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After Kurdistan Referendum, Turkey Cracks Down On Local Kurds
Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wave national flags as they wait for his arrival at the Presidential Palace on April 17, 2017 in Ankara Turkey. (Photo: Elif Sogut/Getty Images)

After Kurdistan Referendum, Turkey Cracks Down On Local Kurds

Analysts warn that the suppression of Kurdish rights could lead to an increase in support for the PKK

ISTANBUL—Opposition politicians are accusing the Turkish government of implementing policies directed against the country’s large Kurdish minority.

Officials have closed Kurdish cultural institutions, language courses and media outlets, along with removing statues of historical figures as well as changing the names of parks commemorating victims of state violence.

“This suppression of culture seems to be part of a broader attempt by the state not only to suppress expressions of Kurdishness, but to demonstrate its strength and to try to intimidate into acquiesce all of the Kurds,” Gareth Jenkins, a Senior Fellow at the Silk Road Studies Program, told The Media line.

In its earlier years, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was popular with long-oppressed Kurds and was praised for ushering in a “Kurdish Opening” that increased Kurdish cultural rights and initiated a peace process with the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

By 2015, however, the AKP had fallen out with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), whose electoral gains helped deny the AKP a parliamentary majority in a June vote that year.

A month later, a two and a half year ceasefire with the PKK fell apart and a devastating conflict erupted in the largely Kurdish southeast. More than 3,100 people have been killed, according to Crisis Group, and huge swathes of urban areas have been almost completely destroyed.

Turkish authorities apprehended members of the HDP’s leadership in November 2016, accusing it of links to the PKK. Nine deputies from the HDP are currently in prison in addition to over 80 mayors from the party and its sister Democratic Regions Party (DBP). In total, over 4,000 HDP and DBP members have been jailed.

The crackdown on Kurdish politicians and fighters has expanded to cultural associations during the ongoing state of emergency that was declared after an attempted coup on July 15 2016. A series of government decrees shut down hundreds of organizations, including many Kurdish ones.

Birahîm Xelîl Taş was the general secretary of the Kurdish Language Research and Development Association (Kürdi-Der), which was shuttered by government decree last November. “The decisive [reason for being closed] is because [we promoted] Kurdish language and cultural activities. It was closed because of our struggle against assimilation,” Taş contended to The Media Line.

“Right now in Diyarbakır [the largest Kurdish-majority city in Turkey] there are absolutely no associations in existence that do anything related to the Kurdish language and culture. All of them have been closed by government decree,” he stated.

Taş revealed that after speaking out last year against the assimilation policies of the government on International Mother Language Day, he and his colleagues were questioned by anti-terrorism police and some were detained.

Vural Tantekin worked for the Diyarbakır municipality theatre from 1990 to 2017. The state-appointed trustee who replaced the city’s imprisoned mayor, fired almost all actors and Kurdish language teachers, and assigned Tantekin to work for the local police. Instead, he opened a restaurant.

“Ours was the only theatre that had the privilege of having a Kurdish repertoire,” Tantekin explained to The Media Line. “[But] with the end of the peace process, pressure aimed at language began. We continued acting in Kurdish, and took an opposing position.”

Gareth Jenkins warned that Kurdish rights are being suppressed to a degree he has not seen since moving to Turkey in 1989. “The impression [the government] is giving people in the southeast…is that the Turkish state is opposed to all forms of Kurdishness and by extension is opposed to all Kurds,” he said.

“They’re suppressing not only political expression or those who connected to violent groups, but the culture as well.”

Some accuse Ankara of pandering to ultranationalists, but Jenkins says most of these voters are unaware of the crackdown on Kurdish culture because the issue never appears in the government-dominated media. “There’s so much suppression of coverage in the southeast. It’s not as if [the government] is doing these things and then trumpeting and publicizing them,” he asserted.

Many analysts contend that state policies such as these constitute the tacit sanctioning of unofficial forms of oppression and violence against the Kurds.

For example, a group of men carrying sticks, chanting racial slurs and yelling Allahu Akbar (God is greatest in Arabic) attacked the September 13 funeral of the mother of imprisoned HDP politican Aysel Tuğluk. The men said they wanted to prevent a “terrorist” from being buried in Ankara’s İncek cemetery and thus also brought a tractor with the aim of digging up the body.

“They were shouting slogans, like, ‘You Armenians, we won’t let you bury Armenian people [or] Kurdish people here,’” HDP Vice Co-chair Hişyar Özsoy, who was at the funeral, revealed to the Media Line.

Armenians are another minority group in Turkey, and calling someone Armenian is a common insult.

Government officials from the AKP and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did strongly condemn the attack and a prosecutor has asked for up to ten years in jail for 19 suspects.

At the same time, controversy erupted when Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu posed for a photo with one of the alleged attackers, although he later claimed not to know the identity of the man.

“Such incidents are increasing because the officials do not regard them as crimes, and ultranationalist groups know this,” Mustafa Gürbüz, a non-resident analyst at the Arab Center in Washington, D.C., told the Media Line.

“Those people wouldn’t have been there had they not been encouraged by all kinds of racist and ultranationalist rhetoric the government has been using against the HDP,” Özsoy said.

“They call them terrorists, traitors, enemies, Armenian.”

Jenkins says that without any forms of political and cultural expression Turkey’s Kurds may increasingly turn to violent groups. “Their parties have been decimated and decapitated; both the HDP and DBP leaders are in jail. So what do they do—do they go to an NGO? Well, the NGOs have been closed down. Can they express themselves through the media? Well the media has also been closed down,” he affirmed.

“Unless the Turkish state moves very quickly, all of this is eventually going to result in an increase in support to the PKK.”

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