By Kani Xulam
September 26, 1999
Much has been said about the speech of Appeals Court Chief Justice Sami Selcuk in Ankara, Turkey. In an unusually frank address, he declared the military imposed Turkish constitution of 1982 null and void. He ended his hour long speech with the customary remark, “Long live Turkey.” The audience, which included President Demirel and Prime Minister Ecevit, gave him prolonged and loud applause. Watching the event on Turkish television, I did not quite understand if the applause was intended for the courageous judge or for the depressing state of the union he had described? The Turkish media dubbed the event as the second quake to hit the Turkish establishment. The reference to the first was the earthquake of August 17, 1999 that had exposed the incompetence of the government for all to see.
Some three weeks have passed and I have not heard or seen an official acknowledgment from Washington that the speech was either long overdue or timely or even the ranting of an iconoclast. Words of wisdom are rare in high places and I consider myself fortunate to have lived at a time to witness such brutal honesty from a Turkish official. Reflecting on all of this, I found myself saying to myself, life has been good to me lately. Less than a year ago, I was within hearing distance of another treat — words of gem, if you will — and this time they were from the United States Ambassador, Mark R. Parris, to Turkey. On October 8, 1998, addressing the 19th annual Convention of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations in Washington, DC, he said, “I sometimes hear appeals from Turkish friends that the United States not look at Turkey solely through the prism of human rights. I think it is clear from what I have said today that we do not.”
That has been clear to people in the human rights community for a long time now. Our calls for a US policy that would take into account democracy and human rights have met silent but meaningless nods. Assistant Secretary of State Harold Hongju Koh may visit Turkey all he wants and even say things such as, “Democracy and human rights are central elements of our foreign policy. I don’t think you need to look any further than Madeleine Albright, my boss, to see that democracy and human rights are the same reasons that shape her future. … She fled from fascism and communism.” But, according to the chief justice Selcuk, Turkey tops the list for having the most incarcerated journalists in the world. Torture remains widespread and the Kurds are its favoured victims. And yet, none of these facts have brought a public rebuke from the spokesperson of the “Indispensable Nation” against Turkey.
Something surreal has been ongoing in Turkey for years now and Washington has been playing along all along. The debate about human rights is usually separated from the Kurdish Question and the issue is often discussed as if the Turkish government were at war with its own Turkish population. The absurdity of the situation becomes more obvious when senior administration officials like Mr. Koh jump onto the official Turkish bandwagon and utter statements that may please the Turks but have very little to do with the facts of the situation. Last month, Mr. Koh visited the Kurdish region of Turkey following a route that Ankara had designated for him and upon his return to the Turkish capital noted that, “They [the Kurds] want to remain Turkish citizens, …” The Indonesian leaders, for years, claimed the same about the people of East Timor, but now we know, they were speaking for themselves rather than for the people under their rule.
The crisis facing Turkey is as old as the republic. The recent war that has caused the death of 37,000 people, the destruction of over 3,000 Kurdish villages and the displacement of more than 3 million Kurds can not be wished away overnight or masked by hollow victories. Too much blood has been shed. Too many fortunes have been shattered. The hatred is real and it hit me like a wake-up call when I tried to collect donations from the Kurds in America to assist earthquake victims in Turkey. There is, however, some hope that the end of Turkish-Kurdish war may be in sight. But as usual, the auspicious moment could also slip away at once, as it did with the murder of Turkey’s former President Ozal who spoke of federal solution for the Kurds.
Last February, an international conspiracy delivered the Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan to the Turks. Two months later, nationalist parties holding implacable positions on the Kurdish Question won big in the Turkish national elections. A month later, Mr. Ocalan, the sole inmate of Imrali island prison, was prosecuted in a movie theater that was turned into a court house for his sake. Looking back at the court sessions in Imrali, the Turkish authorities should not have bothered with the name change. The unfolding events were so unreal that Hollywood could not have conceived of a better plan. In a trial that denied him witnesses, Mr. Ocalan called for a democratic republic with linguistic and cultural rights for the Kurds as a way of resolving the conflict. The State Security Court found him guilty of “murdering” 37,000 people and reminded him that he had wanted to separate the Kurdish lands from Turkey proper. He was handed down a death sentence.
His case is now in the appeals process both in Turkey and also in the European Court of Human Rights. His apology to the families of fallen Turkish soldiers has, like his capture, kindled the Turkish pride and soothed the Turkish hurt. The primordial jubilation that followed his verdict among the Turkish population has died down as have the numbers of those who were seeking his death by burning him alive. Perhaps the new resident of Imrali who is half Turk, we now find out, knows more about the Turkish half that is at war with the Kurds than we, the observers, who are speculating on the future of that divorce. Upon his prompting, his fighters have called off the armed struggle in favour of nonviolent political agitation for the rights of the Kurds. It is an auspicious time for the Turkish generals and politicians to seize the opportunity to lift the restrictions on the Kurdish language, free Kurdish political prisoners and allow Kurds unfettered political participation in the body politics.
Prime Minister Ecevit of Turkey is meeting President Clinton for bilateral talks on Tuesday, September 28, 1999. Chief Justice Selcuk, with his brave and solo speech, has brought the warmth of spring to a political climate that can at best be described as winter. A cynic will hasten to note, however, that spring does not come with the blooming of one flower alone. At the White House we have a man from Hope. Recently he said, “If somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, their ethnic background or religion, and it’s within our power to stop it, we will stop it.” Will Kurds ever qualify as one of those helpless groups in his calculations? Some of the Kurds feel that way and may just wait for the the man at the White House to rush to their salvation, but more and more would be better off to listen to their inner voice which is their only hope to advance, if need be alone, to the promised land of freedom and peace. Poets have a better way of saying it. Rabindranath Tagore puts it best, “If they answer not thy call; walk alone, walk alone.”