Turk-Kurd Tensions Flare Despite P.M.'s Efforts

Kurdish demonstrators clash with Turkish riot police in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir i i

hide captionKurdish demonstrators clash with Turkish riot police Sunday in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. One protester was shot and killed. A day later, seven soldiers died in an ambush by a faction of Kurdish militants, which raised tensions between Turks and minority Kurds even higher.

Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images
Kurdish demonstrators clash with Turkish riot police in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir

Kurdish demonstrators clash with Turkish riot police Sunday in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. One protester was shot and killed. A day later, seven soldiers died in an ambush by a faction of Kurdish militants, which raised tensions between Turks and minority Kurds even higher.

Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Turkey's highest court on Friday banned the country's main Kurdish political party over its alleged links to Kurdish rebels.

The ruling from the constitutional court is not likely to please Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has pledged to end the 25-year-old Kurdish rebellion by giving more rights to the minority Kurds.

Recently, protests over the constitutional court case had become larger and more violent in the Kurdish heartland of southeast Turkey.

A Dec. 6 protest in Diyarbakir, a predominantly Kurdish city, turned into a riot when a protester was shot and killed. A day later, seven soldiers died in an ambush carried out by a faction of Kurdish militants, which raised tensions even higher.

Tahir Elci, a human rights lawyer in Diyarbakir, says he is afraid the violence will continue.

"This problem is more difficult than the government expected," Elci says. "Two months ago, there was big hope. But in last days, there are many bad implementations."

The mood was very different two months ago in parliament, when Erdogan made a historic speech, known as "The Kurdish Opening." He pledged to expand rights for Kurdish citizens — who make up about 20 percent of Turkey's 70 million people. It's an important step to end the conflict, says journalist Yasemin Congar.

"This country spent about a trillion dollars in this war. If we didn't spend this money to basically kill our own citizens, we would have become a much stronger economy today," she says.

For a Turkish leader like Erdogan, even saying the word Kurd was a break with the past, Congar says. For more than 80 years, Turkey has denied that Kurds existed, with a distinct culture and language.

The first Kurdish-language channel on state TV debuted in January this year.

Now, Kurds can register Kurdish names on birth certificates, and reclaim Kurdish names for towns and villages. But such small steps have raised big expectations. Elci points to the Turkish constitution, which still defines all citizens of the country as Turks.

"Many things changed, but there is a trust problem with Kurdish society and the state in Turkey," Elci says.

The trust problem is evident for Abdullah Demirbas, the mayor of Sur, a municipality of Diyarbakir, in a court case that could result in jail time for producing tourist brochures.

His crime is that the Kurdish version of the brochure — it was also produced in Turkish and English — makes use of illegal letters: q, w and x. These letters occur in the Kurdish alphabet but not in the Turkish one, and the Turkish penal code prohibits their use.

The measure is based on a 1920s law that was intended to modernize the country — banning the old Arabic alphabet, as well as the traditional cap known as the fez. The letter ban is still used against Kurds.

"They are not illegal if it is in any other language than Kurdish," Demirbas says.

Congar, the journalist, says this is a relic of Turkish history.

"How can you explain it to an American or a Westerner that this country has a revolution about wearing hats? You have to wear a hat, our government told us, and not a turban and not a fez. And you have to use these letters and not those letters. We make fun of it ourselves," she says.

But it is no joke for Kurds, Congar says.

Turkish Kurds in Istanbul demonstrate in support of Kurdish rebels, Oct. 19, 2009. i i

hide captionTurkish Kurds in Istanbul demonstrate in support of Kurdish rebels Oct. 19. A group of 34 unarmed Kurdish rebels crossed into Turkey from northern Iraq that day in a show of support for peace with the Turkish government. But Turks were outraged by the public displays of support for the Kurds, and the amnesty they were granted by the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Ibrahim Usta/AP
Turkish Kurds in Istanbul demonstrate in support of Kurdish rebels, Oct. 19, 2009.

Turkish Kurds in Istanbul demonstrate in support of Kurdish rebels Oct. 19. A group of 34 unarmed Kurdish rebels crossed into Turkey from northern Iraq that day in a show of support for peace with the Turkish government. But Turks were outraged by the public displays of support for the Kurds, and the amnesty they were granted by the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Ibrahim Usta/AP

"It's not about changing ways and methods and laws; it's about changing minds," she says.

But Kurds and Turks are still far apart. The prime minister has staked his job on convincing the public that the Kurdish opening is good for everyone. But so far, his initiative on Kurdish rights is costing him domestic support.

His job was made much harder by the PKK, or Kurdish Workers' Party, considered a terrorist group in Turkey and the U.S. Last month, the PKK upstaged Erdogan by sending 34 of its members into Turkey, across the border from their mountain redoubt in northern Iraq.

Turkish judges were dispatched to the border by helicopter so the guerrillas could turn themselves in. They were given brief hearings and granted amnesty. The unprecedented event was broadcast live across the country.

When more than 100,000 Kurds filled the streets to welcome the militants home, the Turkish public saw that, too, and were outraged, says political analyst Mithat Bereket.

"They tried to change this into a big show, as if they are not coming to surrender, but they come to declare their rights. That caused a lot of problems that caused a lot of reactions," he says.

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