It's officially spring, kids. Regardless of the weather, March 21 marks the beginning of the season each year, and in Turkey, it's also the date of Nevruz, the Kurdish New Year. Nevruz is an exclusively Kurdish holiday in this country, and it's generally associated with protests and violence. As this year's State Department security warning said, "Historically, members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) have used these celebrations to incite violence in order to provoke a response from Turkish authorities." For a long time, Nevruz celebrations were simply banned, and then last year, there was a row over what date the celebrations would be held, and the celebrations turned violent.
But this year, Nevruz ended up being a monumental day in Turkey, as the head of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, called for a cease-fire and told his armed forces to withdraw from the country -- he said that it was time to exchange guns for politics and begin a "democratic struggle." Ocalan has been in jail since 1999, and his statement was read out in Kurdish and Turkish during the Nevruz celebrations in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir.
The reason why this cease-fire is so monumental is that Turkey has a "Kurdish problem." It's a complicated issue -- I don't pretend to completely understand the situation, but I'll do my best to explain. It's an incredibly politically and emotionally charged issue, and Turks hold passionate views on the topic.
The short version is that after the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923, the leadership wanted Turkey to be Turkish and did not really permit other expressions of identity/ethnicity. However, Turkey has a significant Kurdish population (the estimations differ but it's somewhere between 12 million and 25 million of Turkey's 75 million citizens) that lives mainly in the southeast. Through oppression and lack of economic development, the government tried to assimilate the Kurds into the mainstream (and thus, snuff out their culture). As a result of all this, a terrorist group (the aforementioned PKK) was formed in the 1970s and began violent attacks in the 1980s to fight for Kurdish rights and independence. Since then, some 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict. In recent years, the government has been holding secret talks with Ocalan, trying to come up with a solution. The cease-fire was not a surprise -- there had been reports about it at least a week prior -- and the conditions (lay down arms/leave the country) mirror reports in the last year of what the government's conditions were for resolution.
So hooray, peace and victory! Hahahaha -- just kidding. There doesn't seem to be a lot of celebration -- instead, the cease-fire has created much controversy, criticism, questions and highly charged emotion. [Update: I saw a number of "hooray, victory!" columns in Sunday's paper, though some of that has already given way to discussions about Israel's apology over the Mavi Marmara incident.]
It's important to note the government has not exactly been heroes in this. In general, the current government has gone aggressively after people, including politicians, journalists and military members, who it sees as critics or threats. Discussing the validity of those trials is a whole other (highly controversial) subject, so I won't go there. Let's just say that in this specific situation, "blaming the Kurds, who were identified with terrorism or political dissent by the majority of Turks, [enabled] Ankara to justify policies that often do not discriminate between armed guerillas and disgruntled civilians," writes Gabriel Mitchell in A "Kurdish Reset": Erdogan's Last Chance? In other words, there have been a number of people arguably unfairly jailed for not towing the party line.
A month ago, one newspaper published the minutes of a secret parliamentary visit to Ocalan, and the prime minister accused the paper of acting against the national interest of the country -- which then led to (more) discussions about press freedom (or the lack of) in Turkey, and the firing/quitting of a prominent journalist. The leader of the main opposition party is now saying that no one knows what Prime Minister Erdogan and Ocalan have agreed to. Reading between the lines, there seems to be concern that the PKK and Ocalan himself, a man who has been called a baby-killer, are being legitimized as a player in the democratic process through an undemocratic, secret process (and that the violence and deaths of the last 30 years are sort of being glossed over). This is especially important as Turkey is attempting to write a new constitution that will shape the future of the country -- and, as one columnist wrote, "there is also concern that peace is [being] used as a bargaining chip to support Prime Minister Erdogan's presidential ambitions."
Another concern, again mostly reading between the lines, seems to be that the cease-fire is actually the first step in fracturing Turkey instead of heralding the "building of a 'new Turkey'." There were no Turkish flags at the event in Diyarbakir, which made a lot of people angry -- and if you watch the video, you'll see a number of red-green-yellow Kurdish flags and plenty of yellow flags featuring Ocalan's portrait. Not surprisingly, the nationalists went crazy.
This is only the beginning, and I have no doubt that there will be a lot written about the cease-fire in the coming days, weeks and months. I hope for my part that I have done it some justice in the explanation.