Falkland Islands Referendum: Will The Sun Ever Set On The British Empire?

 @Gooch700 on March 08 2013 11:04 AM
Falkland Islands
Falkland Islands Reuters

More than three decades after Britain and Argentina fought a brief war over a remote archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean, the residents of the Falklands Islands are preparing to vote in a referendum on their wish to remain British … or not.

Located more than 6,000 miles from the United Kingdom, the Falklands have long been claimed by Argentina, which stubbornly called the piece of real estate "Las Malvinas."

Specifically, in a vote scheduled for Sunday and Monday, 1,672 eligible voters, out of a total population of 2,563, will be asked if they want the Falklands to remain a British Overseas Territory.

Much of the world may laugh at the idea of Britain seeking to hold onto the tiny remnants of its once glorious global empire, but this is no joke to Argentina, which has both condemned the referendum and dismissed it as irrelevant.

Nor is it a joke that almost 1,000 people were killed in the 1982 war over the islands.

Indeed, the BBC reported that the Argentines have sought to cripple the tourism industry that is so vital to the Falklands economy by, among other things, prohibiting Falklands-registered vessels from docking at Argentine ports and threatening other ships that have stopped at the Falklands.

Hattie Kilmartin, a Falklands resident, told the BBC why the referendum is important. "We want to get the Falkland Island people's voice out there in the whole wide world, because that's something Argentina don't want us to have. I hope just that we'll get more support … in getting people to understand this is really truly how we feel and how we want to live our lives. We are British, and proud to be British."

The current president of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, has repeatedly claimed sovereignty over the Falklands, while Buenos Aires foreign minister Héctor Timerman characterized the referendum as bogus.

"The Falkland Islanders do not exist,” said Timerman. “What exists is British citizens who live in the Islas Malvinas."

Argentine officials have called for negotiations with the British over the sovereignty issue of the Falklands – something London has steadfastly refused to enter into.

To the British government, the referendum, which is actually a foregone conclusion since all reports indicate that the Falklanders overwhelmingly wish to remain British, appears to be a symbolic gesture and a kind of reaffirmation.

Nigel Haywood, the current Governor of the Falkland Islands, explained to BBC, "It's not a referendum so the Falkland Islanders know what they think -- it's pretty clear what they think. But there are parts of the world that have been subject to Argentine propaganda, if you like, who just don't know what the situation is like here … This will give them [Argentina] a very clear answer, so they understand this is the islanders exercising their right to self-determination, and that this is what they decided."

Victoria Honeyman, a lecturer on British politics at the University of Leeds in England, said the British people “care very much” about the Falklands.

“Not necessarily because of the relative importance of the islands, but because the citizens of the islands are, as far as we know, very passionately committed to remain part of the British Empire” she said.

“While the people of the Falklands wish to remain 'British', Britain will support them in their wishes. The referendum should confirm the wishes of the islanders, and Britain will support their wishes.”

Honeyman noted that the Argentines aren't committed to respect the referendum result as they dispute the right of the islanders to be there in the first place.

Indeed, Argentina has claimed that the current residents of the Falklands represent an “implanted population,” while also charging that the British military expelled a civilian population on the islands in 1833 when they took them over. In response, the Falkland Islands government assert that the islands have no indigenous population – it was unoccupied prior to 1833 and no “expulsion” ever occurred.

Indeed, the Falklanders repeatedly declare that they are "British."

“As a war has already been fought over the Falklands and the Argentine claims to the islands, the British people are very attached to the islands,” Honeyman added.

“The British people also take very deep offense to the accusation of 'colonialism'. The claims of the Argentines date back to Empire days themselves, and this coupled with the wishes of the Falkland Islanders means this is an extremely serious issue in Britain.”

However, Federico Lorenz, an Argentine historian, believes the conflict in the Falklands is somewhat contrived and cynically designed to benefit politicians in both London and Buenos Aires.

"Both governments use the Malvinas/Falklands issue,” he told the BBC.

“It is not a coincidence that at a time in which economic crisis is reaching Europe and Latin America, the UK backs a referendum and at the same time in Argentina, we raise the flag of the islands that we haven't raised in years.”

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has said of the referendum, "I have always said it is up to the Falkland Islanders themselves to choose whether they want to be British and that the world should listen to their views."

Even if the referendum passes (which it will certainly do), Argentina is unlikely to give up its claims.

Jan Cheek, a member of Legislative Assembly in the Falklands and a sixth-generation Falkland Islander, told Agence France Presse: “We would be deluding ourselves if we thought that Argentina would change overnight, but we hope it'll be a strong message to them and to others.”

There may also be something else afoot in this endless tug of war between Argentina and Britain – the possibility of significant oil and gas reserves around the Falklands.

Last year, Borders& Southern Petroleum plc (LON: BOR), a British-based energy company which holds a 100 percent interest in three properties south of the Falklands, said it made a “significant' discovery of gas condensate” at one of its wells -- the first such hydrocarbon find south of the islands.

The company said it estimated that up to 210-million barrels of the liquid would be recovered from the site.

Two years ago, a company called Rockhopper Exploration plc (LON: RKH) discovered oil reserves north of the Falklands.

The Falklands is one of the fourteen remaining British Overseas territories – it is self-governing, although dependent on Britain for defense and foreign affairs..

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