Bombs or Ballots?: how do separatist groups determine their strategy and why is it important for all of us?

by Andrea Malji

Originally, the goal of my article was to discuss ethno-nationalist, or separatist, terrorism and the potential threat to the aviation industry. My general attitude regarding separatists and aviation was that they did not pose a major threat to aviation, at least in the same way they pose a threat to ground transportation. On 17th July, the direction of this article began to change. Although most of us knew about the ongoing separatist conflict in the Ukraine, we became all too familiar with it as the tragic events of MH17 unfolded. The evidence thus far suggests that pro-Russian separatists in the Ukraine are responsible for the attack, although it seems to be accidental. Nonetheless, the way we think about aviation and separatism has inevitably changed.

This article is dedicated to the 298 lives lost aboard flight MH17 and all the other lives lost in separatist conflicts around the world.

There are active separatist groups on every inhabited continent, in other words, they are not a rare bunch. The separatist is often an ethnic, linguistic, or religious minority in the country and seeks independence or some form of autonomy. At times, the group seeks independence following some violence or discrimination against them by the state. On other occasions, these groups commence violence toward the state as a method of beginning their campaign. Outside of the zones of conflict, most people are unaware of most of these conflicts, or at least the specifics of it.

Conflicts outside of Western Europe or North America often fail to receive much attention because it generally does not affect “us”, the western developed world. This is unfortunate since these conflicts can affect “us”, even if the conflict doesn’t reach our front door. Unfortunately, a separatist conflict violently reached our collective front step on Thursday 17th July this year.

At 12:31 pm, 298 people boarded Malaysia Airlines flight 17 in Amsterdam heading to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Some of the passengers may have had some qualms about flying on Malaysia Airlines given the March disappearance of MH370. However, it is probably fair to assume most of the passengers and crew gave little thought to the separatist conflict in the Ukraine as they boarded. Many of the passengers may have followed the conflict closely, others may have read about it passively, perhaps some passengers had no idea about the conflict. But it is probably fair to assume that most of the passengers did not think the conflict in Donetsk would affect their day. Four hours into the flight, MH17 was hit with what appears to be a surface-to-air missile over the village of Hrabove in the Donestk region of Ukraine. All of the 298 people on board, including 80 children, perished.

MH17 was not the first plane targeted in eastern Ukraine. In fact, it was the third aircraft that week. Two other Ukrainian military planes had been destroyed mid-air in the previous week and four since June, but what makes MH17 different was the fact that it was civilian and that it was likely brought down by separatists. The shooting down of a commercial airline is not unprecedented; other commercial flights have faced a similar fate. Siberian Airlines flight 1812 was accidentally shot down in October 2001 by the Ukrainian military. Iran Air flight 655 was shot down by an American cruiser in 1988, and Korean Air flight 007 was destroyed by a Soviet fighter plane in 1983. There are other examples as well, dating all the way back to the 1950s.

 

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