Turkey: Reform falters as violence spreads

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — The shadow of war is again hanging heavily over Turkey.

After breaking a 14-month ceasefire this June, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party has stepped up bomb attacks and attacks on the Turkish military. At least 100 fighters, including 30 Turkish soldiers, have been killed over the past few weeks — many more than the casualties reported from the Afghan war for the same period.

“This is about to explode big time,” said Henri Barkey, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “It’s going to be messy and it’s going to be all over the country.”

For three decades the Kurdistan Party has fought — initially for an independent state, but now its leaders say they merely want language rights, enhanced local autonomy and amnesty for its fighters — in a conflict that has cost the lives of some 40,000 people.

The crisis is dividing Turkey between those who hold out hope for a democratic solution and those who, increasingly disillusioned after the failure of last summer’s so-called “democratic opening” — a reform initiative designed to deal with the decades-old Kurdish insurrection— believe the rising cycle of violence is unlikely to stop.

Banners that read, “Let guns be silenced for peace and brotherhood,” written in both Turkish and Kurdish, filled Istanbul’s central Istiklal Street this weekend as hundreds of activists gathered to protest the mounting bloodshed.

Meanwhile, packed military vehicles traverse the soft hills of Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, carrying troops to border posts or checkpoints. Overhead, F-16 fighter jets frequent the skies.

“There is no magic wand,” said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in an address to Parliament this week. “If we look at it as merely a question of security, we would be wrong. We have done so for years. The results are clear.”

Since coming to power in 2002, the governing Justice and Development Party has released a number of Kurdish political prisoners and eased the ban on Kurdish language and culture. Their political overtures, however, have suffered from a lack of broad political consensus.

Devlet Behceli, an opposition leader, recently called Erdogan’s softer policy a “project of treason.” This past December the peace process was dealt a major blow when Turkey’s constitutional court banned the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party because of its alleged links to the militants.

“If you kick out all of the people in charge, who are you going to work towards a solution with?” asked Yeter, a young Kurdish woman who spent five years in prison outside of Diyarbakir.

The much-anticipated return last October of a group of Kurdish militants and supporters, who Erdogan had granted unofficial amnesty, has also turned soured. The hero’s welcome the group was given by thousands of Kurds on the Turkish side of the border turned the event into a political nightmare for the government and all 34 returnees, with the exception of four children, have now been charged with speaking in support of a terrorist organization.

“The democratic initiative is not going anywhere. It has come to a halt, deviated even,” wrote Cengiz Candar, an influential newspaper columnist and veteran political analyst in a recent op-ed in the daily Hurriyet.

But while the government has vowed to continue their reforms, arguing that military action alone cannot solve a conflict rooted in calls from Turkey’s Kurds for basic cultural and democratic rights, pressure is mounting for the government to respond forcefully in the face of escalating violence.

Turkish jets have been bombing targets in northern Iraq where the Kurdish militants are based with increasing regularity and the Turkish military has made efforts to step up its intelligence collaboration with the United States and Iraq. Military checkpoints have been reintroduced in Turkey’s southeast.

“What we want is simple: constitutional recognition of our language, of our right to say ‘Yes, I am a Kurd,” said Gulistan, a young woman who has one brother fighting for the Kurdish rebels and another doing compulsory service in the Turkish army. She preferred not to give her last name because of security concerns. “To reach peace, though, both sides much come to the table; this cannot be one-sided.”

As democratic moves falter, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party — considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the EU — continues to carry a substantial support base in Diyarbakir and throughout the predominantly Kurdish southeast.

“The state calls the PKK terrorists, but that is my husband, my brother, my cousin,” said Mehtap, a woman of 39-years with thick, dark hair and a quick laugh, as she sat at a cafe in central Diyarbakir. “But this much death; it doesn’t suit the young on either side.”

Tens of thousands of Kurds have been arrested under Turkey’s harsh anti-terror laws, including Mehtap, who was first imprisoned at the age of 14. She was only jailed for a few days but the time left its mark in the form of a broken jaw and bruises across her young body.

“That’s where I learned about politics,” she said with a grim smile.

For the first time since the measure was shelved last year, Turkey’s parliament began debating on Tuesday an amendment to soften anti-terror laws, which have been used to arrest some 1,500 Kurdish politicians and activists. Some see hope in such changes, arguing that the “democratic opening,” while greatly weakened, may not be dead just yet.