Why Turkey's Kurds are ever more edgy

While Kurds are testing the limits of legal reforms that grant more freedoms, an uptick in attacks from separatists threaten to erode gains made by the ethnic minority.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Mohammad Isiktas, only 13 years old, is prepared to take on the Turkish state so he can legally use his Kurdish middle name.

He is still forbidden from having Demhat, which means "the time has come," on his ID card. His younger brother will also go to court, to use his Kurdish name, which means "freedom."

While Turkey's Kurds have seen some limited reforms, this family's pending fight is emblematic of the legal limits the ethnic minority still face.

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Application of new laws that permit limited use of Kurdish, such as ending the ban on Kurdish names and allowing 45 minutes of Kurdish TV broadcasts a day, are being challenged by zealous state prosecutors fearful that such minority rights will undermine the Turkish republic.

So change has come only fitfully to southeast Turkey, where separatist guerrillas of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) and Turkish forces fought a vicious war throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

"I want peace between Turkey and Kurds, between police and the PKK," says Mohammad, his dress shirt buttoned to the neck. "For that reason I want both names, Mohammad and Demhat, as a combination of these two: the [Turkish] police and [Kurdish] fighters."

"In the past, because of high pressure, we were afraid of learning our own culture," says Makbule Tanriverdi, the boys' mother. "But now we are more self-confident and brave because of that hard struggle period."

Still, after five years of relative peace, expanding self-rule, and easing language restrictions, there has been a resurgence of PKK attacks and Turkish military action, which threatens to spill into northern Iraq and erase these modest changes.

The PKK is increasing attacks on Turkish soldiers and is blamed by officials for a string of bombings against civilians. Public support is high for a military invasion against PKK bases in northern Iraq – the US and their Iraqi Kurdish allies are accused by Turks for giving the PKK safe haven.

The US and European Union labels the PKK a "terrorist" group for targeting civilians. Turkey has backed up threats by boosting troop strength along the border.

But even as Kurds test the limits of EU-inspired legal reforms that grant more cultural rights, they say the renewed bloodshed stems from a lack of creativity on both sides.

The PKK, for example, did not disarm after the 1999 capture of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who vowed in court to "give up the armed struggle" and "dedicate my life to bringing Kurds and Turks together." Earlier this month, the imprisoned PKK leader warned that invading Iraq would spark a broader Turk-Kurd war and risk "losing all Turkey."

For its part, the state ended a brutal state of emergency marked by extrajudicial killings, destruction of villages, and torture. "They did not internalize those changes, so they were token moves," says Osman Baydemir, the mayor of Diyarbakir. Like local Kurdish officials across southeast Turkey, home to some 15 million ethnic Kurds, he is facing a number of legal cases.

Still, a Kurdish political party exists with many PKK sympathizers among its ranks, and some 30 members hope to be voted into Turkey's parliament in July 22 elections.

Development and other economic projects have borne little fruit or not materialized, however, leading to 60 percent unemployment in this city alone, and feeding what Mr. Baydemir counts as the 29th Kurdish rebellion – the one launched by the PKK in 1984.

"From the end of 2005 onwards, there has been a remarkable regression of cultural rights," says Baydemir, whose broad desk is watched over by a portrait of Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. "Currently there is no trace of the positive atmosphere from 2000 to 2005."

The result is clear in the number of legal court cases brought against local officials and Kurds, who daily test the limits of the law. The mayor and municipal council of Diyarbakir's Sur district, in the old city, were recently sacked for voting to use Kurdish to spread information about local services ranging from tourism to trash cleanup.

Baydemir's most recent case is prosecution for printing New Year cards in Turkish, English, and Kurdish. Some non-Kurdish officials who received them sent them back. The case was not brought because Kurdish is banned, the prosecutor explained, but because the letters X, W, and Q exist in Kurdish but not Turkish, so their use violates a law protecting Turkish letters.

The mayor responded, in court, that the prosecutor also must violate the law every day, when he logs into the Justice Ministry website, tapping the URL address that begins www.

"In the last four years, many new laws passed parliament and as a rule they are not bad – the same as in European countries," says Tahir Elci, a human rights lawyer who spent time in detention in the 1990s. "But in practice, the problems continue because prosecutors and judges haven't changed their minds."

Broad Kurdish disillusion means more than 50 percent of Kurds believe the PKK "represents their rights," estimates Mr. Elci, though only 10 to 20 percent support killings.

"Kurdish people are not happy with the violence – they want peace and don't support these attacks," says Elci. "But also they are not happy with government policy, because the Kurdish problem is not solved.... Kurds in Turkey don't believe this state represents them, or belongs to them."

Indeed, unity was the key message of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at an election rally in Diyarbakir on Sunday. In this long-neglected region, Mr. Erdogan listed his Islamist Party's achievements, including claims of opening 1,500 new classrooms already, and 500 more by the end of the year.

"What did we do in Diyarbakir? You'll tell everyone what we did!" Erdogan told the chanting crowd. "We just want to win your hearts and emotions. We don't want any hate or conflict."

Still, Mr. Erdogan has sought to take a tough line against "terrorists" and says he would approve a military push into northern Iraq when "necessary." But he also says that 5,000 PKK activists inside Turkey – his numbers – should be dealt with before crossing into Iraq.

Turkish generals Wednesday repeated their call for a cross-border operation into Iraq, estimating that 2,800 to 3,100 guerrillas are based there. "Turkey prefers security to democracy, [and] if you prefer security to democracy, then you will have a violent reaction," says Ali Akinci, head of the Diyarbakir branch of Turkey's Human Rights Association.

Turkish military operations have stepped up since 2004 and surged in the past six months, during which time 214 people died on both sides, says Mr. Akinci. His predecessor was hit with 46 court cases from state prosecutors; the office was shut down between 1997 and 2000 for saying that "a Kurdish nation exists in Turkey."

A breaking point, observers here say, came during riots in Diyarbakir in March 2006, when protestors at the funerals of PKK militants clashed in the streets with Turkish soldiers for several days. A total of 10 people died in the gunfire, including a boy watching from a balcony; the Human Rights Association is handling 350 cases of the 600 people arrested.

"The latest conflicts will increase nationalism [on both sides] and will make things worse than ever before," says Sezgin Tanrikulu, chair of the bar association in Diyarbakir. "Kurds are becoming more radical, and I believe their trust in the system is going to be weaker."

A call by Turkey's top general on June 8 for Turks to "show their reflex action en masse against these terrorist acts" amounts to a "declaration of internal war," says Mr. Tanrikulu, winner in 1997 of the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.

PKK attacks also have some Kurds angry. "Lots of people are shouting against them, 'Why are they using such violent methods?' " asks Tanrikulu. "Especially operations against civilians. People don't support this."

He is handling a string of cases at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, where decisions often go against Turkish authorities. Locally, Tanrikulu is now defending Baydemir, the mayor, who has been charged with "aiding and abetting the terrorist organization PKK," and faces 10 to 15 years in prison for trying to calm demonstrators during the riots last year with the words: "We share your pain deep in heart."

"In Turkey, we have lived almost everything that could be lived; war and torture...." says the mayor. "The war concept was consumed to its limits. But there is only one way we have not tried: negotiations, peace, and talking.

"Dialogue and compromise are inevitable [to end] this conflict," adds Baydemir. "We need to show Turkey the path of reason. But now there is an eclipse of reason."

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