Concern rising about Kurdish discontent in southeastern Turkey
|Publication Date||27 April 2006|
|Cite as||EurasiaNet, Concern rising about Kurdish discontent in southeastern Turkey, 27 April 2006, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/46ef87a12d.html [accessed 19 June 2013]|
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Yigal Schleifer 4/27/06
An upsurge in attacks against Turkish security forces by militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and a recent three-day outbreak of protests in Turkey's primarily-Kurdish southeast are raising concerns that the region could again spiral into the kind of violence experienced during the dark days of the 1980's and 1990's.
The possible revival of a full-blown PKK insurgency, aiming for the establishment of an autonomous homeland for Kurds, is something very much on the minds of Turkey's political and military leadership. The Turkish military has reinforced its already considerable troop strength in southeastern Turkey, and the Kurdish issue featured prominently in talks between Turkish leaders and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her April 25-26 visit. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In recent months, some 40 rebels, 14 soldiers and four police officers have been killed in clashes in southeastern Turkey. A recent string of bombings in Istanbul and other cities have also been blamed on the PKK, which two years ago called off the unilateral ceasefire it announced in 1999, following the capture of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan.
The late March protests that shook several cities in the southeast and even spread to Istanbul were the worst Turkey has seen in more than a decade, resulting in 16 deaths and hundreds of arrests. After years of relative quiet, the protests revealed that a new generation of angry young Kurds are ready to face off against Turkish authorities in this volatile region, where more than 30,000 people lost their lives in the fight between the PKK and the Turkish military during the 1980's and 90's.
"The [protests] were, in a way, expected by us," says Firat Anli, a district official in Diyarbakir, the regional center. "They were the result of the political and social problems in the region not being resolved, and it resulted in this explosive earthquake."
"The young people are poor," Anli added. "They are children of displaced families from villages who are having trouble adapting to life in the city and public services are having trouble reaching them. They have a lot of rage against the system and it's very difficult to control that."
A 22-year-old sitting in a darkened office in Diyarbakir – a university student who participated in the protests and who didn't want his name printed because of concern about official retaliation – believes there could be more violence. "We want to make peace with the government, but when we say we are Kurds and want the law to recognize that, they say to us that there are no Kurds and there is no Kurdish problem," he said.
The student said the Turkish government's harsh response to the protests, which started after thousands attending the funerals of slain PKK guerillas in Diyarbakir clashed with police, has him thinking about going off to join the outlawed organization. Both the United States and European Union have labeled the PKK a terrorist organization. "There are a lot, a lot of other young people in Diyarbakir who are thinking the same way," he said.
It may be the talk of a still-emotional young man, but his words offer a view to the growing tension in the region. Southeastern Turkey, suffering from high unemployment and a dearth of investment, continues to lag behind the rest of Turkey in almost every economic sphere. And while recent years have seen democratic reforms in Turkey, spurred by the country's drive to join the European Union, translate into increased cultural right for the Kurds, many in the region feel those reforms have not gone far enough.
Turkish officials say they are working to improve the situation in the area. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to Diyarbakir in August 2005 and offered his government's help in solving the "Kurdish problem." Following the violent protests, Erdogan told parliament: "We will bring [to the Kurdish areas] more freedoms, more democracy, more welfare, more rights and justice."
But Kurdish politicians say not much has been done since Erdogan's visit. They add that the current political atmosphere gives the government little room to dialogue with the Kurds. "The government doesn't have a program to solve the Kurdish problem," says Hilmi Aydogdu, a deputy chairman of the Diyarbakir branch of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party, which has seen several of its top members arrested in the wake of the recent protests.
The renewed violence has already forced Turkey to act on both the military and legislative fronts. According to reports in the Turkish press, the military buildup in southeastern Turkey could be a harbinger of a raid into Iraq to attack suspected Kurdish bases. Rice during her stay in Ankara cautioned against "hot pursuit" of Kurdish militants, and Turkish leaders denied media reports that military units had already crossed into Iraq to hunt PKK militants.
Any Turkish military move against the PKK that spills over into Iraq could strain relations with Baghdad and with the Iraqi Kurds. Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, has already expressed his concern over Turkey's troop buildup. "Iraq is a sovereign independent nation that won't let other nations interfere in its internal affairs," Talabani said during a recent press conference in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil.
The Turkish parliament, meanwhile, is working on a new anti-terrorism bill that would redefine and expand what constitutes terrorism and would increase the jail time given to convicted terrorists. Turkey, as part of its continuing drive to join the EU, has instituted over the last few years a series of political reforms aimed at strengthening the country's democratic institutions and improving its human rights record. There is concern, though, that the growing violence and a renewed fight against the PKK could mean a retreat from some of those reforms.
Speaking to the European Parliament in Strasbourg after the violent protest in the southeast, EU health commissioner Markos Kyprianou expressed "concern" about the violence in Turkey, saying: "We urge the Turkish government to address in a comprehensive manner, and not only from a security point of view, the problems of this region and of its people."
In response, Abdullah Gul, Turkey's foreign minister, said: "There will be no question of going back from democratic steps taken." Though he added that there will also be a "sharper struggle against terrorism."
In Kiziltepe, a town an hour's drive from Diyarbakir where two people were killed in protests, locals were still struggling to make sense of the recent events. "We've moved back ten years," says Yasar Aygin, 23, speaking in the small barbershop where he works. "When these events took place, I was reminded of the 1990's, when people were afraid to go out of their homes. I felt like I was back in those days."
Around the corner, an owner of a shop, who asked not to be named, said his business, like every other business in Kiziltepe, was shuttered during the three days of protests. "I wasn't angry. I have expenses for my shop – rent, taxes – but in order to get our cultural rights, our freedoms, I would close my shop for a month," he said.
"If the head of a family closes his ears to the demands of the rest of the family, it will result in fighting. This is what is happening in Turkey," he added. "The conflict is going to grow."
Editor's Note: Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.
Posted April 27, 2006 © Eurasianet