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Turkey's Ambition-Driven Reforms

Its bid to join the EU has led the nation to grant Kurds greater freedoms. But some in the ethnic minority say the changes are too little, too late.

March 25, 2004|Amberin Zaman | Special to The Times

BATMAN, Turkey — Until recently, the sight of a school boasting the banned Kurdish national colors of green, red and yellow would have been unthinkable.

But an aspiration to join the European Union has forced Turkey to rethink years of repression of its ethnic Kurds. For the first time, it has even permitted a school to offer subjects in Kurdish.

"My joy is indescribable," said Aydin Unesi, who runs the privately owned school, which will open April 1 and have about 200 students. "This is a dream come true."

About 13 million Kurds, a fifth of Turkey's population, have for decades remained unrecognized as an ethnic group, their language banned and their demands for autonomy brutally suppressed.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 26, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Turkish Kurds -- An article in Thursday's Section A incorrectly stated that a new school in Turkey will teach subjects in Kurdish. The school will be allowed to teach Kurdish as a second language. The article also mistakenly said that Turkish police fired on a Kurdish youth at a New Year's celebration on March 21. It was several days earlier.

Turkey's bid to join the 15-nation European Union has been opposed by European leaders, partly because of Turkey's efforts to forcibly assimilate its Kurds.

Hoping to overcome such objections, over the last year the Turkish parliament has approved sweeping changes including laws that allow the Kurds to broadcast and teach their native tongue.

In Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of the Kurdish provinces in southeastern Turkey, plays are being staged and conferences conducted in Kurdish dialects for the first time.

Perhaps even more surprising is that candidates from Turkey's largest pro-Kurdish party, the Democratic People's Party, or Dehap, said they have been campaigning unhindered in municipal elections set for Sunday.

"During the last elections [in 1999], hundreds of our people were beaten, tortured and arrested," said Firat Anli, a mayoral candidate. "The change is remarkable."

Yet, compared with rights guaranteed to about 4 million Iraqi Kurds under Iraq's recently approved interim constitution, the reforms offered by Turkey "seem too little, too late," said Behlul Yavuz, a local politician.

Turkey has long feared that the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish state in northern Iraq could reignite the separatist sentiment among its own Kurds.

Such concerns increased when Syrian Kurds, brandishing Kurdish flags and posters of Iraqi Kurdish leaders, clashed with Arabs at a soccer match March 12 in the northeastern Syrian town of Qamishli. At least 15 people were killed in nearly a week of violence that spread to nearby towns.

In the southern Turkish city of Adana, a Kurdish teenager was critically wounded after police fired at a crowd of youths at a New Year's celebration on March 21.

"The laws have changed, but the mentality of those charged with implementing them hasn't," said Sezgin Tanrikulu, a human rights lawyer who heads the Diyarbakir bar association.

Tanrikulu was among a group of lawyers who sent a letter to Turkey's justice minister protesting a directive in December by a top military official in Diyarbakir requiring local officials to report on citizens seeking to register their newborns with Kurdish names. Bans on non-Turkish names have been scrapped.

"The minister has yet to respond," Tanrikulu said.

In Batman, schoolmaster Unesi said he had to jump through bureaucratic hoops before he received final permission to open his school. First he was told that the doors to classrooms were not wide enough, then that there were not enough Turkish flags or portraits of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

"Just when I thought I'd got it right, I was told to build a fire escape even though we had one," he said.

Some analysts argue that a five-year unilateral cease-fire called by Kurdish rebels after the 1999 capture of their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, has led to what lawyer Tanrikulu terms "a dangerous sense of complacency" among Turkish officials.

From his island prison off Istanbul, Ocalan has retained a tight grip over the guerrilla group known as the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party.

Responding to Ocalan's orders, the rebels have withdrawn to mountain bases in northern Iraq and set aside their demands for independence, saying cultural autonomy would satisfy them.

Unswayed by Ocalan's overtures, Turkey has been stepping up pressure on Washington to take military action against the group, which is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

"Unless the [Turkish] authorities take urgent action, there is a real risk that radical [PKK] militants could break away to resume the violence on the grounds that moderation got them nowhere," said Hasim Hasimi, a Kurd and former lawmaker from Diyarbakir.

The militants may find willing recruits among thousands of unemployed Kurdish youths living in the shantytowns that have mushroomed across the region. Many were put up by about 1 million Kurds forced out of their villages in the scorched-earth campaign mounted by Turkish security forces against the PKK.

According to Bedrettin Karaboga, a local business leader, unemployment in the 10 predominantly Kurdish provinces is as high as 80%.

"So far the government has not put in a single cent here," he said.

Economic decline has led to a sharp rise in crime and prostitution throughout the religiously conservative southeastern provinces.

In Diyarbakir, officials estimate that about 10,000 street children shine shoes and peddle Kleenex.

According to local police, about 7,000 women, nearly half of them Kurds, peddle their own flesh.

Alongside investment in their region, Kurdish community leaders say, measures needed to blunt separatist sentiment include compensating displaced Kurds, accelerating their return to villages and issuing an amnesty for all PKK rebels.

"Only then can Turkey persuade its Kurdish citizens that their interests lie in remaining part of a democratic Turkey that is on its way to becoming a member of the EU," Hasimi said.

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