Under the Turkish Republic, Turkey has witnessed a series of hunger strikes with tragic consequences.
Under the Turkish Republic, Turkey’s 20 million strong Kurdish population came face to face with an unswerving assimilation policy as the Kurdish language was banned in 1923, and the population suffered from human rights violations and massacres such as Zilan in 1930, and Dersim in 1937-8.
The AKP’s rise to power in 1992 initially inspired hope among Turkey’s Kurds – referred to pejoratively as “mountain Turks” – as the government introduced a series of democratic reforms to meet the European Union’s Copenhagen Criteria and prepare Turkey for EU candidacy.
Yet for the last 30 years, the Turkish military has fought a violent and unrelenting war against members of the PKK – condemned as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU, and the US, and hailed as a guerrilla group by the Kurdish people. The bloody conflict still shows no signs of closure and has already claimed over 40,000 lives.
As it stands, the hunger strikes have drawn mass support from Kurdish populations worldwide and in Turkey, as a series of sit-ins and demonstrations have been organized to force the matter onto Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s political agenda and draw the attention of the international community.
While Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin’s visit to Sincan prison in Ankara on the 43rd day of the hunger strikes and pleas for strikers to end their self-imposed starvation were seen as a step in the right direction by pro-government media, many Kurds criticized him for only taking action after 43 days, and for failing to mention and address the reasons behind the strikes.
“People think that the government should take concrete action. Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin’s statement, however, lacked political sincerity,” Peace and Democracy Party parliamentarian, Özdal Üçer, told Al-Akhbar. “He didn’t address what the death fasters are striking for and how the matter could be addressed and solved. He just told them to give up their strike instead.”
When such a dangerous impasse is reached, Üçer asserts that the Turkish government should state clearly whether it wants to resume talks with Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan or not.
Öcalan has been imprisoned on Imrali Island off the coast of northern Turkey since his capture in Kenya in 1999. While the PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire following Öcalan’s imprisonment, the armed conflict was resumed in 2001 and violence has escalated since 2011.
For the last 15 months, dialogue between Öcalan and the Turkish government has been suspended. Öcalan’s legal isolation has infuriated Kurds, who consider him the only person capable of conducting dialogue between the PKK and the Turkish government.
While Kurds remain in the dark over the conditions of Öcalan’s health and mental state, clashes between the government and the PKK have escalated. According to a report published in September by the International Crisis Group, the violence has spiked, claiming as many as 700 lives on both sides of the conflict within the last 14 months.
While the issue of Kurdish education and use of Kurdish in Turkish courts have been placed on the constitutional agenda due to the current hunger strikes, PM Erdogan’s statements in Germany that, “There is no strike; there is a show,” as well as public pronouncements that there is only one hunger striker, have caused outrage among the Kurdish population in Turkey. Erdogan’s controversial suggestions of bringing back the death penalty – especially for Öcalan – have alienated the populace further from the current government.
According to Üçer, these measures are symbolic gestures by the state to convince the international community of the country’s progressive nature and readiness to adopt allegedly democratic reforms.
“TRT 6 is a Kurdish channel under government control. You can’t play every song, or read every poem, or broadcast every conference there. It’s obvious that the government is broadcasting the programs that it wants to and is creating its own Kurdish identity,” he said.
In a move that Cahit Ertan, a lawyer for three prisoners on a death fast in Van, calls “political genocide,” the arrest of key intellectual figures in the Kurdish movement has left Kurds with fewer representatives and local advocates for their rights.
According to Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, Fatma Müge Göçek, throughout history, the Turkish government’s own reinterpretation of the Kurdish identity has impeded the resolution of the Kurdish issue.
“Historically, the Turkish state and its governments have approached the Kurds not in terms of what the Kurds want, but instead by imposing what the Turks think the Kurds should have,” Göçek explained. “There is an impasse on the Kurdish issue because the AKP government is willing to solve the Kurdish problem if and only if the Kurds prioritize their religious identity as Sunni Muslims over their ethnic identity as Kurds. As long as the Kurds are not permitted to express their identity how they themselves personally decide to, the unrest will continue.”
Measures to address Kurdish demands for mother tongue education and use of Kurdish in Turkish law courts in the new constitution may indicate a step in the right direction. Lives, however, still hang in the balance. The hunger strikes have now entered their 58th day and show no sign of ending as long as the legal confinement of Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan, persists.
Emiko Jozuka is a Japanese freelance multimedia journalist currently based in Antakya.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect al-Akhbar’s editorial policy.
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