A Slippery Slope: The Domestic Diffusion of Ethnic Civil War

The vast majority of civil wars occurs in a small number of countries. Our study of multiethnic states of the post-World War II era explains how one intrastate conflict may trigger additional ethnic rebellions in the same country. States such as Burma, Ethiopia, India, and Sudan are sad examples of this dynamic. More concretely, we outline the motivational and opportunistic consequences that one civil war has on potential ethnic challengers.
On the motivation side, ongoing fighting may cause collateral damage among nearby but previously neutral groups. In turn, members of the peaceful ethnic group get upset about state violence and decide to take up arms to defend themselves. Our second motivational mechanism argues that an ongoing civil war encourages already disaffected groups to take up rebellion as a strategy. Other groups' rebellions provie the blueprint how to overcome dissatisfaction with preexisting political discrimination by the state.
With respect to opportunity, we argue that ongoing civil wars can provide important signals on the government's fighting ability. If the government is strong it will crush any rebellion quickly. If it fails to defeat an active rebel organization, other ethnic groups perceive the government as weak and see their chance to gain concessions. A similar dynamic is at play, when the government fights multiple challengers at the same time. In both scenarios, longer and a larger number of civil wars, governments experience a significant drain on their resources due to running military costs. This makes it possible for additional ethnic challenger that were too weak to confront the government alone to join the fray.
To sum up, governments that decide to violently confront rebel movements rather than giving in to their demands enter a slippery slope that may lead to even more civil wars. Why then do governments fight rebels rather than accommodate them? Previous studies show that giving in to rebel demands also makes governments appear weak and potentially triggers additional challenges. Future research will have to uncover the exact conditions under which governments prefer one risk over the other.
Our study adds to the previous understanding of the conflict trap that focused mostly on recurrences of the same conflicts. We also believe that our findings are very relevant for counterinsurgency and peacekeeping strategies. In addition to ending one civil war and keeping it peaceful, governments and international institutions need to contain civil wars in space. Otherwise, they are very likely to infecting other ethnic groups in the same country.

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