There is a need to put the legitimate demands of Kurds on the agenda and to conduct sincere negotiations …The Kurdish issue in Turkey is a matter related with the human and citizen rights of the Kurdish people who have been exposed to brutal oppression for a very long time.
— Noam Chomsky
We know from experience that no-one can emerge as the victors in such a conflict. We are firmly of the view that the Kurdish question can be resolved through the peaceful negotiations with the genuine leadership of the Kurdish people. We urge you to rise to the occasion and take up the challenge that history has thrust upon you.
— Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Letter to then Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 2010)
In December 2005 the Howard government placed the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) on the Australian government’s list of banned terrorist organisations. The organisation has been re-listed by both Labour and Coalition governments. In August 11, 2015 the PKK was re-listed by the Abbott government for a further period.
The ban means that it is illegal for Australian citizens to belong to the PKK, to raise funds for it or to in any other way to actively support it.
We believe that the ban on the PKK is wrong and it should be removed.
PKK IN ITS REAL HISTORICAL AND POLITICAL CONTEXT
First of all, let’s put the PKK in its real historical and political context.
Turkey’s Kurds suffer severe oppression
The Kurds are the world’s largest national group which does not have its own independent state. Some 35 million Kurds are divided between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
The historical responsibility for this situation rests with the British and French colonial powers who oversaw the break-up of the Ottoman empire at the end of World War I, and with the nationalist forces which established the post-Ottoman Turkish republic.
Ever since the formation of modern Turkey in 1923, the country’s large Kurdish population has faced severe oppression at the hands of the extremely racist Turkish state.
Kurds denied mother tongue education
This oppression continues today.
For instance, in 2012, Turkey’s 20 million Kurds accounted for 27% of the country’s population. Some language restrictions have been eased yet Kurds are still denied public education in their mother tongue: The sole language of instruction in state schools is Turkish. The constitution says citizens are members of the “Turkish nation” which leaves out all those who are not ethnically Turkish.
In the Kurdish-majority southeast of the country the Kurds confront a whole system of “village guards” (a pro-government militia and surveillance force), military posts, right-wing Islamist forces supported by the regime, police violence, arbitrary arrests and relentless official hostility. Thousands of Kurds are in jail for political offences.
A legitimate national liberation movement
The PKK arose in 1978 in response to the intolerable situation facing the Kurdish people in Turkey.
From 1984 to 2013 it waged an armed struggle for an independent Kurdish homeland. This conflict resulted in at least 40,000 deaths (mostly Kurdish), the destruction of 4000 villages, and the dispersal of millions of Kurds across Turkey, seeking safety and work.
The responsibility for the civil war rests fundamentally with the Turkish state which has long denied fundamental human rights to a group constituting over a quarter of the population. The United States and the European Union, which backed Turkey right through the Cold War and beyond, also bear a heavy measure of responsibility. Out of geopolitical considerations, the West has ignored Turkey’s oppression of its Kurdish minority.
Today, in a very significant change of orientation, the PKK has dropped its call for a separate Kurdish state. Instead, it now aims for Kurdish autonomy within a democratised Turkey. In 2013 it unilaterally declared a ceasefire and sought to enter into negotiations with the Turkish government.
After 37 tumultuous years, the PKK has survived and demonstrably retains the support of millions of Kurds who see it as their best hope of realising their national existence. Their acknowledged leader is PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan, jailed in Turkey since 1999. For example, in 2005-06 some 3.5 million Kurds signed a petition stating that they regarded him as their political representative.
Democratic project in Rojava
The democratic experiment in Rojava, the Kurdish-majority liberated area of northern Syria, has attracted great interest and admiration around the world. Despite living under sustained attack by Islamist forces, the people of Rojava are building a new society in which the various ethnic communities (Kurds, Arabs, Chechens, Assyrians, etc.) and religious groups (Muslims, Christians, Yazedis) are able to live together peacefully and cooperatively.
The empowerment of women is also a striking feature of Rojava. About one-third of the defence forces are female: They are in the command and on the frontlines. They have contributed hundreds of martyrs to the cause. Women are guaranteed at least 40% representation in all community bodies. These realities are challenging patriarchal taboos in society and providing powerful new models for what women can do.
The Kurds call this system of radical democracy “democratic confederalism”. While it has its own dynamic in Rojava, it was inspired in large part by Öcalan and he enjoys tremendous recognition and prestige.
PKK playing frontline role against IS
The PKK has played a key role in resisting the inhuman ‘Islamic State’ gangs in both Syria and Iraq. The PKK’s resolute defence of Kurdish and other communities across the region has won it great prestige and growing support.
PKK cadre serve in the Rojava defence forces. PKK forces participated in the heroic defence of Kobanê, the northern Syrian town finally liberated at the end of January 2015 after a four-and-a-half-month siege. The PKK played a key role in mobilising support for Kobanê in Turkey and in spotlighting the Turkish government’s shameful support for the IS killers.
In Iraq, by defeating the IS forces at the town of Maxmur in August 2014, PKK guerrillas were absolutely vital in halting the IS advance on Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government. They have also played a major role in the defence of the Kurdish-controlled city of Kirkuk.
And when the KRG peshmerga abandoned the Yazedi Kurdish religious community at Sinjar in Iraq in the face of the IS attack in August 2014, the YPG/YPJ (People’s Protection Units/Women’s Protection Units, the defence forces of Rojava) and the PKK came to their rescue. They opened a humanitarian corridor that enabled 200,000 Yazedis to reach safety in Rojava, Turkey and northern Iraq.
Collaborating with terrorists?
The dominant political party in Rojava is the Democratic Union Party (PYD). While organisationally independent, it has close political ties with the PKK. The United States was forced by political necessity (to preserve the credibility of its ‘war on terror’) to help prevent Kobanê falling to the IS. This meant Washington has had to talk to the Rojava authorities and the PYD.
While the PKK is on the US and EU lists of terrorist organisations, the PYD is not. Yet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan puts an equals sign between the PKK, the PYD … and the Islamic State. This would mean that the US and its allies are collaborating with terrorists. It would make more sense to simply drop the ‘terrorist’ label.
Regime killed peace negotiations
At the end of 2012 Erdogan revealed that the government was holding discussions with Öcalan.
Öcalan’s historic March 2013 Newroz message called for an end to the armed struggle. “This is not abandoning the struggle — we are initiating a different struggle,” he said.
The PKK agreed to support the peace process. In May 2013 it began withdrawing its forces from Turkey to camps in northern Iraq.
On February 28, 2015 a joint press conference of the government and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) at Istanbul’s Dolmabahçe Palace announced a 10-point peace plan. However, the next month Erdogan denied there was any agreement.
In a very revealing July 28, 2015 interview, HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas explained that the peace negotiations had been extensive, involving the government, Öcalan, the HDP and the PKK in Kandil. But the government reneged on promises to pass legislation to enable PKK fighters to withdraw from Turkey in safety. And as the fighters vacated their defence zones, the government began building military forts and roads there — clearly a preparation, not for a peaceful future, but for a violent one.
Dermirtas explained that Erdogan killed the process because polls showed the AKP was losing electoral support and the HDP was gaining it. Erdogan evidently concluded he needed to veer hard right, towards conflict and the nationalist voters.
War on the Kurds
But the June 7, 2015 parliamentary elections intensified Erdogan’s problems. The HDP resoundingly surmounted the undemocratic 10% electoral threshold and Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered a sharp rebuff, losing its ability to rule on its own.
The only possibility was a coalition government or a minority government with external support. This was a major problem for Erdogan and the AKP. Anything less than complete AKP rule threatens all those elements who have benefited from its deals and favours and who assisted in carrying out its crimes. A loss of control personally threatens Erdogan with the possible revival of a stalled inquiry into allegations of massive corruption which first surfaced at the end of 2013.
Erdogan made sure coalition negotiations went nowhere. He has called new elections for November 1.
Erdogan has attempted to create a security crisis by screaming about the terrorist threat from the PKK and the gains of the Kurds across the border in Rojava.
The July 20 Suruç bombing, which killed 32 young socialists as they prepared to cross over to Kobanê to help rebuild the city, was almost certainly a provocation organised by regime elements.
Turkey is descending into chaos and violence. The regime has launched a war on the Kurds. Cities, towns and villages in the Kurdish southeast have been savagely attacked by the security forces. People have been killed in their homes, the death toll is rising and hundreds of Kurdish politicians and activists have been arrested.
At the same time Öcalan is being held in total isolation so that he cannot use his great authority to urge restraint. Erdogan needs blood to be shed and nothing must be allowed to prevent this.
Erdogan hopes that in an atmosphere of crisis fresh elections will see the AKP regain majority support as people turn to a “strong” leader. He is also moving to cripple the HDP. But all this is a big gamble and things may well go the other way as people blame him for killing a real chance for peace and instead taking Turkey into the maelstrom again.
AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT’S CASE AGAINST THE PKK
Drug, prostitution charges withdrawn
Around the time the PKK was re-listed on August 11 the Australian government’s national security website entry for the PKK was substantially amended. You can check out the old entry via the Wayback Machine. Perhaps the changes are a response to the criticism we made.
The old entry claimed the PKK raised money by drug trafficking and prostitution rackets:
The PKK derives most of its financial resources from drug trafficking, which is reported to generate hundreds of millions of US dollars for the group. At different times, the PKK is assessed to have controlled up to 80% of the European illicit drug market …
The PKK also generates income through extortion, illegal immigration, human trafficking, money laundering and prostitution rackets.
The function of such charges is to prejudice people against the PKK. The stifling national oppression of the Kurdish people disappears and is replaced by drugs, prostitution and so on.
The PKK makes women’s equality a centrepiece of its appeal. It describes its struggle as a “women’s revolution”. Thousands of women have joined the organisation, many “going to the mountains” to train as guerrillas. The PKK’s interventions at Maxmur, Kirkuk and Sinjar were all notable for the strong, active presence of women fighters. Women are in the leadership of the organisation at all levels. Saying that such an organisation finances itself through “prostitution rackets” is simply not credible.
The website authors evidently recognised that what they had got away with in the past would not cut it today and these charges no longer feature on the PKK’s rap sheet.
The old entry for the PKK also contained the statement:: “There are no known direct threats from the PKK to Australian interests. The PKK is not known to be engaged in any peace or mediation processes.” This doesn’t appear in the new entry. The admission was simply giving a free kick to critics of the ban; the claim about there being no peace negotiations was simply wrong.
Case against the PKK has no context
However, the government’s justification for listing the PKK remains ludicrously flimsy.
For a start, the entry on the national security website says absolutely nothing about the context in which the PKK arose and in which it has functioned for almost four decades. That is, it completely ignores the extreme oppression of the Kurdish people at the hands of the Turkish regime.
That is why millions of Kurds continue to support the PKK. Resistance to oppression is not ‘terrorism’ and can’t be understood as terrorism. We can be critical or not of aspects of the PKK’s practice over the years but the organisation has survived, above all, because this reality has not really changed.
However, under the leadership of Abdullah Öcalan, from the time of his capture in 1999 the PKK has undergone a major political reorientation. It is no longer fighting for a separate Kurdish state but wants real autonomy within a democratised Turkey. The PKK wants to negotiate a peace deal with the government.
In this regard, Öcalan has made a profound self-criticism of the PKK’s previous armed struggle strategy. While defending the Kurdish people’s right to armed self-defence he says it should be placed within very strict limits and argues that the main strategy of the organisation should be to struggle for democratisation within Turkey. This is the origin of the ‘democratic confederalism’ project.
List of violent incidents
The national security website lists a long series of violent incidents, supposedly illustrating the PKK’s terrorist proclivities. Although we lack any substantial information one way or the other, we can nonetheless make a number of comments.
1. In the long struggle of the Kurdish people in Turkey there are two contending forces — the repressive, discriminatory Turkish state and those who are resisting. Any violence by the PKK has been fundamentally reactive — a result of the terrible situation in which the Kurdish people have been placed. Furthermore, whatever their expediency, in such a situation attacks on the government’s occupying police and army units in the Kurdish-majority provinces are to be expected.
2. Erdogan has junked the peace process and has unilaterally re-started the war against the Kurds. The PKK has retaliated but has demonstrably held back its forces. PKK leaders have called on its forces only to attack those police and military units which are directly conducting repressive operations.
3. It is well known that the Turkish government’s “counter-terrorism” strategy employs provocateurs, “false flag” operations and counter-guerrilla death squads. Many incidents ascribed to the PKK may actually be the work of government agents.
4. The anger among the Kurdish youth at the crimes of the regime and the culture of impunity is so great that spontaneous acts of violence do occur independently of the PKK.
The case of the ‘abducted’ children
Included on the national security website is the following charge:
23 April 2014: The PKK abducted 25 teenaged students in the Lice district of Diyarbakir. Although the PKK released several of the children following protests by their parents, the majority remain missing. The group is reported to have kidnapped more than 300 children between December 2013 and May 2014.
This latter claim is a complete fabrication. Readers can get a sense of what is going on in this June 3, 2014 article in Hürriyet Daily News. There was no kidnapping. In conditions of ongoing oppression, in which they feel that Kurds have no place in a racist Turkey, many young people made contact with the PKK of their own accord.
The Hürriyet article reported:
HDP co-leader Ertugrul Kürkçü issued “an open call” to the government.
“Do you want children — who passed to the other side of the border, who believe that they have found a safe space there and who chose to go there — to rejoin with their families? The most important thing that you will do is attach importance to the peace process and eliminate inequalities and unlawfulness,” Kürkçü said in his address to his parliamentary group.
“There is no reason for a demand from us. We are neither the conscription office nor an institution tasked with finding missing children. Who can give assurances to these children about their future if they decided to return?” Kürkçü asked.
The Turkish regime is trying to fit up the PKK for such realities and our national security website is happy to go along with it.
Regime violence not mentioned
Not surprisingly, conspicuously absent here is any list of regime crimes against the Kurdish people.
One of the most notorious such incidents in recent times is the Roboski Massacre. On December 28, 2011, the village of Roboski on the Turkey-Iraq border was shattered when 34 members (mainly children) of a group of 38 Kurds died when their party was attacked by Turkish F16 fighter jets. Apparently Turkish and US spy drones had ‘determined’ that the villagers were PKK guerillas. Reportedly, Erdogan personally gave the go-ahead for the strike. To date, despite sustained agitation no one has been called to account for this crime.
In early October 2014 the Kurdish people poured onto the streets across the south-east and in Ankara and Istanbul in solidarity with Kobanê and in protest at the Turkish government’s blatant support for the IS killers. They were met with tear gas, clubs, bullets and army-enforced curfews. Police and Islamist gangs attacked them. Over 30 people were killed.
This year’s July 20 Suruç massacre can certainly be laid at the door of the Turkish security services. It is beyond belief that in an environment totally under their control, with everyone being searched, somehow a suicide bomber was missed.
And with the regime’s new war on its Kurdish citizens, there is a fresh and growing list of crimes.
If we are talking about violent attacks let’s include all these and similar incidents as well. It would be a very long list.
Only secular organisation on terrorist list
As of January 2015, the PKK is the only secular organisation on the Australian terrorist list — all the other groups listed are Islamist organisations. Why is the PKK listed here? Is part of the reason to help the government rebut the charge that the “war on terror” is really a war against the Muslim community?
No doubt the other part of the reason is to curry favour with the Turkish regime and create a favourable environment for “security cooperation” (stopping Australians transiting Turkey to join IS).
Serious negotiations require delisting PKK
The contradictions resulting from the US, the EU and Australia listing the PKK as a terrorist organisation are mounting. More and more voices internationally are calling for the PKK to be de-listed.
The ‘Kurdish question’ has blighted modern Turkey since its inception. The PKK’s willingness to participate in a peace process with the government is the best hope of bringing peace and justice to this long-troubled land. It should be seized with both hands.
Turkey’s war on the Kurds must be stopped and the peace negotiations re-started.
The prime responsibility here rests with the Turkish government. But the Western powers should use all their influence to push for meaningful negotiations. An excellent signal here would be to remove the PKK from the terror lists in Australia and abroad.
[This background article was revised in early September 2015 to reflect new developments in Turkey, the re-listing of the PKK on August 11 and the new Australian national security website entry for the PKK.]
1. Abdullah Öcalan, Prison Writings: The PKK and the Kurdish Question in the 21st Century (Transmedia Publishing: London, 2011), pp. 111-125.