Sunday, 25 November 2012

For better or worse? The Kurdish hunger strike

It has been just over a week since the 68 day hunger strike of Kurdish political prisoners in Turkey and North Kurdistan ended following an appeal by the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan. Since that day everybody concerned with the hunger strike, Turkey, Kurdistan and the region has been debating the gains and losses and possible future developments regarding the Kurdish issue. Most of the debates have been centred and in some ways suffocated around the fact that the hunger strikers’ demands were not met, except a minor change in the constitution which allows for defence in the Kurdish language; although this right can be arbitrarily refused if the judge in court sees fit. The demands were: the right to education in the Kurdish language and for steps to be taken to end the isolation of Abdullah Öcalan and guarantee his health, security and eventual release for a peaceful and political solution to the Kurdish question. So, if the hunger strike did not achieve what it had targeted, why did Abdullah Öcalan call for it to end and why did the hunger strikers, numbering thousands inside and outside prisons, heed his call? The answer to this is where the internal dialectic and struggle methods of the Kurdish movement are hidden and it is why most people including their enemies do not comprehend it. 

The most important trait of the modern Kurdish Freedom Movement which began as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) but has now spread to include it, as well as the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), the legal Peace & Democracy Party (BDP), and countless other organisations around the world, is its self-sufficiency, ability to determine the political agenda, and the importance it bestows on organising and developing its internal structure among the people. Every single action taken by the organisations listed above is first and foremost aimed at raising awareness and consciousness among the Kurdish people in Kurdistan and around the world. One cannot highlight this enough, and viewing the hunger strike in this light will make it more comprehensible. In this sense the hunger strike was an appeal to the Kurdish people and all democratic circles in Turkey and around the world to lay claim to the demands of the hunger strikers and come out onto the streets to show the government that these were also their demands also. Thus the ensuing meetings, demonstrations, marches, squirmishes with state forces, diplomacy and media coverage have politicized further and given the Kurdish people the necessary organisation and impetus to keep the struggle going for at least another few years, a time-period that is, according to the Kurdish movement, crucial for the freedom of the Kurds in the Middle East.

If we evaluate the hunger strike from a temporal and contextual perspective we can say that it came at a time when the Middle East has become a hot-bed of activity, especially in North and Western Kurdistan. This is a time which the Kurdish movement has determined as being the final stretch of the walk to freedom and a political status in Turkish and Syrian occupied Kurdish areas, which are inextricably linked together due to Turkey’s involvement in Syria. For the first time since Öcalan’s capture in 1999 the summer months had seen an unprecedented escalation in warfare between the PKK’s military wing the Peoples’ Defence Forces (HPG) and the Turkish army. The PKK said they were changing their strategy from ‘hit and run’ to ‘hit and stay,’ and the media black out enforced by the AKP government during the summer months (it now continues regarding Turkey’s involvement in Syria) seemed to reinforce the PKK’s claims that they were in control of large areas of the Kurdish south-east. This gave the Kurdish movement the psychological and political advantage over the AKP but it was not enough to lift the isolation on Öcalan and make the Turkish state and AKP government change their tone and come back to the negotiation table which had been set up in Oslo, but knocked down in 2011 by PM Tayyip Erdoğan, who did not accept the protocols drawn up by Öcalan for a political and peaceful solution to the Kurdish question.

As the winter months neared the initiative passed from the mountains to the cities and legal political sphere. However the ‘KCK arrests’ which began in 2009 and which have until now led to the imprisonment without trial of almost 10,000 Kurdish/BDP MPs, mayors, executives, women’s rights activists, journalists and most of Öcalan’s lawyers had blocked and marginalized the political legal sphere. The AKP government were also doing their best to exclude the BDP as Turkish PM Erdoğan was continuously stating that they were not legitimate interlocutors. It was in this military and political deadlock climate that the hunger strike came onto the agenda, and it was only logical from the perspective of the Kurdish movement that those imprisoned should begin; as had happened in 1982 when the leading cadres of the PKK had gone on hunger strike against the policies of the September 12th 1980 military coup. It is this act of resistance which is seen as ‘giving birth’ to the modern Kurdish Freedom Movement and resurrecting the Kurdish people. In fact hunger strikes had begun in April and May 2012 in prisons and in Europe even before an escalation to the war, but due to lack of organisation and possible internal disagreements, the hunger strike in prisons had ended soon after starting, whereas the hunger strike of 15 people in Strasbourg lasted 52 days. However this action did not receive any international media coverage nor was it very effective in Turkey and Kurdistan in terms of highlighting the demands of the hunger strikers. It is also important to note that cadres of the Kurdish movement, regardless of where they are, always make it their top priority to remain active within the struggle to prove to their oppressors that they cannot be suppressed. In this sense although it was not one of the demands, a cry for freedom was also one of the messages sent out by the hunger strikers who on a large scale have not even been sentenced yet.

Although I have gone into detail regarding the political context of the hunger strike I think it will make the following points clearer and more understandable. Firstly, due to the hunger strike the Kurdish movement has emphasised once again and this time also to international public opinion, the importance of Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan to the peace process. Although his isolation has not been lifted and only his family members are being allowed to visit him, it is evident that state organisations and representatives have met with him recently. Despite not knowing what has been discussed we can surmise that Öcalan is back in the frame and in a stronger position than before. For a week leading Turkish newspapers, journalists and think tanks have been discussing openly Öcalan’s importance as a political player. Some are calling Öcalan the most important politician after PM Erdoğan. Furthermore Öcalan’s intervention to end the hunger strike has also ended the silence of international media regarding his isolation and prison conditions. A rise in Öcalan’s profile will mean that opening the path to peace in the international arena will be easier. Nelson Mandela’s journey to peace is a good example for this. Moreover the Turkish people, who are the majority and who are the key for a peaceful-political solution have seen once again the importance of Öcalan as a bridge between them and Kurdish people; they will have seen that it is Öcalan’s stance which will bring about a peace in which Turkey is not divided. For some the foregrounding of Öcalan is a contentious matter and they believe his position is exaggerated, but after the hunger strike I think there can be no further arguments about his importance, as now the legal political sphere (BDP and democracy forces) have also openly declared him their leader. 

The crystallization of the demands of the Kurdish people via the hunger strike has also created an important change in the political situation. Until now manipulation by the government, state sponsored political analysts and the Turkish media had clouded and put into question the struggle for legitimate demands in the eyes of the majority in Turkey. Criminalisation, ridicule and outright threats were used to silence the demands; and the AKP government’s relations with the important powers of the west had meant that for the EU and USA and their media outlets, the Kurdish movement was only composed of an armed wing and violence. The hunger strike has helped shatter this image of the Kurdish movement as being a separatist and ‘terrorist’ organisation and one can see from recent articles and reports that the language and terminology is changing. This will make it easier for journalists, human rights workers, political activists and NGOs to report, engage and develop ties and solidarity with the non-violent and legal arms of the heterogeneous Kurdish movement which is by far the most progressive political force not just in Turkey but the Middle East in general. The period of activism for raising awareness about the hunger strike has already created opportunities for many different organisations and people to come together in all the European cities. We can even say that the hunger strikes have strengthened the unity of Kurds from different parts of Kurdistan as the Kurdish conscience from areas outside of North Kurdistan has become bound with their brethren.

So what of the government and opposition political parties in Turkey who are the different sides to this age-old problem? In the face of such a great resistance and legitimate demands, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP), the two opposition parties in parliament apart from the BDP, have only been able to resort to initially ignoring the hunger strike and then saying that meeting the demands would create a divide in the Turkish nation-state. The AKP engaged the MHP by bringing capital punishment (for Öcalan) back onto the agenda and discussing it for a few days and amused the CHP with quotidian arguments ranging from the importance of Ataturk for the nation and the constitutional change relating to the administration of cities (Büyükşehir Yasası). It was important however to see that both these parties, who are the protectors of the status quo, could not argue fervently any longer against the legitimate rights of the Kurdish people.

Concurrently the AKP government and especially PM Erdoğan, the Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin and the Vice PM Bülent Arınç, who were the main politicians making statements about the hunger strike, portrayed the divide or should we say how ‘slippery’ the AKP could be in their politics. While the PM was stating that the hunger strike was a show and that hunger strikers were eating liver, the Justice Minister Ergin was giving official figures that 683 people were on hunger strike and Vice PM Arınç was pleading with them to end the action. This divided stance highlights the long known fact that the AKP are not homogeneous regarding their approach to the Kurdish question and its resolution; it also shows that the PM maybe losing his strong-hold on the party and that the AKP is weakening from within. But the fact that the hunger strike has ended without death is also an indication that the AKP has dealt with a crisis which could have exploded into something much more. This is a positive result for the government and could be a spring-board to coalesce and draw up a road-map for the resolution of the Kurdish question using peaceful and political means. The first step to a new round of negotiations could be a mutual ceasefire. But before even that can happen the isolation on Öcalan must be lifted and he must be given permission to meet with his lawyers; not because his life is more important than the thousands in the mountains and prisons and millions in the cities, but because they see him as their political will and his freedom as their freedom.

Epilogue: We must not forget that hundreds of people put their lives at risk and were without food for 68 days and that some of these people are still in hospital recuperating. The hundred or so people who were in the first and second groups to start the hunger strike will probably have lasting psychological and physical damage. Unfortunately they are the children of a nation that has had to suffer many hardships to gain legitimate democratic and national rights. They were not the first but let us hope that they will be the last. I believe that although their demands have not been met (yet), with this action they have already prevented the deaths of thousands by bringing peace and democratisation closer to us. That is what this hunger strike was demanding: for peace to be given a chance.

Memed Boran

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