Do not give up! Why Peace is Still Possible Between Turks and Kurds
The victory of the AKP should be a moment to re-consider the reconciliation process in Turkey and to re-set the button for peace.
Until now the Turkish-Kurdish conflict has claimed over 40,000 lives, with some estimates ranging as high as 100,000 – the majority of which have been Kurdish losses.
Roughly 100 additional lives were lost on October 10, 2015, when two suicide bombs went off at a peace and democracy rally in Ankara. Though ISIS appears to be responsible for the blasts, many Kurds and pro-Kurdish Turks blame the Turkish government for turning a blind eye and allowing the attack to happen. Some even claim that the government co-planned the attack.
Though armed conflict officially began when rebel forces – led by Abdullah Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – launched their armed insurgency in 1984, the struggle between Turks and Kurds started well before the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. After WWI, the Kurds were spread over various lands and never received an official state of their own. With the formation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the Kurds were formally excluded from the country’s constitution. Except for some small gains along the way, the Kurds have been systematically oppressed and silenced ever since. Expression of their culture and beliefs has been continually denied and they have never been granted equal human rights. Only very recently, within the last decade or so, have Kurds been able to legally form political parties and publish books and magazines without the threat of imprisonment, torture, or even death. The use of the Kurdish language is not fully legal yet, and the government routinely arrests those who speak out against them, continuing the long-term suppression of free speech.
The PKK’s initial goal was to achieve an independent Kurdish state, but they are now seeking Kurdish autonomy within Turkey instead. It is important to note that the PKK does not represent the wishes and goals of all Kurdish people. Though most Kurds want their situation improved and desire some form of self-rule, a large number of them disagree with the use of violence and the guerilla warfare tactics routinely used by the PKK and other insurgent groups. Commenting on this in Today’s Zaman, Kemal Burkay, formerly exiled Kurdish activist, says, “Maybe if the state hadn’t been that oppressive, that willing to deny the Kurdish identity and that suppressive, the Kurdish movement wouldn’t have leaned toward violent methods…”
When a group’s basic human rights are stripped away for such a long period of time, the more violent their efforts towards freedom can become.
Why Won’t Turkey Give the Kurds What They Want?
If the Turkish government had its way, the Kurds, who make up roughly 25 percent of Turkey’s population, would have been absorbed into Turkish culture and any hint of Kurdish ethnicity would have disappeared long ago. That said, the Turkish government has at times seemed willing to improve the Kurdish situation. For example, in 2009, the AKP-led government launched the “Kurdish Initiative” in an effort to increase Kurdish rights through social and economic reform. Though it initially seemed to be supported by opposition parties and Turkish citizens, the initiative was ultimately met with a strong Turkish nationalist backlash. In response to the backlash the government was forced to clamp down on Kurdish freedoms once again, which, in turn, reignited hostilities.
What Would It Take to Achieve Peace?
Past peace talks have left out some of the most important key players, including diaspora Kurds. Though no longer in their home country, diaspora Kurds often remain politically active when it comes to Turkish-Kurdish issues. Theirs is a necessary voice in any potential peace negotiations. Other key players, such as the United States and the United Nations, need to be involved in negotiations while maintaining a neutral perspective. These and other powers have not been neutral, however, as they have officially listed the PKK and other Kurdish insurgent groups as terrorist organizations. After the Ankara Massacre, Obama made a phone call to Erdogan to express his condolences and to say that the US still supports Turkey in the fight against terrorism.
In reality, both sides – the insurgent groups and the Turkish government – are committing atrocities and human rights crimes as we speak. This needs to be openly acknowledged, just as propaganda and imbalanced reporting that paints the PKK and other insurgent groups as terrorists while characterizing the Turkish government as the “good guys,” must end. BOTH sides have committed terrorist acts, according to the definition of terrorism: “the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal.” The terrorism of the Turkish government is most pronounced.
Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the PKK, has been imprisoned since 1999, when he was captured in Kenya by Turkish forces. He is serving out a life sentence in Imrali, an island south of Istanbul. Though a source of hatred for many Turks, he is absolutely necessary in any and all peace negotiations. The AKP-led government has involved Ocalan in past peace talks, but this involvement was not enough. Freeing Ocalan from prison would send a clear message to the PKK that the government is serious about negotiations and is willing to concede on important Kurdish issues. This is a move, however, that the present government would never make.
In an October 19 email, Dr. Latif Tas of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, says that the peace talks that have occurred between the Turks and the Kurds in the past were not serious, since “the aim of the negotiations – especially for the AKP party – was actually to monopolise power and violence. This ‘game’ based peace process has deepened the division not just between Turkish and Kurdish politicians, but more importantly between the public.”
Again when referencing past reconciliation efforts, Dr. Tas writes that “the lack of any substantive progress so far supports the idea that actually, especially for the AKP government, the so-called negotiations were not about risk-taking to make peace – but about risk-avoidance to maintain the status quo, to maintain current actors’ grasp on power.”
For these reasons, in order for a successful peace process to take place, new leadership is required along with a new constitution – one based on pluralistic citizenship that reflects the heterogeneous country that Turkey actually is. The AKP is an unlikely party to be able to draw up a new constitution that equally benefits all ethnic groups in Turkey. The distrust towards the AKP felt by the PKK and most Kurds runs too deep, and has shown to be a main factor in the failure of past ceasefires between the groups. The AKP has not been deserving of trust and is almost certainly not able to make up for their mistakes.
The Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, is a pro-Kurdish, left-wing party in Turkey that is seeking peace through the use of democracy and non-violence. Many Kurds and pro-Kurds around the world have placed their hopes in the HDP, even though the likelihood of a large-scale HDP success is small in the face of the well-oiled, propaganda-fueled AKP government. “State governors, civil servants, bureaucrats and the media have been working and making propaganda for the success of the AKP party,” Dr. Tas says, “while other parties, especially [the] HDP, cannot organise a simple meeting because of safety concerns.”
A peace process in Turkey is possible, but only with the aid of transparency, truth, and reason. And the will of President Erdogan to make peace in his country.