Enough is enough
Kurds rally for peace in Istanbul, Gareth Jenkins watches
On Sunday, over 40,000 demonstrators gathered in the Istanbul suburb of Kadikoy to call for a peaceful solution to Turkey's Kurdish problem in the largest protest against the 24-year-old war between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) ever to be held in western Turkey.
The majority of the demonstrators appeared to be ethnic Kurds who had migrated to Istanbul from the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey, where the fighting between the Turkish state and the PKK has devastated the local economy and led to widespread human rights abuses on both sides. Some of the women were dressed in traditional Kurdish costumes. Many of the protesters carried placards in Turkish and Kurdish calling for an end to the conflict. Others chanted Edi bese!, Kurdish for "Enough is enough!"
Most of the anger was directed at the Turkish authorities, particularly the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP). Although it has made minor concessions on Kurdish cultural rights since first coming to power in November 2002, it has refused to lift many other limitations on the expression of a Kurdish identity. For example, it is still illegal to call openly for the establishment of an independent Kurdish state or to found an explicitly Kurdish political party or NGO. There are also still many restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language, particularly in broadcasting, and it remains forbidden in education except for private language courses.
Although the JDP has been more willing than most Turkish political parties to acknowledge the existence of Kurdish ethnicity, it has consistently refused to grant Kurds political rights and has adopted the traditional official mantra of the Turkish state that the PKK is merely a terrorist organisation rather than a symptom of a more deep-rooted socio-economic and political problem. Many Kurds have been frustrated by the JDP's refusal either to contemplate an amnesty for PKK militants or to enter into negotiations in an attempt to persuade the organisation to abandon violence.
On 27 May, during a visit to Diyarbakir, the largest city in southeast Turkey, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan announced that the JDP government would provide over $15.5 billion in additional funding to complete the Southeast Anatolian Project, an ambitious irrigation and hydroelectric scheme in nine predominantly Kurdish provinces in southeastern Turkey. Erdogan promised that the money would create nearly four million new jobs in an area where unemployment amongst young people frequently rises to 50 or even 60 per cent. "This is a social restoration project, which will reduce the terrorist organisation's ability to exploit people," declared Erdogan.
But many Kurds remain deeply sceptical about the JDP's promises, particularly about where the government will find the money at a time when the pace of economic growth in Turkey is manifestly beginning to slow. Others suspect that the JDP is trying to buy their votes with promises in the run- up to the local elections in March 2009.
Such suspicions were exacerbated by the JDP's refusal to send any representatives to Sunday's rally in Kadikoy, which was attended by several leading members of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party and liberals such as independent MP and peace campaigner Ufuk Uras.
"What we are demanding is that state institutions adopt an inclusive policy rather than look to war, conflict and death," said Murat Celikkan, one of the members of the committee which organised the rally. "The Kurdish problem is not a question of violence or public order. It has cultural, social and human dimensions. Kurdish identity, language and culture should, like all cultures, be included in the public sphere. There should be freedom to speak openly and to organise. People who have a Kurdish identity should be able to express this identity in the political arena. The socio-economic inequalities between regions should be eradicated."
The Turkish police quickly made it clear that, for the time being at least, such freedoms will remain a hope rather than a reality. When they realised that a television camera was being used to provide a live feed to the Kurdish television channel Roj TV, which is based in Denmark and which the Turkish authorities claim has links with the PKK, police officers promptly forced the camera crew to stop filming.
Nevertheless, the fact that the rally was allowed to be held at all is a sign of how things have changed over the last 20 years in Turkey. In addition to calling for peace, the rally in Kadikoy was also a fervent demonstration of Kurdish culture, something which would have been unthinkable in Turkey's largest city even a few years ago. Until relatively recently, the Turkish state officially insisted that Kurds simply did not exist but that the people referred to as such were "mountain Turks" who had forgotten their true Turkish identity. Before 1991, speaking Kurdish was an imprisonable offence even if -- as was often the case in more isolated areas in southeast Turkey -- people did not know any other language. Although the Turkish state still continues to resist allowing the country's Kurds full cultural and political rights, there is now at least a general acknowledgment that denying their existence is simply unsustainable.