In 1991, a 30-year-old woman was sworn in <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gQaiowrL-VQ> as a parliamentarian in Turkey’s national assembly. After reciting the oath of allegiance, she added a sentence in her own language. As a result, she was removed from the building, stripped of her parliamentary immunity and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Her name was Leyla Zana, Turkey’s first Kurdish female MP.
She served 10 years of her prison sentence and, last Saturday, Zana – now a diminutive 50-year-old woman – entered Turkey’s grand national assembly as a Kurdish MP <http://www.sundayszaman.com/sunday/columnistDetail_getNewsById.action?newsId=258762> again. During the time she was in prison, not much had changed for those trying to represent Kurds in Turkey. Even today, teaching of the Kurdish language in primary and secondary schools is not allowed <http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204612504576608500553825500.html?mod=googlenews_wsj> .
In its second congress <http://en.firatnews.com/index.php?rupel=article&nuceID=2987> in Ankara last month, Zana’s party – the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) – produced an eight-point roadmap that centred around the democratic rights of Kurdish people, including the cultural, linguistic and civil and political rights that the Kurdish population of Turkey need to become equal citizens of the state. The denial of Kurdish identity through assimilation and continued repression of successive Turkish governments lies at the heart of the Kurdish question, which has gone unresolved for more than 90 years.
In recent months, the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been given a hero’s welcome in the Middle East <http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/22/recep-tayyip-erdogan-arab-hero-turkey> for standing up for the rights of downtrodden Arab people and promoting Turkish democracy as a model for Arab societies.
Back home, the civil rights of 20 million Kurds in Turkey have been gradually eroded. The EU acknowledges this is "a serious cause for concern" in a country where more than 3,000 Kurdish activists are in detention. The EU has called on Turkey this week to bring its justice system <http://www.todayszaman.com/news-258881-progress-on-kurdish-issue-uneven-says-eu-draft-report.html> into line with international standards and amend its anti-terrorism legislation.
On Tuesday, under the same anti-terrorism legislation, more than 120 members of the BDP, including the party’s deputy leader, were arrested <http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/n.php?n=bdp-co-leader-furious-over-members8217-detention-2011-10-04> .
So sensitive is Turkey to anyone acknowledging the plight of the Kurds that the novelist and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk <http://www.orhanpamuk.net/> was charged and tried for "public denigration of Turkish identity", after mentioning in a 2005 interview <http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/may/15/pamut-insult-turkishness-court> that "30,000 Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it".
Challenging Turkey’s approach to the Kurdish question and other human rights issues within the country is all but impossible. The International Press Institute has expressed "serious concern" <http://www.freemedia.at/press-room/public-statements/singleview/article/resolutions-issued-by-the-ipi-membership-at-the-60th-annual-ipi-general-assembly-in-taipei-taiwan.html> at the continued imprisonment of at least 64 journalists and named Turkey as the country with the "highest number of journalists in prison in the world" – surpassing Iran and China.
In the west, coverage of the Kurds in Turkey is limited to the activities of the PKK <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurdistan_Workers%27_Party> – an organisation that was set up in 1978 by a group of Kurdish and non-Kurdish university students who decided to take up arms and resist the assimilation policy of the Turkish state. This conflict has continued for 27 years, costing the Turkish economy about $300-$400bn. More than 30,000 Kurds have lost their lives and the economy of the Kurdish region in the south-east of the country is in tatters, leaving thousands of Kurdish youth unemployed.
Many people in Turkey, who are tired of this futile war in the Kurdish region, hoped that the result of this year’s general election for both the Kurdish BDP and Erdogan’s AKP would offer an opportunity to make serious progress towards solving the Kurdish question. But the refusal of Erdogan’s government to let the five Kurdish MPs imprisoned on trumped-up terrorism-related charges to take their seats in parliament was a serious setback.
In return, and under enormous pressure from the Kurdish electorate, BDP was left with no option but to boycott the parliament. Not long afterwards, 13 Turkish soldiers were killed and seven wounded in a suspicious fire which was blamed on the PKK <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/feedarticle/9744210> . The PKK, which is usually quick to take responsibility for the operations it carries out, denied any involvement but Turkish journalists who are scared of being thrown in prison for "treason" if they question the military version of events ignored the PKK denial and blamed it on the organisation anyway.
Turkish bombs started raining down on Iraqi Kurdistan and in the Qandil mountains where the PKK fighters are based. Ironically, while Erdogan was demanding an official apology from Israel for the flotilla incident in 2010 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/blog/2010/jun/01/israel-flotilla-raid-fallout-live> , in which nine Turkish citizens were killed, Turkish planes dropped a bomb inside Iraqi Kurdistan, hitting a car carrying seven civilians, in violation of international law. All the passengers, including four children under the age of 12, were burnt to death instantly. Amnesty International called on Turkey to investigate the killings <http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/REG01/003/2011/en/11aed2cb-b911-4159-a52c-7dcd16439c57/reg010032011en.html> but, unsurprisingly, no investigation has been launched.
It should be clear to current Turkish leaders that the nine decades of militaristic policies in suppressing and denying Kurdish identity have failed. Turkey must realise that the Kurdish question requires a more nuanced approach. Leaders in Europe should put more pressure on Turkey to deal with the systemic discrimination that fuels Kurdish support for the PKK.
If negotiations between Kurdish parliamentarians and the Turkish government are to have a chance of success, the Turkish government and the PKK need to declare an immediate ceasefire. The AKP government should engage with the Kurdish political parties and the PKK’s current leadership in order to make progress towards solving the Kurdish question. Ending this conflict and affording equal rights to all its citizens should be a precondition for Turkey’s membership of the EU.