[lg policy] Kurds Renew Their Movement for Rights and Respect in Turkey
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Fri Apr 22 14:46:52 UTC 2011
Kurds Renew Their Movement for Rights and Respect in Turkey
By LANDON THOMAS Jr.
Published: April 21, 2011
DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — As more than 5,000 Kurds bent their heads to the
ground in prayer on the main square of this provincial capital in
Turkey’s volatile southeast, the voice of the imam rang out.
Kurds seeking greater political and cultural rights staged a protest
march this week in Istanbul.
“No one can deny us the right that God gave us to speak our own
language, in our schools or in our mosques,” the religious leader said
in Kurdish, the language of Turkey’s 12 million to 15 million Kurds
that the Turkish state still forbids the official use of in schools,
mosques and government offices. “To do this is against God and the
Koran — we are united with our Arab brothers and we want our rights.”
Against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, Turkey’s ever restive Kurds
have begun a fresh push to achieve what they have been fighting for
since the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923: true freedom of
representation and the right to be educated in their mother tongue.
Whereas in the past, the main force behind this impetus has been a
bloody guerrilla war, it is now a campaign of civil disobedience that
Kurdish leaders here say is inspired not just by the events in
neighboring Syria as well as Egypt, Yemen and Libya, but by the fight
for civil rights in the United States in the 1960s.
“Our struggle is not just for our rights, but to bring democracy to
Turkey,” Mehmet Ali Aydin, the chairman of the Diyarbakir branch of
the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, known as the B.D.P. for the
initials of its Kurdish name, said in an interview. “Forty years ago
blacks and whites in America could not eat together. Now the president
of your country is black — we are trying to follow in the same steps.”
As the religiously conservative government of Prime Minister Recep
Tayyip Erdogan prepares for nationwide elections in June, this newly
assertive drive led by the B.D.P. is seen as a democratic litmus test
for Mr. Erdogan.
Arguably Turkey’s most powerful and regionally influential leader
since Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the republic, Mr. Erdogan, who has
transformed Turkey into an economic dynamo, has drawn increasing
criticism at home and abroad for a recent crackdown on journalists,
writers and other critics.
Those concerns were amplified this week when Turkey’s electoral body
disqualified 12 parliamentary candidates, seven of whom were from the
B.D.P., from running in the June elections. The decision set off
violent protests not just in traditional Kurdish hotbeds like this
city, Van and Hakkari but in Istanbul as well. B.D.P. leaders
threatened to boycott the elections. On Thursday, the electoral body
revised its decision, saying that eight of the barred candidates were
now eligible, following appeals by the candidates. But it was unclear
whether that would mollify Kurdish anger.
All of which represents an awkward challenge for Mr. Erdogan — who had
urged Egypt’s former leader, Hosni Mubarak, to listen to his own
people during the Egyptian uprising — and to Turkey’s broader
reputation as the region’s most advanced democracy.
For a political party that has been closed down six times, the four
demands that underpin the B.D.P.’s protest movement ask much of a
state that has always been extremely sensitive to any perceived threat
to its unity.
The demands call for the right for Kurds to be educated in their own
language and the freedom to use it in the political arena; the
immediate cessation of military operations against Kurds by the
Turkish Army; the release of all political prisoners, including
Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurds’ illegal military wing, the
P.K.K.; and the removal of the controversial 10 percent electoral
threshold that bars any party that cannot attract that share of the
national vote from gaining seats in Parliament.
In its blend of the reasonable, like language and representation
rights, and the more far-fetched, like the release of Mr. Ocalan, the
Kurdish demands exemplify the tensions within the movement between
those who want change through the ballot box and those who prefer to
secure it by more violent means.
Perhaps no one embodies this push and pull more so than Abdullah
Demirbas, the Kurdish mayor of one of Diyarbakir’s larger
municipalities. Jailed in 2009 for having used Kurdish in an official
capacity as mayor, he was released last year and was recently
Over lunch at a local restaurant, where he was frequently interrupted
by his constituents giving their best wishes, Mr. Demirbas recounted
the story of his 18-year-old son who abandoned high school two years
ago to join the P.K.K. and its armed struggle.
“When I got my jail sentence he told me: ‘That is what you get for
being a democrat — now it is time to fight,’ ” Mr. Demirbas said.
Attempts to dissuade his son were unsuccessful, and Mr. Demirbas has
not had any communication with him since then. In fact, he cannot be
sure if he is alive.
“As a father I was upset, but my son was fighting for freedom,” he
said. “It’s the state I blame, not him. It is so important to solve
these problems in a democratic way, but how do we do this if they put
us in jail?”
When Mr. Demirbas speaks of Mr. Ocalan, he uses the Turkish honorific
“sayin,” loosely translated as esteemed, and he refers to him as “the
representative for three million Kurds in Turkey.” Because Mr. Ocalan
led a military uprising that resulted in the loss of more than 36,000
lives and is seen by most Turks as an unreconstructed terrorist,
statements like Mr. Demirbas’s anger many and feed a suspicion that
the party is a front for the P.K.K.
“We have given them schools, TV channels and still they want more,”
said Remzi Akin, the owner of a leather shop and a part-time taxi
driver in Istanbul. “You extend your hand and then they take your
Mr. Akin, a supporter of Mr. Erdogan, fumes with anger that Mr. Ocalan
has not yet been hanged.
But his view, while perhaps on the extreme side, is one that the
government, which has gone further than any other in ceding ground to
the Kurds, is sensitive to because it can ill afford to alienate the
large number of Turks who see any concession to the P.K.K. as
Still, the shift in attitude toward the Kurds under Mr. Erdogan has
been significant. His government has removed the emergency law that
covered the southeast in 2002, and it has established a
Kurdish-language channel. This month, Turkey’s finance minister,
Mehmet Simsek, who is Kurdish, delivered portions of a public speech
in Kurd-dominated northern Iraq in Kurdish.
For Kadri Yildirim, who operates a Kurdish-language institute at a
state-run university in Mardin, a mountaintop town that overlooks
northern Syria, those and other changes are, he said, “beyond my
Opened a year ago, the four-year postgraduate program trains teachers
in the Kurdish language and culture and is to be followed by a similar
course for undergraduates — a baby step, but one that Mr. Yildirim
said he saw as positive nonetheless.
But as tensions increase before the elections, these small measures of
progress have been overcome by the push for faster, bolder changes.
“Why shouldn’t I be able to listen to my Friday sermon in Kurdish?”
asked Resat Dalgic, a 56-year-old shoeshine man, as he prepared to
attend the mass prayer protest. “It’s a basic right, is it not?”
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