Government pressures on the HDP and tension between Turkish and Kurdish communities are not a new development in Turkey, as tensions have been increasing since the ceasefire between Turkey and the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) ended last summer. However, recent events suggest an intensification of this tension which may result in the deeper entrenchment of this toxic cycle of oppression, violence, retaliation, and more violence.
The Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK), a radical offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), claimed responsibility for the recent Ankara bombings, including the February 17 bombing and the March 13 bombing. While the identity of the suicide bomber in the March 18 Istanbul bombing has been confirmed as a suspected ISIS member, Reuters reported that Turkish officials initially believed the PKK was behind the attack.
Kurdish militancy as the force behind the two past Ankara attacks has certainly increased tensions between Turkish and Kurdish communities. That tension was expected to reach its climax this weekend during the Kurdish Newroz (Nevruz in Turkish) Holiday. Newroz is a traditional festival marking the coming of spring, celebrated by many societies in the Middle East.
The Kurdish celebration of the holiday has a unique flavour however, as the traditional legend of the holiday tells the story of the Kurdish people being liberated from a cruel tyrant. Over the past few decades, Newroz celebrations have gained a kind of political significance among Kurdish communities as a way of expressing pride in Kurdish identity and support for Kurdish liberation.
Newroz celebrations have been banned this year in many provinces across Turkey including Urfa, Hakkari, İstanbul, Kars, Şırnak, Ağrı, İzmir, Manisa, and Denizli, a number of those provinces with majority Kurdish populations. Newroz celebrations have been a point of political tension throughout Turkey’s history, and especially in the 1990s when Kurdish resistance movements were widely active. In 2000, the previous law outlawing Newroz celebrations was lifted, but throughout the 2000s, temporary bans have been put in place during times of political turmoil.
However the primarily Kurdish-backed HDP has protested the bans in several provinces and invited supporters to celebrate the holiday together. The HDP Istanbul Office invited people to the Bakırköy Open Bazaar area for a celebration, stating “It is only just that we should continue to celebrate Newroz as we have for thousands of years. The banning of Newroz has been a tactic of different despots throughout many different eras but it has never succeeded. Even under the heaviest pressures, under the most oppressive regimes the people have claimed their right to celebrate Newroz.”
Predictably Newroz celebrations have already been met with police intervention. Sunday morning, the planned HDP Newroz celebration in Bakırköy, Istanbul, was met by police resistance. The roads leading to the Bazaar were blocked off, and among the people who gathered for the celebration, around 30 of them were taken into custody, including 2 journalists and a number of HDP party officials. Meanwhile, the HDP Istanbul Office building was attacked with stones by anti-HDP protesters and the building windows were smashed.
A similar operation against a planned Newroz celebration occurred in İzmir on Sunday, where police took 19 people into custody under the suspicion that they were planning a molotov cocktail demonstration for the Newroz celebration. Simultaneously police carried out operations at 32 different addresses in İzmir, in which a number of HDP party officials were taken into custody.
The weeks leading up to the Newroz Holiday have also featured increased pressures on Kurdish communities and Kurdish rights activists. One such occasion made international headlines this week, when the English academic Chris Stephenson who lives and works in Turkey was taken into custody for being in possession of a brochure for the HDP Istanbul Newroz celebration. Stephenson was also among the hundreds of “Academics for Peace” who signed a declaration earlier this year calling for an end to state violence in Turkey’s east. Stephenson was deported on March 17 for “spreading terrorist propaganda.”
A number of Turkish academics were also taken into custody and subsequently arrested recently for signing the “Academics for Peace” declaration. Professors Esra Mungan, Kıvanç Ersoy, and Muzaffer Kaya were arrested on March 15 under the charge of “spreading terrorist propaganda.”
In addition to academics, lawyers who support Kurdish rights have also come under increasing legal pressure. On March 16 there was a large-scale police operation organized in which 31 people were taken into custody, among them 9 lawyers from the Freedom Lawyers Association, whose members have focused on Kurdish rights cases in the past including Ramazan Demir – a prominent human rights lawyer specializing in press freedom under terrorism laws. The lawyers were released after being held in custody for three days.
The recent terror attacks claimed by TAK also increased tensions among ordinary Turkish and Kurdish citizens. One image that went viral on twitter last week featured a shop window in Ankara, with a sign in lower corner of the window that said “HDP members, supporters, and sympathizers are not allowed to enter.”
This crackdown on Kurdish-affiliated groups and any outward expression of support for Kurdish rights and identity are a troubling development which may draw Turkey back into the political turmoil and violent landscape of the 1990s. Efforts aimed at de-escalation need to be enacted fast, and the Turkish government is not the only party that bears a responsibility in this process.
In their official statement regarding the March 19 Istanbul bombing, the HDP addressed the notion that the PKK was behind the attack and called for move towards negotiations and a cessation of the growing hostilities; “This attack, targeting an area full of civilians is inexcusable no matter who is behind the attack. As a result of the Palace and the government’s problematic politics of increased state violence and the restricting of freedoms, we are facing wide-scale polarisation, division, disintegration and hate speech. As the avenues of democracy and politics are narrowing and we move towards a more dire state, we have to escape this deteriorating environment at once and we as a parliament need to work together and take democratic steps to fix this problem. We need to create an environment of sustainable negotiation urgently.”
Despite the HDPs declared commitment to unifying negotiations, some of their political gestures seem to work at odds with their stated goals. For example, after the March 13 Ankara bombing the parliament issued a joint declaration with the signatures of AKP, MHP, and CHP collectively condemning the attacks and calling for unity in combating terror. However, HDP chose not to sign the declaration, claiming that the declaration was an attempt on behalf of the government to “absolve itself from any responsibility,” a reference to the common criticism that the Turkish government is not doing enough to prevent terror attacks from occurring.
While the HDPs point is well taken and while the government should be held accountable for its inability to protect the Turkish public, the HDP must also recognize that in the current political climate their actions only further single them out and play into the stereotype of the party as representing the dangerous Kurdish “Other.” It may not be the right time for defiant political gestures as Turkey draws closer to the peak of widespread violent conflict.