Turkey’s Kurds have lost hope and are disaffected with both the state and the Kurdish opposition, both legal and illegal, said lawyer Emin Aktar, a former president of the Bar Association in Diyarbakır, the biggest city in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast.
A two-year ceasefire between the state and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgents broke down in 2015, snuffing out a brief surge of prosperity and reigniting a conflict that has killed tens of thousands since it started in 1984. The attempt to seize urban areas by the PKK’s youth wing then brought widespread destruction and civilian casualties to the cities of the southeast as the army responded with tank and artillery fire.
“The people are building up anger, not only toward the state, but also toward the Kurdish political movement, including legal and illegal organisations,” Aktar told Ahval in an interview. “They think that both made mistakes when they should have performed better and that society suffered because of those mistakes. Society feels a double anger”.
Since the failed 2016 coup, blamed on a religious sect formerly allied to the government, authorities have used the ongoing, nationwide state of emergency to carry out a widespread crackdown on opposition of all shades. Courts have jailed around a dozen members of parliament from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the third biggest bloc in parliament
The Kurdish presence in parliament, said Aktar, “has no effect other than providing legitimisation to an institution which no longer can be recognised as an assembly, as a legislative body.”
With municipal, parliamentary and key presidential elections all due next year, there is resignation amongst voters in the southeast, Aktar said.
“The people will probably put pressure on political parties to boycott the elections. Even if they participate in the elections, the turnout will fall,” Aktar said. “If they withdraw from parliament, maybe the people will start from scratch, from ground zero. Maybe society will find new ways of struggle that are more effective.”
Hundreds of elected HDP mayors and councillors have also been imprisoned and in their place, the state has appointed administrators to take over the running of many towns and cities in the southeast, shutting the pro-Kurdish party off from power and influence at a local level.
“They tell the people you cannot make the right choices, so I appoint administrators for you. In such an environment, electing new mayors in the 2019 elections would mean telling the government that there are new people they can imprison. There is no guarantee that a mayor elected in 2019 will not be jailed within three months,” Aktar said.
Meanwhile, dozens of Kurdish civil society organisations have also been shut down, ending important mechanisms for dialogue and public discourse.
“Social life changed significantly. The people stopped making discussions, they almost forgot. As a result, they are not in search of finding a new way for the future, there is no desire for it,” Aktar said.
In some ways, Aktar said, the southeast was worse now than during the period dubbed the “dirty war” of the 1990s when hundreds of suspected PKK supporters disappeared in custody and millions were displaced as security forces burnt down villages in a scorched earth policy.
Turkey’s mainly Kurdish provinces then were also under a state of emergency, giving security forces sweeping powers.
“During the 1990s, when the state of emergency was being extended every three months, we always had hope that it would end the next time. Despite everything, there was a vivid civil society movement at the time; legal politics did exist. There was a media presence, event if it was limited.” Aktar said.
Even the judiciary was in better shape during the 1990s, he said, as there were judges who dared to take a stand, who refused to sentence people without evidence. “Their doors were open to us. Now, we cannot enter the office of a judge or a prosecutor without police accompanying us.”
Division amongst the Kurds, often cited as the world’s biggest people without a state, hobbled chances of any alliance and progress.
The PKK and its offshoots, which dominate the Kurdish movements in Turkey, Syria and to a lesser extent Iran, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the major force governing the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, are poles apart politically. The PKK began as a Marxist-Leninist group, but now advocates a form of socialist direct democracy, while the KDP is a conservative, patrician party.
Aktar said both parties cultivated a personality cult around their respective leaders and that meant there was little chance of unity, despite fighters from the two groups having come together in an uneasy alliance to defeat Islamic State in the cities of Sinjar in Iraq, and Kobane in Syria.
The attempt to suppress the Kurdish movement in Turkey, Aktar said, would mean Kurdish society turning in on itself and would make Kurds more nationalist.
“We did not become nationalists, but our kids did. The new generation is like that. They radicalise and become more nationalist. Kurds are passing through a period in which they are generating anger. They want to survive economically. They try to hold onto life, without knowing when and how they will die, they try to survive,” he said.
“In Turkey, where Kurds are insulted everyday, it cannot go on like this,” Aktar said. “The reason for our silence is not fear, but the fact that our word has no impact. But if we keep on accumulating this inside ourselves, it could turn into a strong reaction”.