Last Updated: Thu Dec 23, 2010 13:57 pm (KSA) 10:57 am (GMT)

Does Turkey have an exit strategy for its war with the PKK?

Lale Kemal

Turkey’s Kurds recently raised tension with their maximalist demands, such as creating a self-defense force, triggering tension mainly among Turkish nationalists from every walk of life. The demands have also been met with criticism from Turkish liberals.

A taxi driver expressed to me his fury over the Kurds’ demand for what they describe as democratic autonomy, which envisages the creation of a self-defense force. Similarly, a senior Turkish bureaucrat friend of mine was nervous about such demands. “I support Kurds being given their right to speak and learn their mother tongue, provided Turkish remains the official language. I also support the idea of strengthening local authorities as part of the decentralization of power. But the Kurds have recently been coming up with demands that pose a threat to the country’s unity,” he said with concern. The fears of infringing on Turkey’s unitary status stem from a long period of indoctrination of Turkish society.

Can the Kurds’ demands, which are too maximalist at the moment, divide Turkey? My answer is no, on the condition that Turkey continues unabated with its democratization efforts while clearing itself of harmful deep state elements. This will make the Turkish state strong and mature enough to find a way to accommodate the demands of Kurds and Turks and others who are deprived of their basic liberties with the maintenance of the country’s unitary status.

Selahattin Demirtaş, co-chairman of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), triggered a debate in Parliament recently when he disclosed that Kurdish will be used alongside Turkish in public places and municipalities in the predominantly Kurdish Southeast. When some of its members spoke in Kurdish on the floor of Parliament’s General Assembly, the BDP further fuelled the debate on the use of one’s mother tongue and the Kurds’ demand for autonomy.

The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), which have been quiet for some time, joined in the debate when they released a press statement strongly critical of the bilingual debate. The TSK views the debate as a serious danger to Turkey’s unitary status. Luckily, the TSK’s intervention into a political issue produced a backlash as the public became critical of the TSK statement. Academics chimed in, filing a complaint against the TSK’s statement with the Ankara Prosecutor’s Office. The academics accused the TSK of committing a crime by intervening in politics.

But the Diyarbakır Prosecutor’s Office filed a complaint against a weekend gathering in the city during which the Kurds’ demand for democratic autonomy was put on the table for discussion. This closed-door meeting bringing Kurdish and Turkish intellectuals together witnessed in depth discussions on such maximalist demands by Kurds.

Turkish intellectuals, liberal and conservative, have voiced through the media their fierce objection to Kurdish demands, such as creating a self-defense force.

The Turkish as well as some Kurdish intellectuals found the Kurdish demand untimely and having the ability to undermine ongoing democratization efforts. But all agreed that any and all policies should be debated through democratic means that would lessen the 26-year-old fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), outlawed by Turkey, the US and the European Union.

Cevat Öneş, a former deputy undersecretary of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) who is actively taking part in efforts to find a solution to the Kurdish question, described the meeting in Diyarbakır as the first of its kind in Turkish political history.

Speaking to NTV last Monday, Öneş, however, stressed that some extreme Kurdish demands have been rejected.

“But a process to find a solution to the Kurdish question has begun. If we perceive such meetings as the beginning of a democratic process, our perception will differ from those fearing the infringement of the unitary status of the Turkish Republic. If we perceive Kurdish demands as attempts to divide Turkey, our reaction will be severe. We made clear to the Kurdish participants in the meeting that the draft paper they came up with is a utopia that reflects Öcalan’s views,” he said.

Abdullah Öcalan is the imprisoned leader of the PKK.

Turkey has been breaking taboos. While doing this, it is natural that debates on sensitive topics will trigger anger and fury. But we are learning to discuss. Turkish nationalism will also be on the rise because the long process of indoctrination will also take a long time to erase from people’s minds.

In the absence of a properly defined exit strategy of the Turkish state from the ongoing fight with the PKK, open debate by Turkish and Kurdish intellectuals on this sensitive topic will help guide the state to a solution.


*Published in the Turkey's TODAY ZAMAN on Dec. 23, 2010.

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