Rallying around the Flag: Ups & Downs in the Peace Process between Ankara & the Kurds / PKK CONTROLLED OPIUM FIELDS IN LICE
Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak – Editors: Dr. Harel Chorev, Dr. Joel D. Parker, Hadas Sofer Shabtai Volume 2, No. 6, June 2014 –
Moshe Dayan Centere
As the storm surrounding the mine disaster in Soma subsided, surfers on social networking sites (SNS) in Turkey turned their attention to other issues on the political agenda. The peace process with the Kurds, which has been a very sensitive issue in Turkish public discourse since the establishment of the state in 1923, now leads that agenda.
Turkish governments have historically sought to assimilate the Kurds into the majority population. They refused to recognize the existence of a separate Kurdish identity and have called them “Mountain Turks who have forgotten their Turkish identity.” At first, the Kurds rose up against this policy, and from 1922 through 1938 there were twenty-eight recorded attempts at rebellion against the authorities. The final attempt was firmly quashed by the Turkish military, which put an end to Kurdish uprisings in Turkey for a long time afterwards. An important milestone in relationship between the Kurds and the Turkish government occurred in 1980 with the military takeover of the political system. Three years later, the government completely banned the use of the Kurdish language. In response, the Kurds broke their tradition of silence; in 1984 the Kurdish underground (PKK) initiated an armed uprising against the Turkish army. In the many years since, thousands of civilians and combatants on both sides have been killed in violent clashes.
When Erdoğan rose to power in 2003, he sought to resolve the conflict with the Kurds through diplomatic means. In 2011, the existence of secret negotiations between the Turkish Intelligence Organization (MIT) and representatives of the PKK was leaked to the media and, in 2013, after almost thirty years of armed conflict, the parties declared a truce. Details of the agreement were never published, but experts estimate that it included a promise by the Turkish government to make significant changes in the constitution, which would pave the way for Kurdish autonomy in southeastern Turkey. It has been claimed that the government undertook, among other things, to change the legal definition of Turkish citizenship to moderate the emphasis on Turkish ethnicity. In return, the PKK undertook to withdraw beyond the borders of Turkey, and not to initiate actions against the army. Despite the temporary lull, it seems that the Kurds are not pleased with how the government is implementing its commitments and the fact that it continues to construct new military bases for the border police in southeastern Turkey. Therefore, the PKK is continuing its efforts to recruit rebel fighters into its ranks.
Developments in the peace process have led to a change in the public discourse, which has become more open. This is evident in the current protest by Kurdish mothers from Diyarbakır against the PKK, charging that they smuggled their sons to the mountains last month, in order to force them into their ranks. This has been a familiar practice in the area for the last twenty years, but this was the first time that the mothers rose up in a significant protest and demanded that both the PKK and the Turkish government act to have their sons returned. In this way, the mothers expressed dissatisfaction with both parties, in light of the failed peace process. A review of the mood on SNS around the issue reveals that these mothers’ outcry was able to briefly bridge the debate about the Kurdish question in Turkey. Across the political spectrum, users expressed support for their struggle under the slogan, “Lest mothers weep.”1
However, the calm did not last long. Clashes erupted between Kurds and the Turkish security forces, when the former protested the construction of a Border Guard base in Lice, a village in Diyarbakır Province. This led to conflict between supporters of the government and its opponents, including but not limited to Kurds. On SNS, the governments’ supporters claimed that the real reason for the Kurdish protests is rooted in the desire of PKK to prevent the Turkish forces from entering the Opium fields in the region, which are an important source of income for the organization.2 It is interesting to note that surfers identified with the Gezi Park protests in June 2013 expressed support for and solidarity with the protesters in Lice. They frequently claimed that on the face of it there is no difference between the activists confronting the police in Taksim Square and the Kurds fighting the security forces in Lice.3 Expressions of support increased further when it became known that two Kurds had been killed during the clashes with security forces.
However, the expressions of camaraderie across the spectrum disappeared instantly after Kurdish activists infiltrated an army base and hauled down the Turkish flag from its pole. This act of defiance angered many Turks including those from Gezi Park. The reactions on SNS were stormy. There were even some expressions of satisfaction with the death of Kurdish protesters, under the slogan “Cleaning up in Lice.”4
Simultaneously, surfers from across Turkey organized and took to the streets with the Turkish flags; their slogan was “The flag is the people’s honor.”5 It is also important to note that some surfers expressed serious criticism of Erdoğan, in particular those who oppose the peace process with the Kurds claimed that his compromising policy led to desecration of the symbol
of Turkish sovereignty. They reminded the Prime Minister of his party’s campaign video from the previous elections, which stressed that the Turkish people would never allow the flag to touch the ground either metaphorically or literally. Surfers posted this promise together with a picture of a Kurdish protester removing the flag (see picture).6
Against the backdrop of renewed tension, the Kurdish mothers’ protests lost the overwhelming support it had initially, proving that past differences have not actually disappeared, despite progress in the peace process. Other political conflicts do sometimes blur these differences, as when protesters from Gezi Park supported those in Lice on SNS. However, the Turkish side has absolutely no tolerance for defiant acts of protest by Kurds, especially when directed at symbols of national sovereignty, and the conflict quickly reignited. The fragility of the “online alliance” with the Kurds clearly shows how deep the chasm between the sides is, and casts doubt on the viability of the peace program promoted by Erdoğan.