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Vol. 78/No. 27      July 28, 2014

(lead article)
Turkey: Kurds advance
fight for national rights
Eyewitness report by ‘Militant’ correspondents
Associated Press/Jodi Hilton
Istanbul June 8, march against killing of two youths in Kurdish area of Turkey who were protesting new Turkish military post there. Flags depict Kurdish political prisoner Abdullah Ocalan.

IZMIR, Turkey — The Turkish government is taking steps to advance talks with supporters of the Kurdish fight against national oppression, instead of repeating failed attempts to stamp it out through brute force. On July 10 the Turkish Parliament passed a law that legalizes contacts between the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and government officials.

Any dealings with the armed group have been technically illegal until now, although substantial negotiations have taken place since 2012 between Ankara and the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan. The law also opens up a road for amnesty for PKK fighters and their re-entering civilian life.

Last year Ocalan, who was captured in 1999 and is serving a life sentence for “treason,” declared an end to the PKK’s decades-long military struggle against the government waged from its bases in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq, part of the historical territory of Kurdistan.

“There is an international campaign to free Mr. Ocalan,” Hayri Ates, an official of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), said at a meeting with Militant reporters July 3 at their headquarters here.

The Kurdish people have been denied a homeland for centuries, first by the Turkish Ottoman rulers, then by British and French imperialists. After World War I the imperialist powers carved their territory up among four countries: Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.

The largest number of Kurds, some 13 to 15 million, live in Turkey, comprising 17 to 20 percent of the population.

Since 1984, more than 40,000 people have died in the southeastern part of the country, as the Turkish government battled the PKK and repressed any manifestation of Kurdish identity, even referring to Kurds as “mountain” or “Eastern Turks.” During the peak of the war, from 1984 to 1999, the Turkish military and government forcibly evacuated 300 Kurdish villages, forcing out some 378,000 people.

Impact of gains won by Iraqi Kurds

Advances by Kurds in Iraq have had a big impact in opening space for Kurds in Turkey to organize in defense of their rights. Taking advantage of the no-fly zone Washington imposed on Iraq during the 1991 U.S. invasion, Kurdish Peshmerga guerrillas wrested control of Kurdish areas in northern Iraq. After Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in 2003, Kurds established the Kurdish Regional Government.

Turkish rulers worried that advances by Kurds in Iraq would give a boost to the Kurdish struggle in Turkey. But confronted with the reality of Iraqi Kurdistan they had to adjust.

“The Kurdish zone has blossomed into one of the main buyers of Turkish exports worldwide,” reported Deutsche Welle June 30.

Foreign Affairs magazine noted in March 2013 that Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan’s economies “are increasingly interdependent. Approximately 80 percent of the goods sold in the KRG are made in Turkey. Some 1,200 Turkish companies are currently operating in northern Iraq (mostly in construction, but also in oil exploration).” Turkey is the main conduit for oil produced in Iraqi areas under Kurdish control.

In 2005 Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan broke a long-standing taboo within the ruling class when he referred to a “Kurdish problem” — merely saying “Kurdish” in public had been unthinkable until then. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002.

Kurdish language restrictions eased

In 2009 his government began making more concessions to Kurdish demands, including easing restrictions on speaking Kurdish, allowing an official Kurdish TV station and opening negotiations with Ocalan.

Working people and supporters of Kurdish rights have taken advantage of the space that has opened up to discuss, organize and press their demands.

In June 2013, thousands of Kurds — joined by Turkish workers, students and others — marched in Istanbul to protest the death of Medeni Yildirim, an 18-year-old Kurd shot by police in Diyarbakir, the main city in the Kurdish region of southeastern Turkey. He was killed while protesting against a new military outpost there.

In September 2013 Erdogan announced a “democratization package” that included more concessions to Kurds as well as to Roma and other minorities.

Over the last several decades, Kurds have become a larger part of Turkey’s working class outside Kurdistan, moving to cities across the country, such as Izmir on the western Aegean coast and Istanbul. Many Kurds who live in the southeast migrate seasonally to agricultural areas along the Black Sea, living in tents outside towns and cities during harvest season.

The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party leaders laid out a picture of what confronts Kurdish workers in Turkey. Kurds mostly work in construction, as street vendors and porters, and as seasonal farmworkers, they said. Few are miners.

“The main problem is in the workplace,” said Ates. He described how Kurds often work in the most insecure and unsafe jobs under the subcontracting system known as taseron, which denies workers health care benefits and pensions.

Many Kurds work as day laborers, with very low wages, Ates said, and many Kurdish children begin working when they are 9 or 10 years old and stop going to school. This contributes to high illiteracy among Kurds.

The children “learn to speak at home in their native tongue, Kurdish,” said Feyziye Pulat, co-chair of the Izmir city branch of the BDP, “but are forced to learn through Turkish once they are in school.” Education in Kurdish is now allowed in private, but not in state primary and secondary schools.

This does not mean the oppression of Kurds within Turkey has ended. The Turkish government still tries to keep the working class divided by criminalizing Kurds and Roma, BDP leaders said. “The authorities do not want conscious Kurdish youth,” said Pulat. As a result she said, the police turn a blind eye to drug dealing in Kurdish neighborhoods in cities like Izmir.

Ferhat Gokmen, 24, a BDP supporter, told the Militant at the party’s headquarters that he was recently released from prison after serving five years of a 10-year sentence for throwing stones at an armored police vehicle. While in prison he fought to get access to Kurdish language newspapers.

According to Ates, the majority of the thousands of political prisoners are Kurdish. He also estimated that nonpolitical inmates are disproportionately Kurdish or Roma. According to the Turkish Ministry of Justice website, there were more than 130,000 prisoners in the country as of May 2013.  
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