Hunger strike in Turkey: will people die in vain?

What’s going on?
Since 12 September an increasing number of inmates in Turkish prisons have been on a hunger strike. Recently, on 15 October, a huge new group of prisoners joined in, exactly how many is not clear, but at least 628.

Who are these prisoners?
Kurds, mostly political prisoners. Many of them are imprisoned (on remand) for the KCK case, but people who have been in jail for much longer are also joining. Let me mention especially today that even the imprisoned elected mayor of Van, Bekir Kaya, has joined the hunger strike. His city was hit by an earthquake exactly one year ago today.

What is the aim of the hunger strike?
There are three demands. 1. PKK leader Öcalan must be accepted as part of the political solution to the Kurdish issue, 2. Education in mother tongue, 3. Guarantees for the Kurdish identity in the Turkish constitution.

Why do they choose hunger strike? Isn’t that what you do when you really have no options left?
Yes, but the people joining feel that that is exactly the point the situation in Turkey has come to. Many of the prisoners were not involved in any crime, but fought peacefully for the Kurdish cause. They are for example journalists, mayors, municipal workers, students, union workers and academics. But it is not because of their own situation that these people started a hunger strike. Their own release or acquittal in the court cases against them is not part of their demands.

They feel the political process in Turkey towards a solution for the Kurdish issue has come to a stalemate. Öcalan has not been permitted any meetings with his lawyers since 27 July 2011, and has only seen his brother once, recently. He is the most important Kurdish leader in Turkey, and the Kurdish movement feels (and I agree) that there can be no solution to the Kurdish issue without him being part of it. But if he is not even allowed to see his family or his lawyers, if earlier negotiations between the state and the PKK have been broken off and seem unlikely to be resumed any time soon, if year-long demands to talk to Öcalan are not heard, what can the Kurdish movement do? They want to stick to peaceful action, and yes, in that case a hunger strike is the option you turn to when you feel no other options are left.

Also when it comes to the other demands of Kurds, there is no or hardly any progress being made. Yes, there is ‘Kurdish as an elective class’ now in state schools, but that is not what Kurds want, and it is also not what will help preserve the language. And the government doesn’t seem to have any intention to broaden language rights in education. A good indication of that is the fact that YÖK (the state controlled Board for Higher Education) suddenly cut the amount of master students at the Faculty of Living Languages (read: Kurdish) at Mardin University from 500 to 250. (Read a blog post about it here, on my site about the Kurdish issue.) This university is supposed to educate the Kurdish teachers of the future. Besides that, in every political party there is strong resistance to full education in Kurdish. The topic cannot even be debated. And by the way, talking Kurdish in school is still strictly forbidden – only the kids who follow Kurdish classes (2 hours a week) are allowed to speak it, and only during that class.

And when it comes to guarantees for the Kurdish identity in the constitution: no progress there whatsoever. A parliamentary commission with all parties in parliament is working on a draft constitution, but they only agree on trivial things. Why this guarantee is so important? The things the government has done for Kurds, are very tiny steps in the first place, but they mean even less without any guarantee. If Erdogan wants it, he can close the state Kurdish TV (TRT6), close the Living Languages department at Mardin university, cancel the Kurdish elective classes, etcetera. Not that many Kurds will miss TRT6, but the point is: Kurds don’t want small close to meaningless presents from the government, they want their fundamental rights for once and for all, so that nobody can ever take them away again.

All the politics they have been made for all these years, have only landed them in jail. So where can you go from there?

Doesn’t sound like these demands are any time soon met, does it?

So when some hunger strikers started on 12 September, it’s not much longer till people will die?
It sure looks like that. Some seem to be in serious health condition already. But the prisoners on hunger strike don’t accept visits anymore, not from their families and not from their lawyers. It would ask too much from them physically to come to the visitors or the lawyers room to meet anybody. They need to stay put as much as possible.

And how does the government react?
Not at all.

And the people in Turkey?
Most of them don’t know about it. The TV and papers are not or hardly reporting it. Turkish channels do report about it when there is a demonstration, when people keep vigil, march or sit-in to support the hunger strikers (and there are a few of them every day!), but only when it gets out of hand (usually because the police starts using tear gas) so they can show ‘violent Kurds’ on TV. That’s how Kurds are framed in general in the media and it’s no different now with the hunger strike. So people don’t know, or they don’t give a damn.

So what’s the point of it all? Turks don’t know or don’t care, the government doesn’t react and the demands are unrealistic. People will die in vain!
That’s how you could think. But that is certainly not how it is perceived in the Kurdish movement. For close to thirty years now, the Kurdish struggle has claimed many lives. In the eighties and nineties, Kurds died, and also held hunger strikes, to demand things that seemed impossible at the time. Now Kurds are no longer called mountain Turks, the extrajudicial killings that happened all the time in the nineties are over, the existence of Kurds is being recognized. The people who fought and died before, either while carrying arms or committing themselves to peaceful struggle, contributed to what has been reached in thirty years. When in time the current demands of the Kurdish movement are met, the people on hunger strike now have contributed to that achievement.

At a sit in in Diyarbakir last week, I shortly talked to independent (BDP) MP Aysel Tugluk. I asked her why the hunger strikers have demands that will definitely not be met before they give their lives. She said: ‘We don’t formulate our demands based on what the government may be willing to give. We have our demands and they just need to be met.’

7 replies
  1. Bercan Günel
    Bercan Günel says:

    I agree in almost all points but the article is not complete or all-comprehensive. You’re treating Kurds as if they’re alienated. Some yes, many not.
    Being a half Kurd, half Turk, I’ve always felt I’m excluded from this discussion.
    You also forget to mention how many Turkish lives have been lost in the struggle which is going on for ages already – as your article is much too suggestive on that – that it’s mainly the Kurds who lost their lives.
    I remember times that the Kurdish ‘soldiers’ killed a whole village in Turkey simply because the village people did not want to give support to their struggle.

    Anyway, I do fully agree where the boundaries of Turkey as a whole can be maintained and all the people from different cultures can continue living with their identity, education, language, art, etc. Turkey has done that before. It is possible.

    However, pity that the Kurdish people still put Ocalan forward. That’s a missed opportunity as he has much too blood in his hands. I’m sure the Kurdish have many other leaders who are able to transform and connect.
    Peace to all….

  2. Paul van Dam
    Paul van Dam says:

    Bernan, you too miss the point: it is not your business, and even more not the Turkey’s state’s business who so many Kurds want as their leader. It is Ocalan, and it will be Ocalan as long the fight goes on.
    Ocalan and the PKK are still the indispensable guns in the hands of the Kurdish liberation movement in Turkey. Or are you so ignorant to think the Turkish state will grant the Kurds their legimate civil and human rights if the PKK is dissolved and Ocalan is dead. You know that the history of your beloved republic is a continous battle between the state and his dictators and the Kurds.
    It is the Turkish state that has too much blood in his hands and missed the opportunities to build a state where every ethnic, religious and political group is equal since the founding of the republic. I think it is a genetic aberration and, after almost 20 years, I have to conclude that this wille never be cured.
    Fortunately I live in a open, free and democratic country. But even I can imagine that hunger for freedom and rights is stronger than hunger for food.
    So, how difficult to understand, I fully support the people on hunger strike who fight for a just cause and wish them power, wisdom and solidarity.

  3. CandideIjon
    CandideIjon says:

    “What is the aim of the hunger strike?
    There are three demands. 1. PKK leader Öcalan must be accepted as part of the political solution to the Kurdish issue, 2. Education in mother tongue, 3. Guarantees for the Kurdish identity in the Turkish constitution.”

    Personally I support 2nd and 3rd one. I believe many people in Turkey is also supporting that. However it is important to define what is meant by : “Öcalan must be accepted as part of the political solution to the Kurdish issue”.

    At this point I am asking you and to Paul van Dam : Is it possible in your open, free and democratic country (or in any country where people have some piece of mind) that a person imprisoned for terrorist activities (that caused 30.000 dead over the years) can be a part of any political solution ?

    You can discuss, do rhetoric, write story book, find yourself fortunate, blame Turkish government etc. but you can not convince any person with a healthy mind for Ocalan being a part of any solution…

    Even though people in Turkey losing their sanity, overall Turkey is not there yet and none of the political parties can find a support for such action.

    ” Kurdish movement feels (and I agree) that there can be no solution to the Kurdish issue without him being part of it”.

    Then I would say situation is so pathetic. So you believe that Kurdish people can not create a new leader which can bring peace rather than blood ?

    “‘We don’t formulate our demands based on what the government may be willing to give. We have our demands and they just need to be met.’”

    Same line of reasoning easily can lead to shooting people (soldiers, civilians) and that’s what is happening now.

    It is very sad that the situation is so marginalized that people go for hunger strike. People (involved in this) need some grip.

    @Paul van Dam : you are pointing your finger to Berman and accusing that he misses the point. I don’t think Berman (or anybody) want to be in leader election business. However similarly it is none of your business that Turkish state is not letting a prisoner to be politically active.
    Asking that is quite ridiculous and illogical…

  4. Amy Spangler
    Amy Spangler says:

    Thank you for this brilliant summary of this devastating state of affairs, Frederike. Resistance to these very reasonable demands continues to dumbfound me. I still can’t fathom how so many people can turn a deaf ear and a blind eye, so willingly, to the imminent deaths, or at least crippling, of these political prisoners. It’s ridiculous. I’m grateful that you are a voice for the movement for Kurdish rights, at a time when voices are so desperately needed.

  5. Seanie
    Seanie says:

    Paul, you have to be out of your mind to support a terrorist group PKK, which has been listed as a terror group by the USA, the US State Department, EU, and many other countries. This PKK group is so violent and bloodthristy, you have to be out of your mind to think that Turkey will negotiate with PKK! You are nuts! How would you like it if someone from an another country told the USA to negotiate with Osama Bin Laden! Abdullah Ocalan is a bloodthristy murderer who was behind a massacre of 30000 people and it is a shame that the world media didn’t let Turkey to be tougher on Ocalan!

    Over 90 percent Kurds are against the PKK bloodthristy terrorists and the PKK terror group support a Marxist-Leninist ruled country and not democracy!

    If Kurds want to negotiate with Turkey, all their groups have to renounce Abdullah Ocalan, and the PKK’s violence, period!

    Check out this websites: (Clips of PKK supporters commiting reprehensible acts of violence) (PKK flag with Communist symbol)
    (PKK’s role in the international drug trade)
    (US Tresury Busts PKK for drug trafficing)
    (PKK getting blasted by the State Department)
    (ADL slams the PKK as well too) (Article talks about how PKK had links to the Soviets)
    (Communist Glorification of the PKK terror group)
    (Believe this part or not) (GOOD LINK).

    Look at these websites and open your mind to see how violent, how vile and how bloodthristy the PKK is. The great majority of Kurds (over 90% percent) despise the PKK and support Turkey’s stance on the PKK and are loyal to their country of Turkey. I support Kurds, but I have obvious reasons why to not support the PKK. Because they don’t care about democracy and human rights, but communism and bloodthirsty warmongering.

  6. Candide
    Candide says:

    @Seanie, thanks for bringing some ethical perspective.
    Ok there are many guys here that they don’t mind much that PKK is killing people. They will always have an argument that Turkish government is suppressing them or soldiers are shooting them so they are rebels.

    It is really hard to find a common ground for such a controversial topic. Also it requires some knowledge about what happened in the past, sociological structure of Turkey, a clear mind and an objective perspective. Definitely it is not everyone’s cup of coffee.

    However, these guys are trafficking drug (it is quite well reported because it bothers other countries as well) + demanding tribute from Kurdish people living in Europe.

    Then, I would say whoever does not see this reality should be quite crippled in terms of ethics.

    Majority of Turkish people is quite ok with the rights of Kurdish people however trying to add Ocalan and PKK to the discussion is nothing but marginalizing the issue. I do not find it sincere or logical…


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