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Turkey: Reform falters as violence spreads

More people dying in clash between Turkey and Kurdish rebels than in Afghan war.

“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.