Saturday, November 3, 2012

A Hunger Strike:An Opposition behind Bars

During the last 53 days, many things have happened in Turkey and the world. For me, I started the university semester and I cannot believe that next week midterms will begin.  Summer ended, lasting extra long, and finally it is getting quite chilly outside. A film about Muslims sparked outrage. More recently, a hurricane named Sandy battered the East coast. I could go on and delve into different news stories. However, one thing we perhaps missed was that in Turkey, for the last 53 days, almost 700 Kurdish prisoners in Turkish jails have gone on a hunger strike (starting on different dates). They are demanding their right as Turkish citizens to study in their mother tongue , have the right to speak Kurdish in courts (with a translator), and want an end to the solitary confinement of the outlawed Kurdish PKK’s leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Kurds in Turkey's western city of Adana protest in the name of the hunger strikers
Those following the Turkish news, or my blog during the last almost four years, will know that Turkey has for over thirty years been subjected to an ongoing armed uprising of its Kurdish population in Turkey’s southeastern regions. During these years, over 40,000 Turkish citizens have been killed (on both sides) and throughout the 1990’s Turkey offered no negotiations, and sought out a military solution. The Kurdish organization, the PKK, recognized by most of the western world as a terrorist organization, has no chance of winning their armed struggle, but they also inflict great challenges on the Turkish military, and this year alone, there has been almost 100 security personnel killed. 

While the armed struggle is led by the outlawed PKK, with their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, being jailed on an island prison not far from Istanbul, the civil branch of the Kurdish struggle is played out through a political party, the Peace and Democratic Party (BDP). This party is in the Turkish parliament and the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is currently in the process of trying to strip some of the BDP members of their parliamentary status due to an event where the MPs took photos embracing PKK guerrillas.  Erdogan, who for the first part of his ten-year tenure worked to reach an agreement with the Kurds, more recently has switched to a zero-tolerance policy towards their demands.

During the last few months, as a result of the growing rift between the Turkish state and the Kurds, we have seen an increase in the violent clashes between the Turkish military and the PKK fighters.  On the civilian front, thousands of Kurds have been jailed (along with their Turkish allies), including academics, writers, journalists, and elected officials (mayors to MPs). Many are held months and years without trial, and often charged on anti-terrorist laws, which the United Nations Human Rights Committee recently criticized as "incompatible with international law," and implenting "unacceptable restrictions on the right of due process for accused people."

It is this atmosphere that Kurdish prisoners sought out to become active in their opposition; where they are silenced in jail, a massive hunger strike has awoken both Kurds and Turks (both Turkish citizens) to the ongoing Kurdish plight.  The Turkish government once again is showing that it is losing its grip over the society at large (see last week’s blog on Republican Day march), with the PM Erdogan ridiculing the BDP leaders as ones that feast at huge banquets, while their counterparts are on a hunger strike; he was basing his claims on a picture of the leaders at a feast, which was taken two months before the strike. On an official state visit to Germany, Erdogan, standing next to German PM Merkel, even went so far as to call the strike a political “show,” claiming that only one person is really on a hunger strike.  

Well, as Erdogan tries to brush off the strike, during the last two weeks, the mainstream Turkish media has been covering events on a daily basis. Massive demonstrations have been held in Turkey’s southeastern cities, such as Diyarbakir and Van, and in some western cities with large Kurdish populations, such as Adana.  A general strike was observed throughout most of the southeast last Tuesday with shopkeepers closing their shutters and children refusing to go to school.  There is no question that the Kurdish question just in a matter of a few months has managed to bring a huge split in the society, with Kurds and Turks reaching a dangerous divide.    

Turkey, almost a decade ago witnessed a prison “death strike,” held by a Turkish radical left movement with some dying; however, their support was limited, not like the Kurdish hunger strikers. Last year, the BDP member and MP Sebahat Tuncel, who herself might find herself behind bars due to an ongoing court case, wrote an article, which appeared in the NY Times. It was an op-ed which talked about that the Kurds in Turkey also might have their own “Arab Spring.” If the government does not act soon, and strikers start to die one by one, the Turkish government could be faced with a backlash that it has not seen until now, giving impetus to Tuncel’s words. Further, with the Turkish society polarized at the seams, such a scenario could lead to a general consensus that Erdogan, the invincible leader, might just not make it through the storm. 

FOLLOW ME on TWITTER @istanbultelaviv for more stories on whats happening in Turkey and Israel/Palestine, the uprising in Syria, and the Middle East at large.  

1 comment:

  1. Reading that 40,000 people has died over the span of thirty years turns off my light and gives me a heavy feeling in my chest and knots in my stomach. Too bad the power welders don't share my reaction, because if they did and do many would not be bleary-eyed in black. Like you, I will continue to keep Kurdish, Turkish, people and political prisoners in my thoughts and heart. POWER TO THEIR PLIGHT.