Turkish soldiers’ funerals become stage for protests
Istanbul - Funerals for Turkish soldiers killed in the rekindled conflict against Kurdish rebels have become focal points for anti-government protests, as critics accuse President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of exploiting the clashes for political gain.
“There is a rising flood of anger against the government at the funeral ceremonies for martyrs,” Mehmet Altan, a writer critical of Erdogan, observed in a column for the Gazete360 website, using a term describing the soldiers killed in battle.
Altan said the government, stung by ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) losses in the June 7th election, made a complete turnaround when it dropped peace talks with Kurdish rebels. “We know why those who said ‘solution’ until June 6 started saying ‘war till the end’ on June 8,” he wrote.
In one spectacular funeral protest, a Turkish Army officer, in full uniform, railed against the government during the funeral for his brother who was killed by rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
During the funeral in the southern city of Osmaniye on August 23rd, Lieutenant-Colonel Mehmet Alkan pushed through the crowd of about 15,000 to the flag-bedecked coffin. Visibly upset and crying, Alkan, recorded by television cameras, shouted, “Who is the murderer?”
In a reference Erdogan and the government starting peace talks with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 2012 but abandoning the process in July, Alkan asked: “What has happened that those who spoke of a solution yesterday now speak of war?”
Alkan expressed anger at patriotic statements by politicians which are seen by many as an effort to woo right-wing voters. Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said his aim was to become a “martyr for my religion, my nation, my fatherland”. Without mentioning the minister by name, Alkan said, “it’s outrageous to walk around in palaces with 30 bodyguards, get into an armoured car and then say ‘I want to become a martyr’.”
Alkan’s outburst triggered a deluge of news reports and online comments, many expressing sympathy with the officer. The hashtag #hepimizmehmetalkanyarbayiz — “We all are “Lieutenant-Colonel Mehmet Alkan” — was among the top trends on Twitter in Turkey.
Commentators close to the government, however, called for the Alkan’s dismissal from the army. Both the military and the Interior Ministry began disciplinary action against Alkan.
With more than 50 soldiers and police officers killed in PKK attacks since July, funerals for security forces members have become an almost daily occurrence. Government officials often attend the funerals to show support for the stricken families, but have faced sharp criticism. Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan fled a soldier’s funeral in August after the crowd of mourners booed and threw water bottles at him.
Since the PKK’s rebellion started in 1984, some 40,000 people have been killed in Turkey and millions driven from their homes. A ceasefire as a result of talks between the government and Ocalan in the spring of 2013 brought hopes for lasting peace, but fighting started again in July 2015. The government says it is determined to “finish” the PKK, as one official has put it.As Turkey is facing November 1st snap elections, the question is whether the funeral protests represent a strong anti-war and anti-government groundswell. Erdogan has said Turkey will continue to confront the PKK militarily, declaring that “the blood of martyrs” would continue to flow.
“They think Turkey wants war but, no, it doesn’t,” Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, former chairman of the Islamist human rights group Mazlum-Der, told the anti-government Zaman daily, referring to leaders in Ankara.
The government says it is reacting to a terrorist threat but critics accuse Erdogan and the government of fanning tensions in the Kurdish region in the hope of shoring up support for the AKP. Gergerlioglu said Erdogan saw losses of the military in PKK clashes as “acceptable deaths”.
It is unknown whether the upsurge of fighting will help the AKP at the polls. Mehmet Murat Posteki, a pollster seen as being close to the government, said the AKP and the main opposition party, the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), could see their share of the vote rise, while the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and the pro- Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) were facing losses.
Another prominent pollster, Adil Gur, said the AKP was within reach of recapturing the absolute majority of seats in parliament that it lost in the June election.
But others say the AKP has been unable to strengthen support, while the HDP can expect further gains in the election. Such a result would make it very unlikely for the AKP to regain its majority. Ozer Sencar, head of the Metropoll polling institute, said on Twitter that “the AKP does not have a chance to rule alone” after the November election.