are undertheorized in extant literature and motivate this dissertation. Building on insights from comparative politics, international relations, and international law, this study shows that secession is a contingent and conjunctural phenomenon. I argue it is the ability of secessionist movements to mobilize and maintain both local and international support that chiefly explains why some secessionist civil wars result in the creation and recognition of independent states while others do not. I identify five conditions necessary for local and international support and, therefore, to the outcome of independence in secessionist civil wars. These are a strong and sustained popular preference for independence in the contested territory; nonviolent grassroots mobilization by secessionist organizations; regional and international diplomacy by secessionist leaders; restraint in civilian targeting by secessionist rebels; and mass ethnic cleansing against the secessionist population by the incumbent state. Though all necessary, I further contend that these five conditions are insufficient unless combined with a sixth condition, either an internationally-mediated settlement or an armed international intervention to enable independence. Departing from studies that only examine domestic or international factors, I offer an integrated analysis of local, national, and international dynamics in a single theory. This study is based on a combination of research methods. I conduct four case studies on East Timor, Kosovo, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar by drawing on a range of data including interviews, observations, and archival records to trace the evolution of conflict processes. I also assess my argument by leveraging qualitative comparative analysis for a cross-national examination of all secessionist civil wars since 1946. My findings are relevant to the study of social movements, rebel diplomacy and governance, patterns of violence and civilian targeting, state sovereignty, and foreign intervention. This research also has the potential to inform policy on the prevention and resolution of secessionist conflicts, the mitigation of humanitarian disasters arising from them, and the representation and recognition of marginalized populations who seek self-determination.

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