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It's the Kurds' turn for world recognition

By Mustafa Malik / December 9, 1998



Last week Washington hosted an international fund-raiser for former guerrilla leader Yasser Arafat, which netted more than $3 billion for his would-be Palestinian state. A few days earlier the Clinton administration repeated its demand that Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan, now under house arrest in Italy, be put on trial on terrorism charges.

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Mr. Ocalan, the chief of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), has been fighting for 14 years for the political and cultural autonomy of 12 million Turkish Kurds, and he shares strikingly similar antecedents with Mr. Arafat. Both men tried unsuccessfully to realize the rights of their people through violence, and are now seeking them through peaceful means. Both had bases in Lebanon. Both were expelled by host countries under outside military pressure.

In 1982 when an Israeli invading force had Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) guerrillas thrown out of Lebanon, some Israeli officials hoped that would be "the final solution" to the PLO problem. Recently a Turkish military threat forced Syria to expel Ocalan and his guerrillas, and Turkish officials said Oct. 5 that the action was "aimed at finishing off PKK."

Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema has promised to put Ocalan on trial. The PKK committed many acts of terror, including the slaying of civilians it suspected of collaborating with the Turkish military. So did Arafat's PLO. Unlike Arafat, and "onetime terrorists" Menachem Begin and Yizhak Shamir, Ocalan has been caught in a "wrong place" before achieving his mission. So instead of being received by heads of state or the Nobel Peace Prize panel, he could become the guest of a jail warden for a while. If found guilty, he should. We can't afford a world without the rule of law.

Whatever Ocalan's fate, his odyssey is likely to help put the Kurdish question on the global political agenda, where it belongs. The Kurds are the world's largest nation without a state of their own. Their historic homeland was split among five countries by victors of World War I. The Turkish state is bent on blotting out their identity. It has banned the Kurdish language, press, publications, and associations. Among the countless Kurds persecuted for asserting their ethnic identity are seven Kurdish members of the Turkish parliament serving prison time for taking their parliamentary oaths in Kurdish.

Turkish forces have destroyed nearly 3,000 Kurdish villages and deported tens of thousands of Kurds out of their mountain habitat into towns to force their assimilation with the Turks. The Turkish government estimates that 29,000 people have died in the 14-year conflict with the PKK. Many more perished in the uprisings of previous decades.

Kurdish activism aside, the temper of the times has flashed the Kurdish cause on the political screen of the West, which pretty much sets international political priorities. Freedom and group rights are the hallmarks of this so-called "postmodern" era. And now that the Palestinian, Northern Irish, and Basque movements have receded into peace processes, the question of Kurdish cultural and political rights is the most pressing ethno-nationalist issue. The PKK, once set on an independent Kurdish state, now only seeks an autonomous Kurdish territory within the Turkish state.

Most Europeans are troubled by the Kurds' travails. Austria, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, and Russia have hosted sessions of the Kurdish "Parliament in Exile" ignoring Ankara's angry protests. European governments and Western human rights groups have frequently criticized Ankara for its abuses of Kurdish human rights. Last December the European Union cited this as one reason it rejected Turkey's membership application. On Nov. 27, the governments of Italy and Germany proposed to involve the European Union in the quest for a negotiated solution to Turkey's Kurdish problem. Ocalan quickly embraced the idea.

Turkey persistently scorns the international effort, and human rights minister Hikmet Sami Turk reiterated Nov. 28 that negotiation on Kurdish cultural rights is "totally unacceptable" because it might tempt Kurds to demand "independence."

In Turkey, governments work at the sufferance of the military. And generals are the main stumbling block to a resolution of the Kurdish question because it is one of two "internal security" issues (the other is Islamism) they cite to justify their pervasive role in political decisionmaking.

The United States is the one country whose counsel the Turkish military would not ignore. Turkey is the third-largest recipient of US aid, mostly military. About 80 percent of Turkish military hardware comes from the US. Relationships between senior US and Turkish military officers are often close, a legacy of a half-century of camaraderie in cold and hot wars.

Yet Washington shows little concern about the Turkish-Kurdish imbroglio. Administration officials' occasional remarks on the subject show they consider it just a problem created by a group of murderous terrorists, as the PLO was viewed in the US in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Americans have been striving to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute mainly because of their concern about US strategic interests, which includes the stability of Israel, a close ally. The Kurdish struggle threatens the stability of Turkey, which serves vital US strategic interests in that region. Ankara was a key US ally in the Gulf War, and it facilitates the monitoring of the northern-Iraq no-fly zone. A secular Muslim country, it is considered a buffer against anti-US Islamist forces in southwest Asia, and could be a US partner in expanding business ties to the oil rich Caspian states.

If the Clinton administration is looking for a legacy, it should take up this much-needed peace process.

* Mustafa Malik is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. He just completed a four-month field research project on the Turkish democratic process, sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee.