Re­think­ing Turkey's past

The Pak Banker - - Editorial5 - Owen Matthews

It's not of­ten that Turkey's tough prime min­is­ter, Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, weeps in pub­lic. But a few days be­fore a ref­er­en­dum on over­haul­ing Turkey's Con­sti­tu­tion in Septem­ber, Er­do­gan broke down as he read out ex­cerpts from letters writ­ten by young men con­demned to hang in the af­ter­math of Turkey's last mil­i­tary coup, in 1980. Twenty-two-year-old Mustafa Pehli­vanoglu was one of 49 sus­pected left­ists and na­tion­al­ists ex­e­cuted by the mil­i­tary junta. "The men re­spon­si­ble for this un­just sen­tence will an­swer to God one day," wrote Pehli­vanoglu in his part­ing let­ter to his fam­ily. Now, with the Con­sti­tu­tion writ­ten by the gen­er­als about to be scrapped and three decades of le­gal im­mu­nity for the coup's lead­ers ended, the usu­ally stone-faced Er­do­gan teared up: "The day this young man spoke of has come."

No his­tor­i­cal episode is more emo­tive - or po­lit­i­cally charged - for mod­ern Turks than the legacy of the 1980 coup. Though the is­sues and the po­lit­i­cal la­bels may have changed, Turkey's pol­i­tics con­tinue to di­vide along the same lines as those of 1980. The cen­ter-left sec­u­lar­ist Repub­li­can Peo­ple's Party, or CHP, is a strong sup­porter of the mil­i­tary. Er­do­gan's rul­ing AK Party, by con­trast, has made it its mis­sion to dis­man­tle the Army's be­hind-the-scenes hold on po­lit­i­cal power. At the same time, this fight over the past is re­ally a bat­tle over dif­fer­ent vi­sions of Turkey's fu­ture. In one vi­sion Turkey is ruled by a clique of pa­ter­nal­is­tic mil­i­tary rulers who pro­tect the peo­ple from their own fool­ish­ness; in an­other, Turkey gets the govern­ment its peo­ple vote for-even an Is­lamist one.

The lat­est con­sti­tu­tional re­form has fi­nally given Turks the right to put the Army's his­tor­i­cal legacy on trial. The day af­ter the re­form pack­age was passed, Septem­ber 12 - 30 years to the day af­ter the Army's coup - hun­dreds of crim­i­nal com­plaints against the coup's lead­ers and a host of in­di­vid­ual of­fi­cers al­legedly in­volved in tor­ture were filed by vic­tims' fam­i­lies across Turkey. This win­ter a top court in Ankara is due to rule on whether the coup's leader, 93-yearold Gen. Ke­nan Evren, can stand trial for trea­son and abuse of of­fice. The day of reck­on­ing Pehli­vanoglu pre­dicted has come. The ques­tion now is whether it's a day to heal the coun­try by lay­ing to rest the ghosts of the past-or re­open­ing old wounds in or­der to set­tle to­day's po­lit­i­cal scores. The spate of law­suits has ex­posed the raw roots of Turkey's present-day cul­ture wars. Some an­a­lysts, like Euro­pean M.P. Heidi Hau­tala, a Fin­nish Green who chairs the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment's sub­com­mit­tee on hu­man rights, be­lieve the new Con­sti­tu­tion is "a great vic­tory over the shadow state and a great step to­wards a truly demo­cratic Turkey." Er­do­gan's op­po­nents, though, see it as re­venge for years of Army-backed pres­sure on po­lit­i­cal Is­lam in Turkey, the back­ground from which most of the cur­rent AK lead­er­ship came.

But the real con­tro­versy goes deeper than the AK Party's score-set­tling. At base, it's about whether Turk­ish vot­ers can be trusted with democ­racy - or whether they have to be pro­tected by guardians of the state's iden­tity. This ide­o­log­i­cal bat­tle di­vides Turks on their views of the mil­i­tary's role in so­ci­ety.

In truth, it's be­come in­creas­ingly hard to ar­gue that the Army is a pro­gres­sive force. In­stead of re­spect­ing the Turk­ish peo­ple's demo­cratic choice of the AK Party, the mil­i­tary has fought a rear-guard ac­tion to un­der­mine Er­do­gan. Of­fi­cially, the mil­i­tary gave its bless­ing to an ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­ful pros­e­cu­tion seek­ing to ban Er­do­gan and top AK Party mem­bers from of­fice for "vi­o­lat­ing the prin­ci­ples of the sec­u­lar State." Un­of­fi­cially, pros­e­cu­tors have un­cov­ered ev­i­dence that sev­eral dozen ac­tive and re­tired Army of­fi­cers al­legedly plot­ted a se­ries of bomb­ings and mur­ders in or­der to desta­bilise the AK Party and set the stage for an­other mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion. The 86 de­fen­dants in the so­called Er­genekon con­spir­acy, who in­clude gen­er­als, party of­fi­cials, and a for­mer sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, are cur­rently on trial. A sep­a­rate con­spir­acy to blow up mosques, known as Sledge­ham­mer, also in­volved mil­i­tary of­fi­cers.

Turks' re­spect for the Army has eroded-and calls for the truth about the events of 1980 have mounted. A re­cent poll showed the num­ber of Turks who be­lieve the mil­i­tary's im­pact on so­ci­ety is "very good" has de­clined from 57 per cent to 30 per cent since 2007. The con­sti­tu­tional ref­er­en­dum also showed broad sup­port for re­form­ing the sys­tem left in place by the gen­er­als, which some ar­gue has been the root of all of mod­ern Turkey's con­flicts. The coup lead­ers' "ir­ra­tional and ex­trem­ist po­si­tions fu­eled and ig­nited the Kur­dish guer­rilla war…it has also fu­eled po­lit­i­cal Is­lam," says Kut­lug Ata­man, one of Turkey's best-known film­mak­ers, who was tor­tured for 28 days in 1980 and fled the coun­try soon af­ter.

"As the Turk­ish pub­lic only now starts to re­alise the true di­men­sions in which their lives had been cur­tailed, an­tiWestern and anti-US sen­ti­ments are now on the rise - the pub­lic per­ceives the West as the al­lies of the Turk­ish mil­i­tary." Er­do­gan's de­ci­sion to put the whole of Turkey's re­cent his­tory on trial may be po­lit­i­cal dy­na­mite, set­ting off a flood of coup-re­lated law­suits and reprisals. Ex­pos­ing painful truths about the past is a gam­ble that many coun­tries, in­clud­ing South Africa, Ar­gentina, and Spain, have taken in re­cent years, with vary­ing lev­els of suc­cess.

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