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Turkey's Kurdish Spring

  • 12 April 2013

The equinox on 21 March heralds the arrival of the northern spring. The Kurds, and other peoples of western and central Asia, know it as Newruz (Nevroz in Turkish). It is the start of a new year and they celebrate accordingly.

While Nevroz was once outlawed in Turkey, this year it was celebrated openly and more jubilantly than ever. In the south-eastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir crowds amassed to hear a Nevroz letter delivered from Abdullah Öcalan (pictured), the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) imprisoned near Istanbul.

Öcalan's message, read out to the assembled throng, was greeted rapturously. In language lyrical and effusive, he declared that the insurgents of the PKK should forego armed struggle against the Turkish military. After negotiating with the Turkish government since last October, Öcalan proclaimed that this Nevroz, traditionally a day of defiance, should presage a new era of 'sunshine, with enthusiasm and democratic tolerance'.

The PKK leadership holed up in the Kandil Mountains of northern Iraq promptly declared a ceasefire, creating the prospect of an end to a military conflagration that has bedevilled Turkey's south-eastern, largely Kurdish-populated provinces for almost 30 years.

The PKK emerged in the late-1970s with a Marxist agenda demanding cultural and political rights for the Kurds, whose existence had been denied since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Launching a military campaign in 1984, it declared its intention to create an independent Kurdish state in south-eastern Turkey.

The terror tactics that the PKK adopted and the threat they posed to Turkish territorial integrity brought a swift and determined response from the Turkish military. A strength-sapping guerrilla war has rumbled on ever since, resulting in an estimated 40,000 deaths, seeing the displacement of large numbers of Kurds and hobbling Turkey's economic and political development.

The Turkish Republic is predicated on Turkish homogeneity, despite the fact that an estimated 20 per cent of the population is Kurdish. The PKK anointing itself champion of Kurdish rights and seeking to carve out a Kurdish state made it simple for Turkish nationalists to dismiss any Kurdish demands as separatism. And the PKK's brutal tactics meant any concession on Kurdish rights would be construed as giving in to terrorism.

The PKK's ceasefire in the wake of Öcalan's letter, and the democratic timbre of his overture, should invalidate any further dismissal of Kurdish demands as manifestations of separatism and encouraging terrorism. It is to be hoped that these recent