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The Kurdish Issue in Turkey
by Saima Alvi
02 August 2002 08:56 UTC
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Kurd issue being debated with more openness 

By Steve Bryant 

ISTANBUL: A few years ago, merely suggesting some of
the reforms that Turkey's parliament is now debating
was landing scores of leftists and Kurds in jail. Now,
the idea that Turkey's estimated 12 million Kurds
could be allowed to study and broadcast in their own
language is no longer universally considered
"separatist propaganda". 

Instead, it is a central electoral pitch for many
parties campaigning for the November 3 election and an
essential plank of their drive for European Union

The outcome of the debate on a package of EU-inspired
human rights reforms will show to what extent Turkey
has managed the transformation from a country
ultra-sensitive about its national identity to a
serious, self-confident EU candidate. 

At the height of the battle with Kurdistan Workers'
Party (PKK) rebels in the mainly-Kurdish southeast 10
years ago, anyone who suggested allowing Kurdish
television or education was labelled a
fellow-traveller of the PKK. 

More than 30,000 people died in the conflict, most of
them PKK rebels, according to official statistics.
Many Kurds were jailed. Many others suspected of PKK
sympathies were killed in mysterious circumstances. 

Turkey's establishment has long argued that allowing
the Kurds cultural freedom would encourage separatism,
and a stern nationalism that put down roots during the
fighting burns on brightly - even though the conflict
has all but ended since the arrest of PKK leader
Abdullah Ocalan. 

"LANGUAGE THREAT": "I think the (Kurdish) language
will threaten our social cohesion. Social cohesion is
very important and these instruments have been used by
the PKK," says Oktay Vural, a senior government
minister in the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), the
reforms' prime parliamentary opponent. 

"We cannot give any instruments to these terrorist
groups to be used as a leverage. We have to think of
the security and unity of Turkey." 

Even those who champion the reforms cast themselves as
servants of national founder Kemal Ataturk's desire
for Turkey to match the best of the West, rather than
friends of the Kurds. 

Vural may avoid using the word "Kurdish" - but so does
Mesut Yilmaz, the conservative who has done most to
champion the reforms, and who spoke only of "mother
tongue" and "traditional languages and dialects" when
he defended the package last week. 

Although the Kurdish problem can now be debated with,
for Turkey, surprising openness in the press, the
generation who served long jail terms for criticizing
Turkey's treatment of its Kurds are not greatly
impressed yet. 

"These reforms have nothing to do with any desire to
change Turkey's militarism or the culture of
intimidation. These changes are political acrobatics,"
said Haluk Gerger, one of those who went to prison for
"subversive" pro-Kurdish writings. But he and other
campaigners say it would be churlish not to welcome
the proposals and the changes that made them possible.

"I believe that, compared to yesterday, there are
amazing changes in Turkey," says Murat Bozlak, chief
of the People's Democracy Party (HADEP), the leading
legal Kurdish party. 

One of those changes gives HADEP some protection from
bring shut down for separatism like its two
predecessors. Another, part of the EU reform package,
would almost completely abolish the death penalty -
just three years after a huge popular clamour for
Ocalan to be hanged. 

TOO LITTLE SUPPORT?: But there lies the main problem
with the reforms. Many of the leftists and radicals
who campaigned for them fear that too little has been
done to anchor popular support for the shift outside
the wealthy, educated, pro-European suburbs. 

"The steps Turkey is taking are not real steps on the
road to democracy. Everything done in recent years has
been to meet EU standards and is premature, and in a
way cosmetic," said Kerim Yildiz of the London-based
Kurdish Human Rights Project. 

"Turkey has never made a single one of these reforms
because it wants to. But even if they are premature,
we have to see them as positive. We could not have
dreamed of this 10 years ago, and many have paid a
high price for them," Yildiz added.-Reuters 

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