Behind the Kurdish Hunger Strike in Turkey

by Jake Hess | published November 8, 2012

For background on the BDP, see Jake Hess’ interview with Selahattin Demirtaş, “The AKP’s ‘New Kurdish Strategy’ Is Nothing of the Sort,” Middle East Report Online, May 2, 2012.

For more on ties between Kurds in Syria and Turkey, see Denise Natali, “Syrian Kurdish Cards,” Middle East Report Online, March 20, 2012.

For more on the 2010 referendum, see Aslı Bali, “Unpacking Turkey’s ‘Court-Packing’ Referendum,” Middle East Report Online, November 5, 2010.

To hear Mazlum Tekdağ’s story is enough to understand why 700 Kurdish political prisoners have gone on hunger strike in Turkey. His father was murdered by the state in front of his Diyarbakır pastry shop in 1993, when Mazlum was just nine years old. His uncle Ali was kidnapped by an army-backed death squad known as JİTEM (the acronym for the Turkish phrase translating, roughly, as Gendarmerie Intelligence and Anti-Terror Unit) two years later. Mazlum never saw his uncle again, but a former JİTEM agent later claimed they tortured him for six months before killing him and burning his body by the side of a road in the Silvan district of Diyarbakır.

Such experiences have moved thousands of Kurds in Turkey to join the armed rebellion of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, which has been outlawed since its inception. But Mazlum, along with thousands of others, chose to fight for his people’s rights through the non-violent means of pro-Kurdish political parties, a succession of which have been allowed to operate by the Turkish state before then being shut down. He was first arrested in 2001, when he was 17. Now 28, Mazlum has been in jail for three and a half years, though he has not been convicted of a crime. His trial is deadlocked because Turkish courts refuse to let him or his fellow political prisoners offer their legal defenses in their native Kurdish language. All of them speak fluent Turkish; they are making a political point.

Since 2002, the Turkish state has taken cautious steps toward softening its overall stance vis-à-vis the demands of the Kurdish political movement in the country. Some Kurds have opted to agitate within the ruling Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish initials, AKP). Yet others essentially have two choices: to press their demands peacefully, and risk being thrown in prison like Mazlum, or to take up arms with the PKK. That is the fundamental reality behind his and the other Kurdish political prisoners’ hunger strike, launched on September 12 to demand the rights to get an education and offer a legal defense in Kurdish, as well as improvement in conditions for imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who has been barred from meeting his lawyers since July 2011.

“These are legitimate demands,” Vahap Coşkun, a law professor at Diyarbakır’s Dicle University, said in an interview. “A very large portion of Kurds support them. Kurds’ political preferences may vary, but on the issue of language rights, it can be said that there’s a large consensus.” In July, hundreds of Kurdish NGOs issued a joint declaration protesting Öcalan’s isolation, which Coşkun maintains has “no legal basis.” A notable feature of the current hunger strike is the number of Turkish NGOs and intellectuals, including many academics and writers, who have stood by the strikers and their demands. Solidarity demonstrations have occurred at Turkey’s top universities in Istanbul and Ankara.

Search for a Solution

Since the early 1990s, the Kurdish political movement in Turkey -- including the PKK, whose goals are constantly mischaracterized in the Western media as “separatist” -- has been calling for a negotiated solution to the Kurdish issue based on autonomy and expanded rights within Turkey’s borders. The PKK has declared scores of unilateral ceasefires to open a pathway to talks, but on each occasion the Turkish army has continued military operations against the group. The government, for its part, has ordinarily dismissed the ceasefires, repeating pledges to destroy the PKK.

Since 2009, some 8,000 Kurdish rights defenders, lawyers and journalists have been arrested in operations the Turkish police say are aimed at the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), an umbrella organization that includes the PKK, and thus is also illegal. In reality, most of the detainees are connected to the legal Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which shares a political base with the PKK and voices the same demands.

Secret parleys between the Turkish state and PKK occurred in the shadow of this renewed repression from 2009 to mid-2011. A simultaneous set of talks took place in Oslo and on İmralı island, where Öcalan is serving a life sentence. Little is known about what was discussed, but there is evidence that peace was within reach. In an audio recording from an Oslo meeting that was leaked in 2011, Hakan Fidan, a senior Turkish intelligence official, commented that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Öcalan were in accord in “90 to 95 percent” of their views. Murat Karayılan, the PKK’s lead commander since Öcalan’s 1999 capture, later said the two sides had come “very close” to a solution and that “conditions had ripened” for a settlement.

There is evidence, moreover, to suggest that Turkish society was ready for a peace agreement, although the PKK remains intensely unpopular among the majority of Turks. Although opposition parties have criticized Erdoğan for negotiating with the PKK at all, there was no large-scale, bottom-up backlash when the recording of Fidan’s remarks was released. Over the last decade, both sides have come to realize that the Kurdish question cannot be settled on the battlefield, prompting a public discussion of alternatives.  

There is good reason to believe, then, that a historic opportunity was missed when the negotiations were abruptly halted around the time of the June 2011 parliamentary elections in Turkey. In a September 2012 television interview, Erdoğan admitted to having terminated the talks: “We cut off the meetings,” he said. “Why? Insincerity in communication. When that insincerity surfaced, we said ‘Let’s cut this off,’ whether we wanted to or not.” [1]

The Turkish government’s decision to stop talking left the Kurdish side frustrated. “The Kurdish people have waited for a genuine step [toward a solution] for a long time,” said Hamdiye Çiftçi, a young Kurdish journalist who was imprisoned for two years after documenting repeated human rights abuses in the majority-Kurdish southeast. “Expectations for peace grew especially during the 2011 general elections, but the government showed its real face by not doing anything for dialogue and a lasting peace. No one trusts them.” It was the elections’ outcome, Çiftçi and others believe, that led Erdoğan to end the meetings. The unprecedented victory of 36 candidates allied to the BDP had shown that the government’s attempt to undermine the Kurdish movement through a combination of repression and political marginalization was not working. Instead of accepting the results, the government stepped up its police actions hounding the people it was supposed to be negotiating with; about half of the 8,000 detentions have occurred since mid-2011.

Military operations against the PKK escalated at the same time. “We had agreed on a protocol for an agreement with the Turkish delegation. Erdoğan needed to approve it, but he never answered,” Karayılan said in an interview with Fırat News Agency. “Instead, believing that they were powerful and that they could defeat us with weapons, they increased attacks on all fronts. We suffered severe losses in the winter. We reorganized ourselves in the spring and went on the offensive in the summer.”

The fighting in the southeast has now reached its most severe level since the 1990s, according to the International Crisis Group. The PKK redoubled its armed campaign to prove that its peace overtures were not born of weakness and that the Turkish government had manifestly failed to “pacify” the southeast after decades of trying. Whereas for years combat had been confined to the mountains, in areas that are mostly remote, the PKK increasingly mounted attacks on Turkish soldiers and installations in Kurdish cities. At the same time, they detained AKP officials, as well as teachers and others seen as working with the Turkish state.

No doubt the organization was spurred on by gains made by Kurds in Syria and eager to concentrate minds in Ankara on Turkey’s own Kurds instead of those across the border. Predictably, the Turkish government now accuses the PKK of backing the Asad regime, ignoring the fact that it was Ankara and Damascus that had cordial relations prior to the Syrian uprising that began in March 2011. Hafiz al-Asad, father of the current Syrian president, allowed the PKK to base fighters on Syrian territory from the 1980s until 1998, and also sheltered Öcalan. In 1998, however, Damascus expelled the PKK leader under pressure from Ankara. At present, the PKK and its sister group in Syria, the PYD, are at odds with the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition, which has failed to convey sufficient assurances as to Kurdish rights in a post-Asad Syria.

The hunger strikes are, in some regards, an extension of this renewed Kurdish resistance and a reflection of the urgent need for a comprehensive solution to the Kurdish issue. By drawing attention to key demands that will be indispensable for any such settlement, the hunger strikes aim to break the country’s political logjam and force the Turkish government back to the negotiating table. They have succeeded to an important extent, as public discourse in Turkey has once again focused on the government’s refusal to respect the basic rights of Kurdish citizens.

Erdoğan has hinted in the course of the autumn that he might resume the state-PKK negotiations “if necessary.” But given his history of raising expectations only to let them crash down -- from a ballyhooed 2005 speech in Diyarbakır, recognizing the need for a political solution, to the moribund 2009 “democratic opening,” which was supposed to deliver that solution, to the lack of progress on drafting a new constitution despite his pledges -- such intimations inspire little confidence. Besides, the prime minister has already announced that he will not accept education in Kurdish or autonomy, leaving Kurds to wonder what sort of “solution” he has in mind.

The AKP’s Kurdish Strategy

Since 2007, indeed, Erdoğan has appeared to vacillate himself, introducing a state-run Kurdish-language TV channel and elective Kurdish language courses, on the one hand, and sharpening the crackdown on legal activism for Kurdish rights, on the other. Far from being contradictory, however, these two approaches work in concert. By simultaneously offering limited reforms, making the occasional conciliatory statement and imprisoning Kurdish activists en masse, Erdoğan has sought to expand his base among Kurds who traditionally vote for conservative Turkish parties and to isolate and weaken the BDP and PKK to the point that they have no choice but to accept a version of the political settlement that is preferred by the Turkish state.

The Kurdish political prisoners now on hunger strike, many of whom have been incarcerated since 2009 due to the anti-KCK campaign, are basically hostages to this long-term project to demobilize the Kurdish movement. Faced with unending court proceedings and a government that has rejected their core demands, they have embraced a dramatic method that may yet embarrass the government into action.

The KCK arrests and hunger strikes are the outcome of developments stretching back more than a decade, particularly the political rivalry between Erdoğan’s AKP and the BDP. In its early years, the AKP was widely viewed as a coalition party that “formed a broad democratic platform appealing to a wide range of sectarian, ethnic, social and political forces hitherto marginalized by the Kemalist state,” [2] including Islamists, Anatolian businessmen and Turkish liberals. Many Kurds were drawn to the AKP’s reformist image and religious roots. Thanks in part to these Kurdish supporters, the AKP became the largest party in Parliament in 2002, little more than a year after its founding.

The AKP’s arrival on the political scene temporarily stalled and then reversed the electoral growth of the BDP, whose predecessors’ share of the vote had increased in every election from 1995 to 2002. In 1995, the BDP (then HADEP) won 4.2 percent of the vote nationally, reaching 6.2 percent in 2002. But in 2004 its portion dropped to 5.1 percent, and in 2007 the BDP won just 4 percent, its worst showing ever. The BDP lost these votes to the AKP, which won 32.5 percent of votes in Kurdistan, or the majority-Kurdish areas of southeastern Turkey, in the 2002 elections, a share jumping to 55 percent in 2007. [3]

Indeed, the 2007 election, in which the AKP won its highest-ever number of Kurdish votes and the BDP its lowest ever, represented a key turning point in the AKP’s approach to the Kurds. Though its performance was impressive, the ruling party appears to have misread the election’s outcome in two critical ways, contributing to the repression and deadlock that prevails today.

First, having won more than half of the Kurdistan vote, the AKP seems to have decided that it could count on this bloc permanently. Party leaders frequently boasted that they had 75 Kurdish parliamentarians in their delegation, presenting themselves as the “real” representatives of the Kurds in Turkey. Erdoğan declared that he wanted to win in such traditional BDP strongholds as Diyarbakır and Batman in the 2009 elections, apparently believing this goal to be achievable.

But this AKP analysis neglected the extraordinary circumstances in which the 2007 vote took place. In April of that year, the Turkish army had threatened to intervene should Parliament elect an AKP member to the presidency, summoning memories of the “soft coup” that dislodged the AKP’s Islamist forerunners in 1997 and the long history of military subversion of Turkish democracy. Thus the 2007 election was, to some degree, a referendum on the military’s role in politics. The army’s warning accentuated the AKP’s early reputation as a coalition of forces excluded by the Kemalist republic, and many Kurds rallied to the party as a way to express their opposition to the generals’ meddling. At the same time, the AKP’s modest liberalizing reforms and promise to draft a new civilian constitution led some Kurds to conclude that the ruling party was their best chance for a political solution to the Kurdish issue. The votes in the 2007 election thus reflected the hope that the Kurdish movement’s core demands would be realized under the AKP, not a repudiation or a rethinking of these goals.

The AKP’s second major miscalculation grew out of the first. Having mistaken its electoral performance in Kurdistan as indicating support that could be taken for granted, the AKP anticipated another strong showing in 2009’s local elections and assumed it could settle the Kurdish question without the cooperation of the BDP. No doubt, another electoral cycle in which the BDP’s share of votes dropped would have left the Kurdish political movement weakened and vulnerable. The ruling party’s bet was that, with political momentum on its side, the Kurdish movement losing ground and thousands of Kurdish leaders in prison as bargaining chips, the AKP would be in a position to impose its own “solution” to Turkey’s most intractable problem.

The ruling party embarked on a strategy for undermining the Kurdish movement through a combination of sheer repression and political isolation. In 2007, the Diyarbakır prosecutor’s office began collecting the evidence it would use to justify the first wave of KCK arrests, which were eventually launched two weeks after the March 2009 local elections. In January 2009, the government opened the country’s first TV channel broadcasting exclusively in Kurdish. Weeks before the March balloting, Abdullah Gül hinted at the “democratic opening” when he said “good things” would happen on the Kurdish front, as the government announced plans for a state-run radio station that would broadcast in Kurdish. Meanwhile, a government-backed “Kurdish conference” in Iraqi Kurdistan -- the purpose of which was to sideline the PKK by having Kurdish figures friendly to Turkey call on the group to lay down its weapons -- was scheduled for April 2009, by which point the Islamists expected to have humiliated the BDP at the polls.

Even as it attempted to attract Kurdish voters through such cynical political maneuvers, the ruling party positioned itself to ride a wave of Turkish nationalism erupting in the country’s west. Military operations against the PKK intensified with renewed US backing. Erdoğan harkened back to the antiquated statist-nationalist approach to the Kurdish issue when, in a speech in the Kurdish city of Hakkari in November 2008, he said, “We said, ‘One nation, one flag, one motherland and one state.’ Those who oppose this have no place in Turkey and should leave.” At the same time, Erdoğan refused to meet with the BDP until it denounced the PKK as “terrorists” -- a policy that insulted the millions of Kurds who actively supported or at least respected the political movement. Small wonder, then, that Kurds increasingly saw the AKP as the party of the state, rather than an anti-state party.

In the end, the government could not have it both ways. Instead of the expected victory, the AKP suffered a major setback in the 2009 elections, with the BDP nearly doubling the number of municipalities under its control to 100. The “Kurdish conference” was unceremoniously canceled, apparently at the request of AKP Interior Minister Beşir Atalay. [4] Kurds celebrated the BDP’s historic victory at the party’s building in Diyarbakır.

The government nevertheless pushed ahead with the doomed “democratic opening,” which was sold as a plan to resolve the Kurdish issue and demobilize the PKK. Erdoğan’s decision to openly discuss the possibility of a political solution was rightly seen as historic. But instead of a genuine negotiated settlement, the policy’s overarching goal was to isolate both the BDP and PKK by promising modest reforms even as the government arrested thousands of Kurdish activists. Hüseyin Çelik, vice president of the AKP at the time, seemed to admit as much when he told Zaman, the daily sympathetic to the Islamists, that the BDP (and the ultra-nationalist MHP) would become a “marginal” party if the initiative succeeded. [5]

In August 2009, Öcalan instructed the PKK to send a “peace team” of its members to Turkey to symbolize the organization’s commitment to a political solution. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds welcomed the group with festive gatherings, hoping that peace might be near. But some seized on the opportunity to claim that Erdoğan’s approach was emboldening “terrorists,” and the initial euphoria of the movement dissipated as the BDP’s predecessor party, the DTP, was closed by the constitutional court in December. Court cases against members of the PKK delegation were soon filed, and those who were not arrested returned to the group’s bases in northern Iraq in July 2010.

The September 2010 referendum on two dozen amendments to the country’s constitution, drawn up after the 1980 military coup, briefly sparked optimism that the “democratic opening” could be revived. The package was approved by an overwhelming margin, but most Kurds in the southeast backed the BDP’s call for a boycott on the grounds that the amendments focused more on consolidating the ruling party’s hold over the state than on reviving democratic reforms. Since then, the BDP has continued to emphasize the importance of drafting a new civilian constitution for a solution to the Kurdish issue. Notwithstanding the ruling party’s constant pledge to do so, the parliament’s constitutional committee has made little progress.

The secret state-PKK talks occurred parallel to all these events in the public eye, only to be closed down by Ankara after the BDP’s strong performance in the June 2011 parliamentary elections.

The KCK Operations

The “democratic opening” and state-PKK talks occurred in the shadow of the KCK operations, which began two weeks after the BDP’s 2009 election victory, and just one day after the PKK had announced a new ceasefire. In the short term, the arrests offered the Turkish government thousands of bargaining chips and strong leverage in its dealings with the Kurdish movement. In the long run, they aimed to break up a new class of Kurdish leaders that rapidly emerged after 1999, the watershed year when the BDP’s ancestor HADEP entered local government for the first time, Turkey became a candidate for EU membership and the PKK announced a unilateral ceasefire that lasted for five years.

During the 1990s, at least 112 members of pro-Kurdish political parties were assassinated by the Turkish state, along with scores of journalists and human rights defenders. But in the sanguine and comparatively peaceful period that followed 1999, these extrajudicial killings all but ceased as the state made tentative gestures at allowing expressions of Kurdish identity, again as part of Turkey’s EU membership bid. Provisions for limited broadcasting in Kurdish were introduced, the country’s first private Kurdish-language courses were opened and the hated “state of emergency” regime in the southeast was lifted.

The BDP seized the opportunity to consolidate its ranks, especially its youth and women’s branches. Kurdish politicians drew on the resources and platforms afforded by the municipalities they now controlled to develop their political identity and gain experience in self-rule. [6] Like many future BDP leaders, Kurdish intellectuals like Selahattin Demirtaş (who went on to be elected to Parliament and head the party) and Osman Baydemir (who would become mayor of Diyarbakır) were also deeply involved in civil society initiatives, especially the Human Rights Association, during this period. These activist roots show up in the BDP’s unique political style, which mixes agitation in the streets with deliberations in Parliament.

“The State Created This Resolve”

Young activists arrested under the KCK operations have taken a leadership role in the hunger strike. About half of the nine women prisoners who began refusing food on September 12 -- the thirtieth anniversary of the 1980 military coup -- were in their early thirties or younger at the time of their arrest. These women are representatives of the much discussed “new generation” of Kurds who, like Mazlum Tekdağ, came of age during the darkest days of the 1990s war and have barely known a day of true peace in their lives.

Some commentators have, predictably, accused the PKK of forcing its followers to starve themselves, an accusation the organization and its affiliates flatly reject. “This is a decision the strikers took based on their own thoughts, will and desire. As the KCK, we had no involvement in this whatsoever,” KCK spokesman Roj Welat said in an e-mail.

Kurdish journalist Murat Çiftçi (no relation to Hamdiye), himself a member of the “new generation,” spent three months in prison earlier in 2012 for an article he wrote. He was later sentenced to almost nine years in prison; he is currently free pending appeal. He says that anyone who wants to understand the hunger strike should simply look at the Turkish government’s policies: “It’s the state that created this resolve, in my opinion. Because thousands of people are in prison for no reason. Everyone feels like I do: These sentences are given because we’re Kurds, not because we’re good PKK activists. The goal is to scare and suppress us with prisons, but this has had the exact opposite effect.”

Murat and other released Kurdish political prisoners say activists in each jail have their own mechanisms for organizing protests, and that authorization from the outside PKK leadership would not be required to undertake a hunger strike. There is coordination among prisoners in different facilities, but according to Murat, no one is forced to join any protests. “There’s a separate formation in the prisons that can make decisions in the name of Kurdish prisoners. Those who want to participate, say, in a hunger strike, volunteer their own names,” he said. “This happened when I was there -- 20 people decided to start one, and there were soon 350 volunteers. I wanted to participate for a limited time, but they didn’t let me because I was ill. In other words, no one’s forced to join. It’s completely voluntary, and sometimes they don’t even accept certain volunteers.”

The hunger strike is not the first of its kind. A similar action with similar demands occurred earlier in 2012. On the fiftieth day, the KCK effectively terminated the strike by issuing a statement through its media channels. “In line with [Abdullah Öcalan’s] call that there should be no deaths in the course of resistance, the correct position is for the actions in all prisons to be ended for now,” the communiqué said. But they added a qualification: “The protest had developed solely with the activists’ initiative. This hunger strike is a warning. If there’s no improvement in [Öcalan’s] situation in the days ahead, new types of actions will be developed in a more comprehensive way, including hunger strikes.” KCK spokesman Welat said the current hunger strike is “certainly” a follow-up to the previous one. “The strikes will only stop if the hunger strikers’ just and legitimate demands are fulfilled by the Turkish government. They have declared as much to the public. We’ve tried very hard for a political, democratic and peaceful solution,” he said.

The hunger strikes in the fall have achieved far more success in mobilizing the public and generating debate than those in the spring, meaning it may prove more difficult to bring the action to an end before strikers start dying. Many Kurds have heeded the strikers’ call for serhildan -- the Kurdish equivalent of intifada -- with solidarity actions occurring on a daily basis across the southeast. “Everyone aged 7 to 70 has broken their silence. Even Kurds who stayed out of these sorts of things before are mobilized and demanding their basic rights,” Hamdiye Çiftçi said. “Life stopped in the region on October 30,” Murat Çiftçi said in reference to a special day of action coinciding with the strike’s fiftieth day. “The popular rebellion is growing daily.”

As the strike approaches its sixtieth day, all eyes are on Erdoğan. One of his first responses was to deny that the hunger strike even existed, claiming that one person, not hundreds, was refusing food. He also referred to a months-old picture of BDP leaders dining on lamb kebab, accusing them of hypocrisy. The prisoners have again underlined their refusal to end the strike unless their demands are met, pledging to increase their numbers by the thousands in the days ahead.

In a press conference following a cabinet meeting on November 5, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç reported that Erdoğan had ordered the Justice Ministry to make the necessary arrangements to allow suspects to offer their legal defenses in Kurdish during court proceedings. He also said that Öcalan could meet with his lawyers if he applied to the Justice Ministry for permission. (His lawyers’ subsequent application was declined, on the grounds that the ferry to his island prison is “out of service” -- as officials have claimed since July 2011.) But Arınç left mother tongue education -- the third area of the hunger strike’s focus -- untouched in his comments. These are signs that a solution may be imminent. Meanwhile, the clock continues to tick on the hunger strikers.

“By melting our bodies, we’re trying to intervene in the situation, to shape our future,” Tekdağ wrote in an October letter from Diyarbakır prison that was circulated in the Turkish media. “Between these four walls, there’s nothing else we can do in the face of tyrannical repression.”

Endnotes

[1] Milliyet, September 27, 2012.
[2] M. Hakan Yavuz, Secularism and Muslim Democracy in Turkey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. xi.
[3] Taraf, August 18, 2009.
[4] Today’s Zaman, April 19, 2009.
[5] Zaman, January 4, 2010.
[6] For more on the history of pro-Kurdish political parties in Turkey, see Nicole Watts, Activists in Office (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010).

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