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How big disasters change views, launch activism

By A Christian Science Monitor Roundup / September 1, 1999


For decades, Turks have held sacred the idea of devlet baba, or father state, in which every citizen could rely on the state to provide all basic needs. But after government bungling and delays in handling Turkey's recent earthquake, a tectonic shift appears to be under way in Turkish society.

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Feeling let down by the state, Turks are sowing the seeds of self-reliance and calling for political accountability.

"For the first time, people are thinking that the omnipotent state may not be so omnipotent after all," says Ilter Turan, a political scientist and president of Istanbul Bilgi University. "This has been brewing for a long time, but the earthquake was a catalyst. It is going to be the seed of something."

Natural disasters have been seen as a catalyst for reform and local activism before - such as in1995, when an earthquake hit Kobe, Japan, and after hurricane Mitch last year in Central America. Now the same phenomenon is happening in Turkey.

"The Turkish people have great respect for the state, but this experience has exposed a lot of weakness," says Sahin Alpay, an editor of the mass circulation Milliyet newspaper in Istanbul. "But how will the emergence of a civil society translate into a political movement? There is no alternative to the people in power now."

Among survivors of the quake, a steady refrain has been "Where is the government?"

Turks say they were shocked by the absence for days of government authorities and the Army, the second largest in NATO after that of the United States. In the hours following the Aug. 17 disaster, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, who visited the quake zone, had to communicate with ministries in the capital of Ankara by using live television interviews beamed by journalists' satellites because the phone system was down.

But there were shocks as well on the grass-roots level - although these were more pleasant. Turks say they were surprised by the outpouring of solidarity among themselves. Locals shared everything from food and diapers to willing hands for digging for survivors. Private bulldozers, cranes, and generators were mobilized immediately for the rescue effort.

"All ideological arguments were flattened by the earthquake," said the Erkan Mumcu, the tourism minister and youngest - and most candid - member of the cabinet. "Lying under the rubble is the Turkish political and administrative system."

The Army claims to have rescued 40,000 people, but many Turks scoff at the impossibility of such a high figure. Previously an unassailable icon, the Army has come under popular criticism.

Article 159 of the penal code, however, makes it a crime to question the "moral personality" of the state. Criticizing the government - which the increasingly irreverent Turkish media have done with vigor - is permitted, but attacking the system until now has been taboo. Tearing up a lira currency note can bring a jail sentence.

Fallout in Kobe, Japan

The aftermath of the 1995 Kobe temblor in Japan may show how events will play out in Turkey. Four years after Kobe's earthquake, citizen groups there are still trying to shake the rigid structure of the local government.

"We have learned that we cannot rely too much on the government," says Sojiro Kawamura, a victims' advocate and survivor of the quake, which killed more than 6,600. "We need to keep a close eye on them because they don't much care about what victims really need."

City planning official Yuichi Honjo disputes that and counters that the top priority has been rebuilding. "With the help of Kobe residents and businesses, we have been working hard to revive the city," he says. The number of those in temporary housing has now been cut from 47,000 to about 500.