‘Of course I am angry’, says Member of Parliament Gültan Kisanak. We are sitting in a room in the Istanbul head office of her party, the Peace and Democracy Party, BDP. Outside, the smell of tear gas can still be vaguely detected. Yesterday afternoon, the BDP tried to organize a protest against the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan on 15 February 1999, and against the solitary confinement he’s been held in now for some nine months. Police effectively blocked people from protesting. Kisanak and her fellow MP Sebahat Tüncel kept the people who did manage to gather calm. Kisanak: ‘I feel responsible for keeping everything calm, so I have to keep my own anger under control.’
Only about two hundred people made it to the protest on Istiklal Street. The group could only be reached by journalists: with a press card, the police let you through without any problem. The few hundred protesters came early enough not to be hindered by the police blockade. We – my assistant and I – hear from protesters that in many places around Istiklal and Taksim Square, people are trying to reach the protest. Identities are being checked, and people who look like they are coming to protest are not let through, people say. The protest in Istiklal remains peaceful.
In the closeby neighbourhood of Tarlabasi, where many Kurds live and where the Istanbul headquarters of the BDP are located, there appear to have been clashes with the police, as we smell (tear gas!) when we get to the area after the protest at Istiklal is over.
We see Gültan Kisanak and Sebahat Tüncel enter the building. We enter too, who knows who we can speak to. It’s busy inside, the BDP headquarters are like a community centre. Tea is being served, and a TV is tuned in to channel ‘Newroz’, where some glorification of Öcalan is going on. ‘Who do you want to talk to?’ my assistant asks. ‘Gültan Kisanak of course, if possible’, I reply. Two minutes later, the man responsible for press contacts appears. Fifteen minutes later, Kisanak comes into the room where we were told to wait.
She speaks softly at first. About how important the 15th of February is for the Kurdish movement, how they protest Öcalan’s detention every year, and about how they face difficulties with police on a daily basis. She says: ‘You saw how big the police presence was. Thousands of police, way more than there were people. I tell you, there would have been many more people if there hadn’t been so many police. And if the police had kept their distance, I’m sure it would have been a huge, peaceful and calm demonstration, and we would have released our press statement.’
I tell her I just saw some boys outside putting stones in their pockets. Is she sure she and her colleagues could have controlled the anger and prevented people from throwing stones? Kisanak: ‘Throwing stones usually only starts after the police start their violence. I have seen that so many times. But people have patience only up to a point. We are not always successful in keeping everybody under control.’ (And I have experienced both: some months ago in Diyarbakir the police started using teargas with no reason, and earlier in Istanbul a (very) few young men started throwing stones before the police took action.)
She doesn’t think the situation of Öcalan, who has not seen any of his family or lawyers since the spring of 2011, will change any time soon. ‘The AKP is even preparing a bill that makes it legal to keep detainees from having contact with their lawyers or family for up to six months’, she says. ‘It’s been on hold for a few weeks. I think they waited for today to be over, to not spark more anger among Kurds.’
‘The AKP’, says Kisanak, ‘knows that this situation will not lead to a solution. People are loyal to Öcalan, they will always support him. Sooner or later, the strategy of isolation has to be given up. Of course, we want it to happen soon.’
She mentions, among other things, the situation in the Middle East and North Africa as reasons why the Kurdish issue is again being treated by the government as a security issue. ‘The change came two, three years ago. The first few years that the AKP was in power, they needed to spread their influence over several state institutions. During that process, they couldn’t stir up too much trouble around the Kurdish issue. They needed time. Now they are strong and secure. Also, they extended some personal freedoms of the people. They hoped that would diminish the demands Kurds have as a people, but that didn’t happen. We will never give up our cultural and constitutional rights.’
The Arab Spring added another dimension, claims Kisanak: ‘There is fire there, everything changes. The Turkish government knows the Kurds have a potential to cause big trouble.’ Would you like to see that potential realised?, I ask. Kisanak: ‘The Arab Spring of the Kurds started already a long time ago. We protest almost every week, for a long time already. The reason the Arab Spring carried on is because of international dynamics: it suits what the international community wants. For the Kurds, that is different. On the contrary: the international community gives Turkey a role in managing the situation in the Middle East, so they feel the need to stay silent on the Kurdish issue.’
What is, in her opinion, the way out? ‘There is only one way out’, she answers without hesitation, also louder now. ‘We have to be insistent in demanding our rights’. How is the process towards a new constitution going? I ask. ‘Kisanak: ‘It’s a rather technical process at the moment, but it’s continuing.’ The BDP is part of the parliamentary commission that is working towards a new constitution, which must replace the one written by the military rulers after the 1980 coup. Kisanak says a really fresh constitution can contribute a lot to solving the Kurdish issue. ‘We basically need three things: equality for everybody, education in the mother tongue as basic right, and local autonomy.’
The door of the room opens slightly, and somebody whispers: ‘They have been set free!’ The man refers to the head of the BDP in Istanbul, who was detained this afternoon together with 22 protestors. “Good’, Kisanak smiles. She was talking to the police about that during the protest in Istiklal: she wanted them to be set free and allowed to join the protest. That didn’t happen, but at least now they are free again.
Gültan Kisanak needs to go, but I want to ask her one more question. What is needed for her personally to consider the Kurdish question solved? Besides policy changes, like a new constitution? She talks about nationalism and discrimination that need to be wiped out, and how the current strategy of the government feeds people’s anger, and nationalism on both sides. Then she says: ‘You know, when I was 19 (in 1980, FG), I was a student and I endured serious torture in jail. Later I experienced more injustice. Twenty six friends of mine have disappeared. Of course, I am angry. Besides a new constitution, I need an apology from the state.’