The Kurdish Struggle in Turkey: An interview with Sebahat Tuncel, MP


Sebahat Tuncel is a Kurdish member of the Turkish Parliament.  A well-known human and women’s rights advocate, she is currently the Vice Co-Chairperson Responsible for Foreign Affairs and the Istanbul Deputy of the leftist Democratic Society Party (DTP), an organization she co-founded.  Prior to the 2007 general elections, she was the DTP Women’s Assembly Spokesperson and the Esenler District Chairperson of the Party of People’s Democracy (HADEP), a forerunner of the DTP. 


When I asked him about Tuncel’s work, Noam Chomsky said: “The Kurdish people have struggled courageously for their elementary human rights, and have suffered miserably in defense of these rights.  The record in Turkey has been harsh and brutal, and to our everlasting shame, we bear substantial responsibility for that.  MP Sebahat Tuncel is carrying that struggle forward with impressive dedication and courage.  We can learn a great deal from her about the Kurds, about Turkey, about our role in the world — and about human dignity.”


Like so many of her colleagues, Tuncel has been relentlessly persecuted for her brave work.  She went on trial for membership of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (an armed organization dedicated to Kurdish independence) in 2006, but was released from custody after being elected to parliament from her prison cell in July 2007.  Her parliamentary immunity has since been overturned, however, and the false charges are once again being brought against her; she faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.  The Turkish Constitutional Court is currently considering outlawing the DTP on the basis of its alleged links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.  Tuncel has also been targeted for assassination by ‘deep state’ gangs, shadowy paramilitary groups linked to Turkish military and intelligence agencies that resemble Guatemala’s infamous “clandestine groups.” 


The following interview was conducted in Lincoln, Rhode Island.  It touches on the background of the Kurdish issue in Turkey, the role of the major Turkish political parties in the conflict, and the DTP’s struggle for Kurdish rights.  Many thanks to Gökçe ?im?ek for her help with translation.


JH: Many ZNet readers will be familiar with the Kurdish issue in Turkey, but for those who aren’t, what do you see as the most crucial aspects of the matter?


ST:  The Kurdish question in Turkey – the atmosphere of conflict of the last twenty-five to thirty years – there’s considerable background to this.  Kurdistan was divided into two parts by the 1639 Kasr-i Shirin treaty, and then with the Sevres treaty of 1920, it was divided into four parts; today, the Kurdish population lives in four different territories [Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq].  The largest Kurdish population today lives in Turkey, about twenty million.  Approximately ten million live in Iraq, about five or six million in Iran, and about two or three million in Syria.


Kurds participated in the Turkish War of Independence, but after the establishment of the Turkish Republic – and more so after the death of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – policies of denial and even execution were increasingly put into practice against the Kurdish people.  There have been many Kurdish rebellions from then up until the present – for example Sheik Sait’s, Dersim, Kockiri, Agiri – and these are generally known as religious rebellions.  But in fact they emanated from the failure of the Turkish government to generate solutions to the problems encountered by Kurds.  Up until now, the Kurdish people have rebelled twenty-eight times, and the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] is known as the twenty-ninth rebellion.


Historically and currently, the Turkish system has operated on the conception of a single language, single state, single culture and nation.  This is a very important dynamic in the emergence of the conflict.  The PKK appeared during the 1970s, immediately after the 1968 movements, which it was inspired by.  They were first involved in armed conflict with the Turkish military in 1984; this was the beginning of an intense period of conflict.  As you know, almost every decade a military coup has taken place in Turkey, and the head of the 1980 coup, Kenan Evren, has recently confessed that it was a mistake to ban the Kurdish people from using their own language or practicing their own culture. 


What the Kurdish people want is to use their rights.  They want to freely practice their culture and freely use their language.  They want to [achieve] their identity rights.  However, they also believe that disarmament is the necessary condition for taking steps toward resolving the conflict

through democratic means, dialogue and negotiations.  Suitable grounds should be created for this.  Today, the Democratic Society Party [known by its Turkish initials, DTP] – even though it is small – is in parliament, and this is a great opportunity to talk about these questions, to initiate dialogue, but this option is not being evaluated or taken into consideration [by the Turkish government].


To take steps toward a solution to the problem, you must first define the problem correctly.  The

depiction of the problem as a terrorist problem only aggravates the conflict and the problems.  The projects for solutions have to be presented to and discussed with civil society organizations, intellectuals and democratic public opinion.  And the government has to take part.  We believe that the PKK can be disarmed, but again, suitable grounds should be created for this by the government.  Today, many hundreds of thousands of [Kurds] are in prison.  Young people are still joining the guerrilla forces, and there is still a lot to be done in the area of civil liberties and individual liberties. 


Today, it is not like the 1990s.  During the 1990s the existence of the Kurdish people – the fact that Kurdish people live in Turkey – was denied.  Today, it is accepted, but there are no positive steps are being taken toward a solution to the problem.  There are certain efforts by left-wing intellectuals and small political parties, but more influential figures and parties – such as the [ruling] Justice and Development Party [known by its Turkish initials AKP] and [Kemalist] Republican People’s Party – are generating deadlock rather than solutions.


JH: In the years immediately following the PKK’s 1999 ceasefire, there seemed to be some progress toward resolving the conflict peacefully.  The Turkish government, partially influenced by the EU accession process, made some improvements in its respect for Kurdish human and cultural rights, and in his famous trip to Diyarbakir, Prime Minister Erdogan recognized that the Kurdish issue must be resolved politically, rather than through force.  But then the reform process slowed, Kurdish armed groups re-emerged, military conflict escalated and the optimism dissipated.  In your view, what accounts for this?


ST: Today, we’re facing a situation in which double authority exists in Turkey.  On the one hand, there is the government, and on the other, the military, which is behind the curtain.  But in fact, the military tutelage over Turkish politics still exists.  This is mainly the reason the coups take place every ten years.  The last coup — which took place in 1980 — was headed by Kenan Evren, and although he was a general – a military officer — he became president, the head of state. 


There was a strong conviction in international public opinion, as well, that the Justice and Development Party would take comprehensive steps toward enhancing individual rights and liberties and improving the human rights record of the country; even left-wing intellectuals and democratic intellectuals in Turkey and civil society organizations supported this view.  However, the AKP government ended up defending the status quo, and the situation of the double authority disappeared.  They also acquired crucial posts in the state and bureaucracy, and the government was militarized, in a way.


This was influenced by the AKP’s ambitions to introduce a Turkish/Muslim synthesis of the country and the transfer of the country into a moderate Muslim country.  In a very short period of time, a consensus was achieved between the AKP government and the military.  As you know, in the massacre in Malatya, in the murder of Hrant Dink (a non-Muslim journalist), paramilitary organizations within the state, and certain gangs, were encouraged during this time.  In fact, the AKP government lacks sincerity.  The discourse is, ‘we want everyone to live freely in the country,’ but the actual practice is, ‘I want my own freedoms, and I don’t care about the rest.’


The DTP has been in parliament for seven or eight months, but during this time, Prime Minister Erdogan has never been involved in dialogue with us.  We are the representatives of a considerable population, and these people elected us to parliament, but the AKP government consistently refuses to negotiate with us or to introduce a dialogue with us. 


And furthermore, significant polarization is created within society by the AKP government.  The initiation of the cross-border operations [into Northern Iraq] and also the generation of tension between the women who wear headscarves and women who don’t, also creates polarization.


JH: Discuss the major parties some more.  Do you think any of them could be a vehicle for democratizing the country, or do you think more fundamental systemic changes are necessary?


ST: I do not think the existing political parties in Turkey will come up with a willingness to solve the Kurdish problem.  This is because all the mainstream political parties – the AKP, the Republican People’s Party, the Nationalist Movement Party – base their policies of the denial of the rights of the Kurdish people, and they most recently voted ‘yes’ for the cross-border operations in parliament.  The policies of the AKP are the most dangerous, because on the one hand it presents a picture of itself as wanting a solution to the Kurdish problem, but on the other hand it has tried to repress the Kurdish movement through different means, such as military means. 


It is also true that the military tutelage of politics should be abolished; the military should deal with security affairs, and nothing more.  We also need brave politicians who can take steps for the solution of the problem.  As you will remember, Turgut Ozal took brave steps toward a solution, including the mention of a federation if necessary, but he died or was killed; there are still rumors going on.


The Kurdish people have presented their will for stopping this war and finding a democratic solution to the problem.  If the Turkish people can do the same thing then the government of Turkey will feel compelled to take certain steps.


JH: Talk a little about the Democratic Society Party’s ideology.  Additionally, do you have links with civil society organizations and social movements in the country, and if so, what is the nature of those links?


ST: The party considers itself a left-wing mass party which defends individual rights and liberties and the free self-expression of all communities and cultures in Turkey.  We also attribute primary importance to the liberation of women in Turkish and Kurdish society, and defends gender equality.  It is said in our program that the Kurdish question, together with the gender equality question, constitute the most important topics in the action we take.  It is also important for us that ecological balance is observed.  In our view, the domination of man over man is generated by the domination of man over nature.  So it is a three-fold approach in our program.


We emerged as a consequence of the fifteen or sixteen years of the Kurdish struggle for freedom, and therefore the Kurdish question stands at the center of our politics.  However, the party is always in close dialogue and establishes alliances from time to time with the democratic and left-wing circles in Turkey.  We have close contact with several social organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and several women’s organizations in Turkey.


JH: Pro-Kurdish parties, including the DTP, face tremendous difficulties in organizing.  The DTP, after all, is a reincarnation of several other parties which were shut down by the state.  Your members have been arrested and persecuted, and now you’re facing closure by the government.  Exactly what type of pressure are you facing from the state now, and how are you fighting back?  Do you have any support in the judiciary or any other official institutions?


ST: We do not have an independent judiciary in Turkey; there’s a great amount of political influence in judicial affairs, and the case of the DTP and threat of closure is a political affair, it’s not a legal one.  The party can be shut down, there is such a risk.  Many provincial officials of the DTP are being arrested, for the reason that they have made some [controversial] speeches.  We’re following certain necessary procedures during the case, but because this is a political trial, the outcome will be determined by high politics in Turkey, not by the judiciary.



JH: The DTP is trying to open a bureau in Washington, DC.  What are your hopes for that project, and your visit to the US more generally?


ST: We also have a bureau in Brussels, and the establishment of a second one in Washington, DC will help improve our diplomatic contact.  The bureau in Brussels is not really enough.  We’re hoping to be in direct touch with [members of Congress].  We’re checking with people to see if conditions will be ok for that.


JH: What role do you think the Kurdish Diaspora has to play in the resolution of the Kurdish issue in Turkey?  What links, if any, does the DTP have with Kurdish movements outside of Turkey?  And what can you say about the relevance of international solidarity more generally?


ST: In fact, the oppressors of the world are really united.  Today, the United States, Israel, and several countries — and also the autonomous government of Northern Iraq — are supporting the Turkish invasion of northern Iraq.  They’re acting for their regional and economic interests.  It is important that oppressed people are united, since only in this way can we block the imperial plans of the great powers in the region.  In the final analysis, I think the creation of a world where the oppressed and oppressive do not exist, the oppressed people of the world should be united in solidarity.


It is important that international solidarity be established in support of the right of all communities in the world to use their own culture and own identity.  Only [when such solidarity exists] can oppressed people put pressure on their own governments. 


There’s a certain handicap here: the Kurdish people are bound by the rules and regulations of the territories they inhabit.  So we can only establish a limited alliance with Kurdish people living in other territories.  However, these people share same the same traditions, they come from similar cultures; they understand each other.  So, slowly, a national culture is being born.


If we elaborate the issue in terms of the right to self-determination of the people, then the Kurdish people in Turkey have elaborated this principle by putting forward the democratic autonomy project, but the Kurdish people living in Iran, Iraq and Syria have come up with different solutions for their problems.


JH: Is there anything else you would like to add?


ST: It is important for us to keep in touch with human rights advocates and people in Turkey and around the world who advocate for the Kurdish people’s right to self-determination.  It is important that the question is viewed not as a terror problem, because the Kurdish people are very sincere in their demand for a peaceful and democratic solution to the problem.  It is important to exert international pressure on the Turkish government, and to let them know that not everyone defends the war.  Thank you.


Jake Hess is a contributor to ZNet.  He welcomes feedback at JakeRHess(at)

Leave a comment