Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Tragedy of Negligence: the Soma Mine Disaster

Two days have passed since the Soma Mine disaster, with it occurring on May 13, 2014; a day that will go down in Turkish history as the day that the most miners, or for that fact workers, were killed at a work site. It is officially reported that 274 are dead, but many more are reported missing. 

Sadly, this disaster should come of no surprise since Turkey is no stranger to mine related accidents. In 1992, 263 miners were killed in a mine-related explosion, and just four years ago, 30 were killed. In fact, during the three year period of 2010-2013 a total of 293 died in mine accidents.

Since the tragedy first hit the news, much of the mainstream Turkish press has dragged its feet when it comes to releasing information concerning the numbers of dead. During the first night, in fact, it seemed that most of the press aligned itself with government wishes to keep the official numbers of dead lower than it actually was, perhaps in order to give it time to understand the full scope of the accident and to work out a plan of damage control.

Frustratingly, most of the Turkish public is still in the dark concerning what exactly happened in the mine, and how many people were actually in the mine at the time of the explosion, and are now missing, feared dead. In fact, similar to what happened in the major earthquake in 1999, it seems many Turkish people are highly suspicious of the the government's official statements, which have been issued by its Energy Minister, Taner Yildiz.

If the Turkish people thought Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, would provide some solace, they were wrong. Erdogan came to the mine, with a line of police and army to protect him, amidst the outrage of the bereaving families, who heckled him, at times shouting in unison, “government resign” and “murderer.”

Erdogan moved on to a press conference, which turned out to be much of a sham. He started it off in his usual way of scolding a journalist, this time an al-Jazeera correspondent, who asked a question about why the mine was allowed to operate, to which Erdogan replied: “I believe that you don’t follow closely how coal mines work around the world. It may be because there are natural gas reserves, but not coal mines in Qatar...”

He then went on a rant, giving a history of names around the world where mining accidents had happened during the last two centuries. As someone commented on Twitter, it was as if he was reading from a list on Wikipedia. In other words, Erdogan declared that the Soma Disaster was no more than a typical accident, sidestepping any government responsibility.

Erdogan even went so far as to compare the Soma Mine disaster to one in 1860’s England; I suppose the only comparison is that working in mines in Turkey, is very much like post-Industrial Revolution England or the United States, with workers having to work long hours in extremely dangerous conditions, for a pay that does not come close to meeting the worker’s needs.

In fact, the average miner in Turkey makes only around $500 a month in a job that Erdogan described just three years ago as entailing death as “destiny,” with miners well aware that death comes with the territory of the profession. The other similarity with 19th century England is the fact that it was reported that a 15-year old child was among the dead workers; whether true or not, it highlights that child labor is still an issue in Turkey.

Most tragic of all however is that immediate following the mine explosion, all were reminded that the opposition CHP presented a motion for an inquiry into mine safety last October, and it was brought to the parliament floor just two weeks ago. Discussing the dangerous condition of the Soma mine, Ozgur Ozel, the MP from Manisa, which over sees the town of Soma, discussed mine safety on the parliament floor. However, the inquiry was voted down by the ruling AKP party. 
The CHP motion to check the safety of the Soma Mine
October 2013, voted down two weeks ago by AKP gov

The original parliamentary motion, which appears  here in Turkish, was translated partially in Hurriyet Daily News, which quoted the following section:

“We demand an investigation into all the mine accidents in Soma to reveal the reasons and those responsible for the deaths in those accidents, to find permanent solutions to preventing a repeat of these cases, and to measure the sufficiency of the law enforcement and auditing of these institutions…”

In other words, had the AKP not voted down this inquiry into safety measures at the Soma Mine, this tragic event could had been averted. However, Erdogan snubbed the thought of this, claiming in the press conference that the CHP motion, and parliamentary debate, was just a show, an insincere attempt at changing the political agenda of the day.

If things could not get worse, it did. As Erdogan left the press conference, the miners’ families were even more outraged at Erdogan’s lack of sympathy and his distancing the government away from responsibility. At one point, he had to take refuge in a market, due to the massive force of anger he and his entourage met in the city. The icing-on-the cake was when a young advisor of his was caught on camera taking a spontaneous kick at a mourning family member, as he was being detained by what seems to have been Gendarme officers. 

The day went on with protests of mourning being attacked both in Istanbul and Ankara with teargas and water cannons; a common site since last year Gezi protests. The fact that the first anniversary of last summer’s Gezi Park protest is coming up a little over two weeks from now, on May 31, also has some AKP pundits pondering if the Soma mine disaster was somehow a case of sabotage to ignite a new round of protests.

While some might think such a scenario would be beyond the capacity of rational thought, it makes sense due to the fact the Erdogan’s government and many of his hardcore supporters blame any grievance against the government as being part of world conspiracies, or encompassing ulterior motives to “overthrow” the government in a “civil” coup d’etat. Yes, the situation is that bad.

Just like the government relinquished any responsibility for the deaths in the Gezi Park protests, or has brushed aside claims of massive corruption as being the works of a “parallel state,” it seems that it too will work at all costs to cleanse it hands of any responsibility in the Soma Mine Disaster.

There is no doubt that the Energy Minister, Taner Yildiz, should step down immediately. He even proposed this option if it is found out that a 15-year old was indeed working in the mine. However, as I asked on twitter, should not the death of 274 workers be reason enough to resign? His continuing his position is a disgrace. These mines are under his jurisdiction.

As for Erdogan, he should do his utmost to put an end to the chaos he has created during the first day following the disaster, and for once step up to the plate and take responsibility. A good way to start is setting up an independent inquiry into what happened and investigate the incident to its core, since it is clear that this was not a "natural disaster", rather it was a disaster in the waiting. 

Time is of the essence. Families are suffering. A whole nation is in mourning.  

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