Funeral services following the attacks in Turkey’s Mardin province.

In last week’s bloodbath at an engagement party, masked gunmen armed with assault rifles killed 44 people including the bride and the groom in a small village in Turkey’s southeastern province Mardin. As the country debated the causes of this carnage, attention shifted to an evaluation of the village guard system. Since some of the victims and alleged assailants were members of the system, calls for its dissolution or reform have been raised by the opponents of Turkey’s counter-terrorist policy. The security bureaucracy and nationalist forces have reacted quickly to defend this institution.

Turkey first developed the village guard system to quell the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Local men were recruited as a paramilitary force to both protect themselves and aid the security forces fighting PKK militants in south-eastern Turkey. Village guards’ familiarity with the terrain, as well as the local language and dialects were important assets, and this helped to enhance the operational capability of the Turkish security forces. Moreover, by putting tens of thousands of tribesmen on the government’s payroll, the Turkish state sought to co-opt these and create revenues to address the root causes of joining the PKK (Terrorism Focus, October 1, 2008).

Village guards, numbering around 90,000 at the height of the PKK’s campaign, are currently around 58,000-strong. Although the system began as a temporary measure, it has become an integral part of Turkey’s security apparatus. The guards, however, have frequently been criticized for their alleged involvement in criminal activities or human rights abuses. According to Interior Ministry records, village guards were the target of over 5,200 criminal investigations and as a result 853 guards were arrested for various crimes (Cihan Haber Ajansi, May 8). A recent report released by the Human Rights Association revealed that between January 1992 and March 2009 village guards committed various human rights violations, including forced evacuation, burning villages, kidnapping and rape. In the last seven years guards have killed 51 people and wounded 83 (ANKA, May 9).

The Mardin incident occupied Turkey’s agenda last week, reigniting the debate over the village guards. So far, around 10 suspects including some village guards have been arrested, but the exact motivation behind the attack is still unknown. Explanations range from a feud between the families involved, to the social structure in the region which is based on feudal relations and the dominance of religious orders. In this context, the decayed village guard system has been advanced as a possible cause of the incident (Cihan Haber Ajansi, May 8).

The Interior Minister Besir Atalay raised expectations that the government might consider reform. After noting that some village guards were among both the victims and assailants, while the weapons used in the attacks belonged to the guards, Atalay told reporters that the ministry was saddened by their involvement and was evaluating the situation (Cihan Haber Ajansi, May 6). President Abdullah Gul also noted that if the shortcomings of the village guard system caused the attacks, then the government would take the necessary steps (Hurriyet Daily News, May 7).

The main opposition party Republican People’s Party (CHP), and the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) called for a parliamentary investigation into the killings in Mardin. The Parliament’s Human Rights Investigation Commission formed a sub-commission, scheduled to visit the region later this week to conduct an investigation into the incident (Anadolu Ajansi, May 7).

The pro-Kurdish DTP put a large part of the blame on the village guard system, arguing that had the state not armed these people, the carnage would not have occurred. As part of its overall opposition to Turkey’s policies on the Kurdish question, the DTP was an ardent critic of this system, demanding its dissolution. DTP deputies are campaigning for a parliamentary inquiry into this system, alleging that the village guards have become a criminalized network, and have undermined the social fabric and individuals’ psychological health in the region (ANKA, May 6).

However, the defenders of the system are against any attempt to reduce the causes of the Mardin attack to the weaknesses of the village guard system. A representative from the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) argued that the village guard system had served important functions in combating terrorism and it should be preserved (Anadolu Ajansi, May 6).

A spokesman for the Turkish military, Brigadier-General Metin Gurak defended the village guards during his weekly press briefing. He said that it would be unwise to hold the entire institution responsible (Milliyet, May 8). Interior Minister Atalay supported this view and defended the village guards. Though noting that the government will take into account the criticism of the guards, Atalay added that the dissolution of this institution was not on the agenda (www.cnnturk.com, May 9).

The deputy prime minister and government spokesman Cemil Cicek, also supported the system, arguing that it had emerged out of necessity and these conditions remained. Cicek added: "It is necessary to avoid hasty conclusions. If some of them are involved in wrongdoing, then necessary action will be undertaken… It is wrong to attack the entire institution, because of the recent incident" (www.ntvmsnbc.com, May 10).

The debate on the village guard system is likely to continue and the opponents of Turkey’s anti-terrorism policy will repeat their demands for its dissolution. However, many security experts regard it as a necessary counter-terrorist tool and argue that Turkey will need this institution as long as the PKK remains active. Since the government and the Turkish military appear to share this view, and PKK terrorism is unlikely to end soon, a partial reform of this system may be more realistic rather than its complete dissolution.

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