Kurds young and old will gather in force in celebrations across Turkey and in the diaspora; traditionally these cultural events, representing one of the few opportunities where Kurds in Turkey can legitimately come together collectively to express their shared national identity, have been turned into occasions for expressions of defiance and resistance to the oppressive conditions prevailing inside Turkey.
The coming months will also be a crucial period for the Kurds with various outstanding concerns converging in the run up to the Turkish general election scheduled for 12 June: there is immense disappointment and anger at the performance of the ruling AKP party which made so many promises of reform, but failed to deliver on implementation. While the outside world sees Turkey as a model democracy in the Islamic countries and Middle East, Kurds lack any confidence in the party’s integrity and rightly question its intentions in view of the deteriorating situation they face on all fronts.
The continued criminalisation of Kurdish civil and political organisations is clearly demonstrated by the arrest and prosecution of hundreds of elected Kurdish politicians from the BDP (Peace and Democracy Party), the party which succeeded the DTP (Democratic Society Party) in 2008.
The mass trial of over 150 members and supporters of the BDP, including elected mayors, lawyers and academics, which opened in October 2010 in the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, has become a focus of the political struggle between the Kurds and the Turkish state for the recognition of the Kurds as a people with their own language and identity. The language issue dominated the proceedings in the specially constructed high security courtroom with defendants insistent on using their mother tongue of Kurdish and the judge adamantly refusing to acknowledge any words uttered in a language that officially still doesn’t exist according to the Constitution of Turkey.
The stalled trial is set to reconvene in April with the language issue as yet unresolved. The charges brought against the defendants in a 7,000 page document insinuate that Kurds are engaged in supporting terrorism by simply seeking to raise issues of concern to the Kurdish people, such as language rights, the environment and demands for democracy. It is argued that these issues are also supported by the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In many ways this is a classic case of guilt by association in a highly politically motivated trial.
Leading Kurdish organisations have long disavowed the demand for an independent state which could only entail the breakup of Turkey; instead they have called for greater local democracy and devolution of decision making to the Kurdish regions, a set of proposals that have been spearheaded by Abdullah Ocalan for more than a decade. The ideas have crystallised into the concept of “democratic autonomy” which applies to the whole of Turkey, not to the Kurdish areas alone.
The concept formed part of a 156-page document known as the “Road Map for Peace” prepared by Abdullah Ocalan in 2009 but only handed over to his lawyers by the Turkish authorities in early March 2011. It calls for the establishment of a democratic nation which will be a joint homeland for different nationalities living together as free and equal individuals with their rights guaranteed in a democratic constitution. Crucially, this does not mean redrawing the borders of Turkey, but it would mean comprehensive constitutional reforms, unlike anything so far proposed by the ruling party despite all the efforts to present itself as a reforming and modernising government.
This is why it is quite erroneous to portray Ocalan and the Kurds as “separatists”. It is also provocative in that it amounts to denying the legitimacy of Kurdish aspirations and refusing to seriously engage with the arguments. There remains a sad lack of discussion from the EU, UK and US about substantial Kurdish issues and the nature of the Turkish state which cannot be attributed to ignorance alone.
Motivated by their close associations with Turkey, the EU and the US continue to brand the PKK as terrorists and separatists in flagrant disregard of the facts. This is a very short-sighted policy and acts as an obstacle to resolving the protracted Kurdish conflict since no conflict can ever be resolved without the main parties engaging in some form of negotiations. The continued outlawing of the PKK and its supporters only ensures that the conflict will not be resolved because the Kurdish people have shown time and again that they regard Ocalan as by far their most important leader; he has a popular legitimacy that surely cannot be ignored forever.
Turkey has sought to do everything to block Kurdish political representation including gerrymandering the electoral system by refusing to remove the notorious 10% threshold which bars regionally based parties with mass support from gaining a foothold in Parliament (because they need 10% of the national vote). Kurds will be standing as independent candidates in the coming election, which should at least ensure that there is a political voice for the estimated 20 million Kurds who live in Turkey, by far the largest Kurdish population anywhere.
But the main challenge for Kurdish political leaders is not only to win the votes of their natural constituency, but to redouble their efforts to unlock the mindset of Western politicians who remain intent on seeing Turkey as a role model for the Middle East. The seriously argued proposals for “democratic autonomy” have to become more widely read and understood.
The UK, EU and the US have to be persuaded that the notion of Turkey as a model democracy will be nothing but a sham until it starts to seriously address its own internal problems, central to which is the denial of legal status to the Kurds as a people with their own language, culture and identity. Then Turkey may emerge as a true model of democracy.
Statement – Newroz (Kurdish New Year) 21 March 2011