At Root of Kurdish Hunger Strikes, Decades of Struggle

Kurds residing in Lebanon hold portraits of jailed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan, during a demonstration in Beirut on 9 September 2012 (AFP – Anwar Amro)
Published Thursday, November 8, 2012
The current hunger strikes undertaken by Kurdish political prisoners in 68 different prisons across Turkey may not have caused much of a stir in mainstream international media. However, with more than 700 Kurdish prisoners currently on strike – 64 of whom have been on strike since September 12 – and Monday’s announcement that another 10,000 will be joining in, the Kurdish issue has taken on added urgency in Turkey.

Under the Turkish Republic, Turkey has witnessed a series of hunger strikes with tragic consequences.

In 1982, jailed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leaders Kemal Pir, Ali Çiçek, Hayri Durmuş, and Akif Yilmaz went on hunger strike to demand Kurdish rights and to protest against inhumane conditions and torture in prisons. Their strike ended with their deaths. Similarly in 2000 a hunger strike against abysmal prison conditions left 12 prisoners dead and 20 others seriously injured when the state violently intervened with the “Back to Life” operation. In 2006 alone, 122 prisoners died while on hunger strike.
This time, however, as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) draws up a new constitution, the strikers are demanding far-reaching socio-political rights for Kurds in Turkey, who make up roughly one fifth of the population. Aware of the deadlock afflicting the Kurdish issue, Kurdish prisoners are striking to end the legal isolation imposed on jailed Kurdish PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and to push for the right to Kurdish education in schools and use of Kurdish in Turkish courts of law.

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.

The so-called “Democratic Opening” that began in 2008 broke societal taboos: a Kurdish language channel (TRT 6) was launched on Turkish state television in 2009 and optional Kurdish language lessons were introduced in schools in June 2011. However, many Kurds remain unsatisfied.

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.

Ten years since the AKP’s rise to power, Kurdish faith in the current government has steadily declined. The unresolved case of the 35 smugglers mistaken for members of the PKK and bombed by the Turkish military, along with the arbitrary arrests of over 9,000 democratically elected Kurdish politicians, academics, journalists, lawyers, and students accused of being connected to the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) – the urban wing of the PKK – have left Kurds disillusioned with the current government.

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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