Peace hopes for Kurdistan

News this morning is that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the outlawed Kurdish liberation movement in Turkey, has released eight Turkish hostages as “a gesture of goodwill” in pursuit of a peace settlement with the Turkish government.

The road to peace has been a long and tortuous one, with some distance yet to go. But a milestone was reached last December when the government began negotiations, Nelson Mandela-style, with the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan. According to Al-Jazeera, Ocalan is now expected to call for a general ceasefire to begin on 21 March.

The government has welcomed the hostage release and made positive noises about peace, while denying that secret concessions had been made in return. Ultimately, however, the Kurds will expect recognition of their separate ethnic identity, some sort of political autonomy and of course the release of Ocalan (jailed for 14 years) and legalisation of his party.

The Kurdish conflict is one of the most significant issues of its kind remaining in the world. I’ve written about it a few times before – see here and here, for example. The Kurds are no obscure minority group; there are upwards of 30 million of them (maybe about half in Turkey, or about a fifth of that country’s population), with a long and distinctive history. If they are not entitled to self-determination, it’s hard to see why anyone should be.

It’s also a big issue for Turkey’s ambition to be recognised as a modern developed state, and in particular for its aim of joining the European Union. Not surprisingly, the EU doesn’t look kindly on the idea of banning election campaigning in a particular language, or any of the other attempts that have been made over the years to forcibly assimilate the Kurds (or “mountain Turks”, as they were once officially called) and deny their cultural distinctness.

But although progress has been uneven, Turkey’s Islamist government under prime minister Recep Erdogan has made some serious steps towards dismantling those sorts of racist policies. He has encountered fierce domestic opposition; his opponents, who see themselves as guardians of Turkey’s progressive secular traditions, are also the guardians of chauvinist nationalism.

Erdogan’s AKP, perhaps because it has Islam to rely on as a unifying force, sees less need to be always stressing an exclusive sort of “Turkishness”. In an interesting twist on the conventional Mid-East pattern, it’s the “Islamists” who are pursuing peace with primarily non-religious “terrorists” (the PKK is still listed as a terrorist organisation by the US and the United Nations).

So if the current moves really do lead to a sustainable peace in Turkish Kurdistan it will be a major achievement for the region and beyond. It will give hope for the settlement of similar conflicts elsewhere, such as in southern Thailand (where there have also been hopeful signs of late), and show once again that there’s no real substitute for self-determination.


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