Archive Article: How Many Countries Are There?
December 29, 2008

East Timor has now been welcomed into the international community. This is the first country of the new millennium. How many other new countries we will see in the coming years?

On the day East Timor came into existence I was interviewed by a radio station that wanted to know how many countries there are. The answer is not all that clear. The United Nations has a membership of 191 countries (including both East Timor and Switzerland, its two latest members).

But there are many other potential countries. The Palestinians obviously hope that eventually they will be able to form their own country and be separate from Israel. The Dalai Lama has been touring this country and there are some people who have argued that Tibet should be independent of Chinese control. Meanwhile, Taiwan is a thriving country but many countries do not recognize it as an independent country and it is not in the UN in its own right. Some people in Chechnya would like to break away from Russia (indeed Osama bin Laden was at some point a few years ago briefly involved in supporting their struggle)

Another long-running issue concerns Kurdistan. There are about 25 million Kurds. They are Muslims. Their territory sprawls across eastern Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. They claim that after the break up of the Turkish/ Ottoman empire after World War I, they were promised their own homeland but the British and French did not honour their promise. They still not have their own homeland and they are repressed in the countries in which they are located.

The list could go on. Some of the Muslim Uighurs in China’s western Xinjiang province would like independence from the distant Beijing. At the eastern end of Russia, ten time zones from Moscow, there are some people who believe that Siberia could be better off running itself. Most of the countries in Africa have some tribal groups that would like to break away from their national government.

But, then, Australia has also had the same issue. In the 1930s, a majority of West Australians voted to leave the Commonwealth of Australia (they were not very keen on its inclusion in the first place). That initiative ended in the House of Lords just prior to World War II. Some West Australians still long for independence.

What can be said about this trend? First, the trend towards the break up of countries will continue. I have already given some examples to watch out for.

Second, there are very few instances of independent countries coming together to form a lasting union. It is much easier to break up an existing country than to get two countries to come together.

Third, the break up is almost always accompanied by violence. For example, the 20th Century began with a war in the Balkans and it ended with one. Five countries emerged from the break up of Yugoslavia. We have just buried the Last ANZAC. It is worth remembering that the flashpoint for World War I was also in the Balkans – at Sarajevo (in present day Bosnia).

Unfortunately given the state of world affairs, there will be other calls on Australian military and civilian personnel in the years to come as other countries break up.

Broadcast On Friday 24th May 2002 On Radio 2GB’s “Brian Wilshire Programme” At 9pm And On 26th May 2002 On “Sunday Night Live” At 10.30pm