PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Baltimore.
One country we've done very little reporting about, yet it's a major player in Middle East politics, is Turkey. And now joining us to begin our series of discussions about Turkey is Baris Karaagac. He's a lecturer in international development studies at Trent University in Ontario. He's also the editor of the forthcoming book Accumulations, Crisis, and Struggles: Capital and Labour in Contemporary Capitalism, which will be out in 2013. And he joins us from Toronto. Thanks for joining us.
BARIS KARAAGAC, ASSOC. PROF., YORK UNIVERSITY: My pleasure.
JAY: So we're going to have various discussions about Turkey, and we're going to begin today with one of the most important, I guess, issues facing the people of Turkey and the Kurdish people, and that's what people call the Kurdish question.
So, recently there's been a hunger strike in the prisons, involving thousands of Kurdish prisoners making demands for Kurdish language rights and such. So give us an update about the hunger strike, and then let's kind of get more into the roots of this whole issue.
KARAAGAC: So in the last more or less two months, there was a large-scale hunger strike by Kurdish prisoners in Turkish prisons across the country. And on day 68 of the hunger strike, it ended, following an appeal by the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, at its peak, about—according to some reports, about 10,000 people, some of them are politicians, members of the Parliament, and artists participating in this hunger strike. It ended last weekend.
JAY: And the leader of the PKK is in jail himself.
KARAAGAC: Yes. He's kept in solitary confinement on an island very close to Istanbul in the Marmara Sea.
JAY: So how is he giving instructions to call forth hunger strikes if he's being held in isolation on an island?
KARAAGAC: Well, it was done through his brother. So first of all I would like to talk about the demands of the hunger strikers, because it is related to the question you just posed. The people who went—the prisoners who went on hunger strike had three major demands. The first one was an end to this isolation of the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, because he had not been able to meet with his lawyers or family members for over a year. But last weekend he was able to meet with his brother, and through this meeting he was able to appeal, to communicate with the strikers and put an end to it.
The second demand is the right to defense in courts in one's mother tongue. This has not been possible so far, particularly when it comes to the Kurdish language. Whenever the Kurdish prisoners, particularly those ones who are there for political reasons, try to defend themselves, in the minutes it was recorded by the courts that this defendant was speaking in a language that was not identifiable or incomprehensible. And this was happening in a country where about 20 percent of the population has Kurdish as their mother tongue.
And the third demand is the right to education in one's mother tongue. Although the AKP government has introduced optional classes in elementary schools, this has been limited to two hours a week. And this doesn't meet the demands of the Kurdish popular movement at all.
JAY: So these are demands of a nation or of a people demanding its rights, if it's cultural rights, language rights. And this has gone on for a long time. So talk a bit about the roots of the struggle. And how is it, why is it the Kurdish people continue to fight so vigorously?
KARAAGAC: Actually, the tension's between the Turkish state—and before, the Ottoman state. And the Kurdish population, living under Turkish rule, at least some parts of the Kurdish population, are not new. In the past about two centuries there have been about 30 uprisings by the Kurds on Turkish soil, or Ottoman soil before that.
But the most recent episode, under the leadership of the PKK, began in the 1980s after the military takeover in Turkey in 1980. And there has been an armed conflict between the Kurdish PKK—the Kurdistan Workers Party—and the Turkish state, which has cost the lives of more than 30,000 people in the last 30 years, from both sides—mostly, of course, young people. And it has also led to the evacuation of more than 3,000 villages in the east and southeast of the country, with about 400,000 people, villagers, being displaced. But still we are quite far from any resolution or any solution of the problem.
JAY: And why does Turkey not give some language rights? Isn't most countries' experience that if you give in on some of the language, cultural questions, it tends to defuse the movement? And I guess that partly is my next question, which is the PKK—do their demands go further than simply cultural rights? The name suggests a kind of socialist movement, but is that?
KARAAGAC: Well, when the PKK first emerged, there was a lot of emphasis on socialism and socialist demands. But particularly after Öcalan was captured, the PKK has started to focus, emphasize rather cultural rights, linguistic rights.
But another important issue is that the Kurdish popular movement cannot be reduced to the PKK. Kurds today have a legitimate political party representing them in the Parliament. And this political party is represented by 29 members, in addition to a few independent members in Parliament today. So it can't be reduced to the armed wing of the popular movement. Particularly in the last two years or three years, we see very brutal repression of the Kurdish movement by the AKP government.
And I think the reason is that the AKP government, which has become quite hegemonic—and when we look at the AKP government, their ideology is based on a mixture of conservatism—with Islamic colors—and neoliberalism, right? And the hegemony that was established by this AKP government is most powerfully today challenged by the Kurdish movement. And this is one of the reasons, if not the most important reason, why the AKP government embarked on a very brutal repression of the Kurdish opposition in the last couple of years.
JAY: But is this a fight for independence or rights within Turkey?
KARAAGAC: Despite the rhetoric used by the media, most of the media in Turkey—as well as by the government—actually, Kurds do not demand independence. They demand something that they've referred to as democratic confederalism or democratic autonomy. And it would be quite—it would not make sense for many Kurds to demand independence from Turkey, because, for example, when you look at the largest—when you think about the largest Kurdish city in the world today, it is not Diarbarkır in the southeast of Turkey, but it is Istanbul, millions of Kurds living, residing, working, investing in this city. So the Kurdish movement doesn't want complete independence. And also I think they've come to the conclusion that it would be unrealistic to demand this.
Instead, they want something that they call democratic confederalism or democratic autonomy. And this is the issue which deals with who will administer those territories on which mostly Kurds live and under what principles. But it is very difficult to address these issues and enter into a dialog for many Kurds or the Kurdish movement in general with the Turkish state or with the Turkish government.
JAY: And how much is this an economic issue, in the sense of the Kurds—I mean, how much inequality economically is there for the Kurds?
KARAAGAC: Well, when you look at human development within the country, there's no question that the predominantly Kurdish areas, they rank the lowest. And I'm sure many people, you know, who are watching Real News Network in these years, they're familiar that since the early 1980s, Turkey has moved quite decisively along the neoliberalization path. And the AKP government's neoliberal policies have made life much worse for millions of Kurds. So in the summer you would see trucks full of Kurdish workers carrying these people to the fields in the west or in the north where they would be working for, you know, richer people for peanuts. And every [summer] also you would hear about those accidents in which tens of Kurds dying on one or two of these trucks.
JAY: So how much of this question is about keeping a cheap labor force?
KARAAGAC: Well, this is—actually, compared to demands and issues related to culture and linguistic rights, this is an issue that is not addressed so much in the media. But recently one of the ministers from the AKP government, referring to the predominantly Kurdish areas, basically said that Turkey needs to create its own China in those provinces. You know, it's full of—there's plenty of cheap labor that can be exploited.
JAY: Okay. We're going to continue our discussions about Turkey in the future. It's going to become a more regular part of The Real News coverage. Thanks very much for joining us, Baris.
KARAAGAC: My pleasure. My pleasure.
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