Kurds, Occupy Gezi and the Peace Process
Despite their concurrence with the Kurdish Peace Process in Turkey, the Occupy Gezi protests initially took little interest in the struggle of Kurdish Turks. Though there were signs of a Kurdish presence in Taksim and Gezi, the vast majority of Kurds have chosen to watch from the sidelines. However, as the Gezi movement has moved forward it has begun to make some historic connections with the Kurdish movement, even as the Turkish government has begun to retreat from the peace process.
Despite the turmoil in Turkey’s major cities over the past month, steps in the peace process between the Turkish government and the PKK have continued on schedule. The “Wise People” commission finished their tour of Turkey and reported back to PM Erdogan with suggestions on how to continue the detente with the Kurds. The PKK has been busy with step 1 in the process, moving its guerrillas out of Turkey and into the Kadil mountains of Iraq; the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) claims that 80% of PKK fighters have already left Turkey. As a result the PKK has begun demanding that Ankara institute promised reforms such as the right to Kurdish-language education and lowering the 10% electoral threshold for parties to be included in the parliament.
Despite the unprecedented initiative on the part of Erdogan and the Turkish government to begin this peace process, the past week produced some worrying developments. In contrast to the BDP, Erdogan claims that only 15% of PKK fighters have left Turkish territory, the implication of course being that the PKK has not fulfilled their end of the bargain. In addition, he seems to be full out refusing to even consider implementing promised reforms, step 2 in the outlined process. In a speech last Wednesday, he claimed that the government has “no plans” to lower the 10% election threshold or to provide “mother tongue” education for minorities. His related pronouncement that “the only official language is Turkish” hearkened back to the Kemalist nationalism that was instrumental in creating the Kurdish resistance and the PKK in the first place.
On Friday, protests over a perceived government violation of the peace agreement turned deadly. In the largely Kurdish Lice district in the province of Diyarbakir, protesters clashed with the Turkish army over the building of a new gendarme outpost. One young man was killed and a number of other seriously injured when members of the military opened fire on the
hostile crowd. *(eyewitness reports suggest that the government’s version of events exaggerated the violence of the protestors)
This incident is extremely worrying but so far the PKK seems hesitant to retaliate. Currently the PKK appears to more eager to see the peace process succeed than the Turkish government. Indeed Turkey’s Kurdish population has much more to lose from the failure of the peace than the Turkish government or average Turkish citizens. While Turks of all stripes protested in cities across the country over the past month, the Kurdish south-east has remained almost eerily quiet. Many have interpreted the lack of protests in Kurdish-majority areas as stemming from a desire to avoid giving the government any excuse to back out of the peace process. There are likely other factors at play as well. The Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink who is based in the largely Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, argues that the Kurds do not feel a need to participate in the Occupy Gezi movement, even if they sympathize with the protesters. Their “protest” started with the founding of the PKK and has been ongoing ever since.
In contrast, as the protests have gone on those involved have begun to take more and more of an interest in the Kurdish struggle. The protests have brought together Turks of all different lifestyles, political affiliations and ethnicities and created an arena for them to not only interact but forge bonds in a struggle against mutual enemies. The hugely important fieldwork conducted by Turkish sociologist Zeynep Tufekci in the midst of the protests in Gezi and Taksim has documented this culture of pluralism and tolerance. One of the outcomes of Gezi’s nurturing of plurality is the first time large numbers of Turks are fully comprehending the grievances of the country’s Kurds. After the incident in Lice, crowds gathered in various locals in Istanbul on Friday night in a solidarity protest. They applied the same terminology to the Lice (diren Lice) as has been utilized in the Gezi protests and chanted pro Kurdish slogans. As Tukekci observes “This would have been hard to imagine a month ago.”
A great number, if not a majority of Turks have a negative and even hostile view of Kurds. They have been raised to believe in the centrality of Turkish ethnic identity to the survival of the Turkish nation-state. Though Kurds make up the majority of the victims of the Turkish government’s war against the PKK, thousands of Turkish soldiers have also been killed. Turkey still requires all its young men to complete mandatory military service. Their military training and experience in the field has served to reinforce the idea that Kurds are the enemy to a generation of young men (and their families). However, Occupy Gezi has introduced the “other 50%” to the grievances of the Kurds in a very personal way. It is too early to make any predictions as to how Occupy Gezi will affect the outcome of the Kurdish peace process and vice versa. The Kurdish cause could very well give the Gezi movement the legs it needs to keep going now that its initial, Weberian “charismatic” stage seems to be coming to an end. No matter if the Lice protests in Istanbul end up being an isolated incident or not, I am optimistic that the pro-Kurdish protests by Turks is a sign of a cultural shift among at least some elements of Turkish society. After experiencing a month of insults, violence, and pro-government media coverage, I suspect that the “resistors” and their supporters will have trouble believing the official government line on aspirations of the Kurds and the inherent evil of the PKK.