Turkey’s Kurdish problem has entered its “final act” because the desire to end the long-running issue via peaceful means is becoming stronger day by day, according to a prominent Kurdish politician who has returned to Turkey after 31 years in exile.
Even though the end is in sight, however, there are likely to be more ups and downs before an ultimate solution, Kemal Burkay, who favors a peaceful solution to the issue, told the Hürriyet Daily News in an interview this week.
Q: How do you evaluate the current situation in the Kurdish issue compared with the past?
A: There is progress when you compare it to the past. One should not underestimate it. From the days of there being no Kurdish question, we have come to a point of asking how we should solve the Kurdish question. But when you consider all the changes that are taking place in the world, one should not exaggerate the change. After all, I am over 70, I have fought for 50 years and [the issue] still hasn’t been solved.
There was a period of conflict started by the armed struggle of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) with devastating consequences.
Q: Some say that if the PKK had not resorted to arms, Turkey would not have accepted the Kurdish reality.
A: On the contrary, the PKK’s armed struggle made the issue much more complicated. Thirty years of conflict did not solve anything. Thousands of villages were depopulated. There was already a Kurdish awakening that started in the 1960s, even before the rise of the PKK. The Kurdistan Socialist Party won the municipality of Ağrı in 1979. Kurdish groups could have won all the municipalities in the 1980s if there had not been the military coup in 1980. We could have done it without using violence, through peaceful means. But the coup opened the way for the PKK.
Q: Did you suspect that the state was in secret talks with the PKK? Why do you think it stopped?
A: This [initiative] is right if it aims at finding a solution to the problem, but is will not be right if it aims to pacify the Kurds using [the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah] Öcalan. There was an intention to solve the problem in the AKP. But they were not properly prepared. And the opposition did not support them. The PKK and the BDP [Peace and Democracy Party] did not support them, and neither did the left. The left needs to leave this habit of tying everything to anti-Americanism.
Q: Do you have any suspicions as to the intentions of the government in talking to the PKK?
A: You cannot solve the Kurdish problem by just talking to Öcalan or the PKK. Of course you need to talk to the PKK to stop violence, because they are the ones holding the guns. But if the aim is to solve the problem, you can’t just do it by holding secret talks with Öcalan. He is a prisoner. Kurds need to be informed about these talks.
Q: But who should be the state’s counterpart then?
A: You don’t have to talk to Öcalan to know the demands of the Kurds. Kurds want equal rights. They want education in their own language; they want the right to self-government. We want the use of our language in the public sector. We want to live under the same roof of this state and for us, the solution is a federation. You don’t have to talk to Öcalan in order to recognize Kurds’ rights. If the state is looking for a counterpart, it should not be only the PKK, Öcalan or the BDP. There is HAK-PAR [Rights and Liberties Party], there is the group of [independent deputy] Şerafettin Elçi. There are other Kurdish intellectuals.
But the government can take unilateral action without having to talk to [a counterpart]. It will say it will start with education in mother tongues in predominantly Kurdish areas, it can say it will agree to local administrations. When this starts, then the weapons will go silent because the PKK cannot use weapons in such an atmosphere. Then there could be a general amnesty. Political channels will be opened. Kurdish politics will become normalized and in an election that you hold in such an atmosphere, you won’t just have the BDP, but other political groups.
Q: But the BDP won a significant portion of the Kurdish votes; for many, it is the legitimate representative of the Kurds.
A: It got these votes in an environment when other Kurdish movements are oppressed and where those holding arms control the masses. Neither the PKK nor the state is letting other Kurdish opposition groups emerge.
Q: Why do you think the state is adopting that stance?
A: The state used the PKK as a tool to control the Kurds. It used Öcalan as a tool as well. Recall what Öcalan said when he was captured; he said, “I am at the service of the state.” [Then-Prime Minister Bülent] Ecevit replied: “let’s not hang him, let’s use him.” The relationship with Öcalan developed on that understanding. The PKK and Kurds were taken under control. All groups, even the BDP, is under the pressure of the PKK.
Q: Have you been able to find room to maneuver since returning to Turkey in the summer after your exile?
A: Just like everybody, I am affected as well. But I don’t want to talk about myself. I want to be constructive.
Q: There seems to be a vicious circle: The state says violence must stop before it gives any concessions, whereas the PKK throws the ball back, asking for guarantees.
A: The PKK should unconditionally drop its arms. But this won’t happen just because I say it. But the state does not need to wait for the arms to be silenced to act.
Q: But the government doesn’t seem to be opting for that kind of policy when you look at the Kurdish Communities’ Union (KCK) arrests.
A: These arrests are wrong and they are negatively affecting the process. But there are reciprocal mistakes being made. The KCK is not a legal organization. There is no need for the KCK. You have the PKK on the illegal ground and the BDP on the legal ground so what is the KCK? Well, it is an organization to control the BDP. That’s wrong. On the one hand you are asking for democracy, on the other hand you are going to exert control over all the other legal groups through a organization you formed relying on armed force. But the government is making a mistake as well. While you are trying to bring the commander from the mountain down to the ‘plain,’ it is not realistic to push the structure onto the plain. The [KCK] is illegal, but it has not used arms.
Q: What is the government trying to do? What is holding up the government?
A: The government needs vision and courage. But does the government say it will solve this problem on the basis of equal rights? No, it is still not at that point. The government does not have the necessary courage. But I believe they have showed goodwill.
Q: Many feel deceived by the AKP, arguing that it started the so-called initiative to maximize its votes; do you also feel disappointed on this front?
A: Despite everything, I am still not disappointed. The AKP took well-intentioned steps. If these had been supported by the opposition, the government would not have stopped. But the opposition not only did not support the government, but they wanted us to be blind to all the steps they had taken in order to harm the initiative.
Q: Why do you think the PKK or the BDP did not support the government?
A: They did not support the Ergenekon case [an alleged shadowy gang accused of attempting to topple the government] despite the fact that they were its biggest victims. They did not support the referendum for constitutional changes. The PKK keeps talking about democracy, but it has never been democratic.
Q: Are you hopeful that rewriting the constitution will contribute to the solution?
A: It can contribute but it depends on how democratic the constitution will be. But I am not optimistic.
Q: What will happen now? What is your projection?
A: We are now in the final act. Both Turks and Kurds are tired of conflict and very uncomfortable with the bloodshed. The will for a peaceful solution is getting stronger and this desire will surmount all the obstacles, pacifying the circles that are making it hard to find a solution. Despite the voices for a military solution, the [support] for a peaceful solution in the grassroots of the BDP is getting stronger. I can’t give a timetable. But we are in the very last hurdles at a hurdles race. The whole process has had its ups and downs, so the final act will also have its ups and downs.
Who is Kemal Burkay?
One of the most prominent figures of Kurdish political movements, Kemal Burkay diverges from other groups by refusing to support armed conflict.
Born in the southeastern city of Tunceli, Burkay studied law at university in Ankara. He joined the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TİP) in 1965, rising quickly to higher positions in the party. Following the military coup in March 12, 1971, he fled Turkey and came back in 1974 following a general amnesty. The same year he founded the Socialist Party of Turkish Kurdistan and became its secretary-general.
He fled Turkey in March 1980, before the military coup that took place in September. He was granted political asylum from Sweden, where he lived until his return last July to Turkey, following a direct appeal from the government.
“I have no complexes. I am saying here what I have been saying in the past,” he said of those who accuse him of being a tool of the government.
A writer and a poet, he has also translated several pieces from Kurdish to Turkish and vice versa. The lyrics of one of the songs of Sezen Aksu, one of Turkey’s best singers and composers, are from a Burkay poem.