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A sudden rush of awareness on Kurdish rights

Thursday 22 November 2007, by Semih Idiz

Judging by what former commanders are saying now, Turkey’s approach to the Kurdish issue was fundamentally flawed from the start

Winston Churchill is reputed to have said of the American’s that “they always get it right” going on to add, after a brief pause for effect, “eventually!” One wonders if the same might not be said of Turks. After all we, too, have a Turkish saying - “Türkün aklı sonra başına gelir” - which more or less translates into what Churchill said of the Americans, except that it is about Turks. This saying appears to be corroborated once again after some of the most senior of former commanders of the Turkish Armed forces, now retired, have started to “admit” what has been obvious to many for decades.

The “dawning of awareness”

The occasion for the “dawning of awareness” in the military wing this time was the series of interviews conducted by Fikret Bila, the famous columnist, with a group of these commanders. These interviews were first serialized in Bila’s paper Milliyet recently, and last week hit the market in book form (Komutanlar Cephesi: Detay Publications).

Those interviewed include the former “coupist” chief of the general staff and subsequent president Kenan Evren, former chief of the general staff Doğan Güreş, and former commander of the gendarmerie forces Aytaç Yalman. Needless to say all of them are household names in Turkey.

Judging by what these former commanders are saying now, Turkey’s approach to the Kurdish issue was fundamentally wrong from the start.

Kenan Evren, for example, admits that they should not have banned Kurdish as a language, after the Sept. 12 1980 coup, going so far as to add: “On the contrary, Kurdish should have been made a requirement for civil servants sent to the southeast.

Aytaç Yalman for his part says that they could not see the “social aspect” of the Kurdish problem at the time, instead actively promoting the myth that there were no Kurds in Turkey. He admits that they automatically considered – wrongly of course – at the time that all of those who spoke Kurdish and enjoyed Kurdish culture were “separatists.”

As for Doğan Güreş, known at the time as a hard-line chief of the General Staff who got a blank check from Prime Minister Tansu Çiller to more or less do as he wishes in the southeast, is now saying that there is nothing wrong with those who speak Kurdish or enjoy their culture. “Our problem is with separatist terrorism not these people” according to Güreş.

All three commanders here were, however, complicit in maintaining at the time what they are directly or indirectly admitting today as “having been wrong.” So their remarks must be taken in the “mea culpa” category, even if they would reject this contention themselves.

Neither can one help but wonder if this “belated dose of wisdom” might not have saved the country a lot of bloodshed and tears – not to mention scarce resources – had it emerged 30 years ago.

One can not help but wonder also if any lessons will be drawn from what the former commanders are saying, since their words pose the following serious question: If it has taken so long to admit to past mistakes, then when is awareness going to dawn concerning today’s mistakes ?
Or will we have to wait nearly three decades again for this to happen ?

Still, belated as they are these admissions by the commanders are, they are still very important and have confused minds in the hardcore right-wing nationalist circles who still find it hard to admit that Kurds have natural rights that have to be respected.

Baykal’s U-turn ?

But the clock is ticking against this hardcore element and last week provided more corroboration for this, apart from the admission from retired commanders. The reference here is of course to certain remarks by Deniz Baykal, the outspoken and bellicose leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), who until just recently had not one kind word to say about northern Iraqi Kurds. In an interview he gave to the Hurriyet daily earlier this week Baykal surprised and shocked everyone by saying Turkey should not alienate but win over the Iraqi Kurds by deepening the economic and social interdependence with northern Iraq.

He added that Turkish universities should be opened to Kurdish students from the region so that they not only get access to quality education, but also get a better understanding about Turkey. Baykal has clearly seen the writing on the wall (eventually!). His ultranationalist and anti-Kurdish stance, which he clearly hoped would win him many votes, did not serve him at all in the July general elections. The fact that the ruling AKP got more of the Kurdish vote in the Southeast than the pro-Kurdish DTP (which many say has links to the PKK) did must also have concentrated his mind, showing him that there is a vote potential in the region which his party completely overlooked and wasted.

Mr. Baykal is now saying, of course, that his views are not new, that he did not express them before because no one bothered to ask him about this subject. This of course is completely disingenuous since he has never held back on expressing his opinions on a host of subjects that “no one bothered to ask him about” in the past. Again, while he is due a lot of criticism on this score for past misdeeds, we must still welcome Mr. Baykal’s belated awareness.

Together with what the former commanders are admitting to today, his remarks will help secure new openings for those who want a peaceful settlement to the Southeast question. Provided of course, that the hard-liners that still continue to prevail on both sides can be brought to heel. Otherwise all of this “rush of wisdom” will amount to nothing, leaving the arena to more bloodshed and tears whose causes will take another few decades to understand properly.

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Source : Friday, November 16, 2007 TDN

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