ISTANBUL, Turkey -- The Turkish government of moderate Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been reaching out to the country's Kurdish minority, with a “Kurdish initiative” that initially set out to provide greater rights and some form of local autonomy for a 20-million-strong Kurdish population. That plan is disintegrating quickly as hundreds of Kurds participate in a hunger strike that has now surpassed 60 days.
On Sept. 12, 64 Kurdish political prisoners embarked on a hunger strike with three core demands: the release or fair trail of jailed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, leader Abdullah Ocalan, the right to defend themselves in their mother tongue in court and the right to study in Kurdish.
But the hunger strike movement has, so far, failed to persuade the Turkish government to accept the strikers' demands.
The prisoners, who consist of politicians, journalists and activists, have been linked to the Union of Kurdistan Communities, or KCK, a branch of the PKK, which is deemed a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the EU. Their strongest plea is directed toward ending the solitary confinement of Ocalan, who has been on the prison island of Imrali since 1999 and has not had access to his lawyers for the past 15 months.
The Turkish government has been ignoring the pleas of the strikers, which has added fuel to the protest and resulted in more than 700 Kurds joining the strike.
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Members of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, have joined the hunger strikers. “No concrete steps have been taken up to now, and our friends are approaching death with each moment. Our friends will not end their hunger strike without observing concrete steps,” BDP lawmaker Ozdal Ucer said before beginning his own hunger strike on Friday.
In a parliamentary address on Tuesday, Erdogan mocked the BDP, saying its members should continue starving themselves. “Some of them seriously need to go on a diet,” Erdogan said, accusing many of them of not actually participating in the hunger strike and manipulating the prisoners who initiated the protest. He later vowed that the government would not “ bow to such blackmail.”
Erdogan’s response has only accelerated the Kurdish movement, and, as a result, hundreds of Kurdish communities around the world are either participating in the strikes or staging rallies. “There are obviously no words for the Turkish prime minister’s response except he is obviously desperate and trapped in a corner -- that is what becomes apparent from his lewd and coarse remarks,” said Azad Hevallo, a member of the UK Kurdish Federation. “His comments are designed to humiliate and demean the serious nature of the political situation,” he added.
The mayor of Diyarbakir, the biggest Kurdish town in Turkey, has also joined the hunger strikes after losing hope for a democratic solution. “All of my life I have stayed away from violence and the instruments of violence and have seen a legal, democratic struggle as the only means to achieve change,” Mayor Osman Baydemir said in a interview with Reuters. “The government has shut all legal, democratic channels. This sends Kurds the message: 'Head to the mountains,'” he added, in reference to PKK camps in the highlands of Iraq.
When Erdogan first publicly acknowledged there was a “ Kurdish problem” in 2009, many members of the Kurdish community rejoiced at the declaration. The government's admission that Kurds were an issue led to the lifting of Kurdish-language education bans and to the launch of a Kurdish-language television station.
That year, negotiations also opened between the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and the PKK in Norway. But after the PKK killed 13 Turkish soldiers in a 2011 attack, all talks collapsed, tensions mounted as violence grew in the southeast of Turkey, and the PKK resumed its fight for an autonomous state.
“There was a lot of talk of Erdogan’s Kurdish Initiative, but this was only designed to give Erdogan time for his real intention of totally crushing the Kurdish demands for political rights,” Azad said.
But the Kurdish movement has another problem besides the government ignoring the hunger strike. A large portion of the Turkish public is reluctant to act because of the difficulty in differentiating between the PKK fight for independence, which has no support among the majority of Turks, and the Kurdish push for civil rights, which is far more palatable.
Widespread protests by Kurds have broken out in Turkey over the past week, to which the police have responded with force.
“People of Diyarbakir bang their pots and pans and make noise in support of the hunger strikers; Turkish police are reportedly roaming the streets firing tear gas into random homes in a display of racist repression that is symptomatic of AKP's repressive response,” said Azad.
But the space for negotiation is still there. Turkey has initiated a gesture that could contribute to the end of the hunger strike. Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin has drafted a legal arrangement that could pave the way for the Kurdish language to be used in courts. The proposal has not yet been approved.
Turkish media reports have also suggested that even the smallest development related to Ocalan’s release or a new trial -- he was sentenced to death after capture in 1999, and his verdict was then commuted to life in prison, but the European Court of Human Rights says his trial was unfair -- could also halt the hunger strikes.
But time is running out. With the initial strikers over the 40-day critical stage, many fear that they are facing permanent damage or even death.