Greater rights for Kurds key to Turkish peace efforts

Turkey's bid to hammer out a new constitution, blocked by divisions over the definition of citizenship, could boost efforts to end a conflict with Kurds by affording them greater rights.

The emphasis on "Turkishness" in the current constitution has long been a sticking point for Kurds who have fought a three-decade conflict for recognition.

In a key turning point for the conflict which has claimed tens of thousands of lives, Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan on Thursday called a historic ceasefire after months of negotiations with Ankara.

Ocalan did not make any demands in return for his appeal to rebels to put down their guns, but expectations are high that Ankara will boost rights for its Kurds, who make up roughly 20 percent of the country's 75-million population.

"Politically it is time for Turkey to move into the modern era and provide its Kurds with equal rights," Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group told AFP.

"Reforms are an essential part of what's going to happen next."

Pope said Ankara needed to give Kurds greater constitutional rights, education in their mother tongue and stronger representation in local administrations.

A law requiring 10 percent of the vote to secure a seat in parliament is seen as keeping out minority groups. Changing this would be important to the Kurds, he added.

He also argued for changes to Turkey's draconian anti-terrorism laws.

It has been over a year since Turkey decided to rewrite its constitution from scratch and replace the current document -- written in 1982 by the then-military junta -- with a more democratic charter.

But lawmakers have barely made progress.

According to Article 66 of Turkey's 1982 constitution, everyone bound to the Turkish state through the bond of citizenship is a Turk.

"Ethnic discrimination" in the current constitution should be replaced with a universal statement to embrace all groups in the country, Pope said.

Turkey has long refused to recognise the Kurds, a largely Sunni Muslim people who were considered cofounders of the new republic born out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

Turkey's Kurds have complained of discrimination at the hands of the Ankara government, which they claim deprived them of Kurdish identity and stigmatised them as "mountain Turks".

Every morning primary school kids have to repeat the national pledge of allegiance which ends with the phrase: "How happy is the one who calls himself a Turk."

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has a comfortable majority in the 550-seat parliament, has showed openness to enhancing Kurdish rights.

"Co-existence of differences is a freedom that we must safeguard ... but we cannot accept the fact that everyone must be a Turk or say 'I'm Turkish'", Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said in a televised interview last month.

The AKP has distanced itself from a firm Turkish definition and instead is working on a more loose "citizen of Turkey" formula, without any reference to ethnic roots.

Ocalan himself also favours a unitary state while warning against a citizenship definition based on ethnicity.

"Every individual who binds himself to the republic of Turkey with his free will is a citizen of the Turkish republic," he said through visiting pro-Kurdish politicians in his island prison, according to the Milliyet newspaper.

"We are bound to the state, not to the Turkish nationality," he added.

However the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has fiercely opposed removing the emphasis on "Turkishness" and the issue has caused friction within the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP).

CHP lawmaker Birgul Ayman Guler found herself at the centre of a heated debate when she said in January: "The Turkish nation cannot be equal to the Kurdish nation."

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently spoke out against discrimination against Kurds, as instanced by methods such as measuring skulls to prove Turkish superiority.

"Could this be our definition of a nation?" Erdogan said, referring to several pictures of skulls depicted in one of the books of the Turkish Anthropology Institute.

But not everyone believes the current charter is discriminatory.

"The Turkish definition represents both the name of the nation and members of that nation rather than ethnicity," Hikmet Sami Turk, former justice and defence minister, told AFP.

"For which nation are you writing a constitution?" he asked.

"We've come to a situation under which we are embarrassed to speak out who we, Turks, are. I cannot imagine a nation without an identity. This is betrayal," he said.