Democracy tree grows in Abant as Turks and Kurds bond

The Abant Platform concluded yesterday after an outcome assessment was read by Kurdish intellectual Altan Tan
The Abant Platform concluded yesterday after an outcome assessment was read by Kurdish intellectual Altan Tan

Date posted: July 11, 2008


It was in 2000 that liberal and conservative intellectuals in Turkey came together for the first time to address difficult questions in a highly civilized and respectable manner. To mark the occasion, they planted a pine tree in the backyard of the famous Abant Palace resort hotel near the northwestern city of Bolu.

Organizers named the small plant “the democracy tree,” as they thought it might represent the beginning of new era for a country plagued by sharp divisions and deeply rooted animosity. People of various orientations posed together in front of the tree to send the message of unity in diversity.

The Abant Platform took its name from this initial gathering place, and it has since undertaken many challenging issues in major world capitals, from Washington to Paris. Eight years later the same group has returned to the Abant Palace only to see that their democracy tree has grown and that its height has reached 25 feet. It was rooted firmly in the ground and it has clearly flourished in this beautiful mountainous region. Just like the tree, the Abant Platform must have felt confident enough to tackle the most pressing issue Turkey has faced so far: the Kurdish issue.

A diverse group of participants who all have high stakes in solving the issue came together for a three-day marathon meeting and exchanged ideas in a fair and open platform. The beauty of the forum is that you can express yourself freely and participate as a debater in addition to listening to a panel of speakers. It was a multi-faceted dialogue with differing opinions and competing ideas. Everyone has agreed that the issue is of the utmost importance for all people living in Anatolia. The participants have felt the need to pursue more avenues in search of a solution, and they all expressed hope that the platform will pave the way to more dialogue on the issue.

Hüseyin Gülerce, a board member of the Journalists and Writers Foundation, which sponsored the forum, said: “This is a one-of-a-kind event in Turkey. Turks and Kurd do not feel uneasiness when talking to each other.” He went on to say, “For the first time, the Kurdish issue is being discussed with a very wide and diverse group on live TV with no censorship.” In fact, the whole proceeding was carried live by national network Mehtap TV, which is known for its cultural and social programming in Turkey. Thus, the debate was not confined to the 160 people who signed up for the platform; it was open to millions who were able to tune in and watch the discussions live.

Though the participants disagreed on the best way to handle the Kurdish issue on many occasions, all of them expressed strong commitment to common ideals, such as human rights, freedom and democracy. There was a music night of traditional folk music that brought a different flavor to the meetings here. Both Kurdish and Turkish songs performed by a live ensemble represented how both cultures have intertwined for centuries.

The democracy tree planted eight years ago here seemed to have borne fruit. If nothing else, all participants agreed on one thing: Full democracy is needed to solve Kurdish issues and Turkish issues alike. Ahmet Tan, a well respected Kurdish leader, summed it up saying: “The Kurdish issue is the issue of democratization in Turkey. Kurds cannot solve their problems just by focusing the on Kurdish issue.”

Ayhan Aktar, a writer and professor, dared to question to audience in the room: “Can anybody identify who is a Turk and who is a Kurd in this place?” He went on to say, “I think many would make mistakes in pointing out ethnic identities.” He stressed, “We do not have any clear distinction or physical separation between Kurds and Turks.” The numbers and statistics prove Aktar’s point. Today about 60 percent of Kurds live in western provinces, rather than the Southeast, where the ethnic Kurdish population was traditionally concentrated. They have been integrated through interracial marriages, migration and social and cultural development.

The platform brought together people from government and security agencies in addition to academia and community organizations. Remarks by Bolu Governor Halil İbrahim Akpınar were welcomed by all the participants. He spoke of the need for further democratization in Turkey and criticized abuse and torture, especially after the 1980 military coup. He received warm applause when he said: “Both Turks and Kurds are tired of this ongoing conflict. Let’s reconcile our communities. Families do not want to embrace the body bags of their sons and daughters; they want to greet them as cheerful brides and grooms who are happy about their futures.”

Cevat Öndeş, retired deputy head of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), talked about the cultural heritage and common history shared by Turks and Kurds, saying: “We have lived in this land for centuries. We need to have a national will and determination for true democracy.”

The platform provided an excellent venue for exposing changes in the mentality of traditional approaches. Star daily editor-in-chief Mustafa Karaalioğlu said Turkey has started to see changes in the attitudes of the military bureaucratic elite and political parties in approaching Kurdish issues. He explained that such groups no longer seem to be using “us and them” approaches.

At the Abant Platform, all agreed to reject armed and military conflict as a solution to the problem. Öndeş stressed that Kurdish politics must reject armed struggle and dismiss any policy of weakening the central government. Justice and Development Party (AK Party) deputy Mücahit Fındıklı blames hawks on both side and points out their absence from the platform.

Many at the forum mentioned the ongoing conflict between the public and the statist bureaucratic elite. Professor Naci Bostancı of Gazi University was among those who said the conflict between the elite and the public in Turkey is not confined to the Kurdish issue. He said we need to understand the recent history of Turkey correctly. Bejan Matur, a Kurdish poet and writer, expressed her optimism that the problems would be solved in the framework of democracy and integration with the European Union. A prominent businessman from Diyarbakır, Şah İsmail Bedirhanoğlu, on the other hand, said: “Whenever democratization efforts in the country have increased, the clashes and armed fighting have also risen. When we started [EU] accession talks in 2004, PKK terrorism surged again. That shows that some people on either side of the aisle do not want peace and that they feed on violence.”

Both Kurdish and Turkish intellectuals agreed that some circles do not want peace in the region. Altan Tan describes the conflict as an “alliance of hawks.” Another Kurdish intellectual, Ümit Fırat, said hawks in the Turkish state have been trying to uproot an entire population since the establishment of the republic and that in many occasions they replaced local Kurdish names with Turkish ones. Like many others at the forum, Fırat demanded a new civil constitution that is in line with universal values and democratic principles.

The Abant Platform may have added new fertilizer to the ground where the democracy tree is planted by offering honest and fair discussion about the search for a solution to the Kurdish issue. People who came here as hesitant and recalcitrant players were able to overcome their suspicions and bond together firmly with the common goal of maintaining dialogue and investing in the future of this country.


Participants welcome Abant declaration

Mehmet Kaya (Chairman, Diyarbakır Chamber of Commerce): It is important and inclusive. I welcome it. Amnesty should be included.

Mücahit Fındıklı (AK Party deputy from Malatya): Ethical and human, it is a declaration to politicians as well as to the public. We are like the art of ebru [paper marbling], where different colors come together.

Rojbin Tugan Kalkan (lawyer and human rights activist): I found important clauses in the declaration. The total rejection of violence is insufficient. We have to include a clause that will offer solutions to young people who took up arms and went to the mountains.

Professor İhsan Dağı (academic and writer): The rejection of violence is important in the document. What is lacking: We need references to political conjecture. Political representation of Kurds and impediments should be cited. The rejection of closure cases against the Justice and Development Party [AK Party] and the Democratic Society Party [DTP] should be included. The Kurdish issue should not be state-centric; civic and community organizations should also be included. The EU anchor needs to be emphasized.

Sedat Yurttaşlı (activist): I was not expecting such a powerful declaration. It is an important and positive step. Important findings are in the document. We should stress that armed conflict does not contribute to the solution, including cross-border operations.

Fikri Akyüz (journalist): My optimism has increased. I heard what I wanted to hear. If you use the word “assimilation,” this might spur reactions. It’s an irritating term. It should be removed from the document.


Kurdish Problem: Seeking Peace and a Future Together

The Abant Platform wishes to declare to the public the following views that have emerged from the meeting:Having become one of Turkey’s highest-priority and most important problems, the Kurdish problem is in need of a solution contingent on the formation of an atmosphere of healthy dialogue, the ending of prejudice and the establishment of mutual trust. In creating a language that promotes a solution, the media’s responsibility, sensitivity and style will contribute significantly. The aim of this platform is to foster efforts to help create a suitable climate, language and ground for a solution. Toward this end:

The aim is to have sound and dynamic channels of communication in order to put an end to the lack of dialogue rather than trying to convince the parties to come to terms around a solution program. As a chief principle, we defend the free expression and discussion of any sort of ideas unless they contain open calls for violence, and expect respect from everyone for the right all people and groups to express their various thoughts and ideas.

We consider the absolute rejection of any sort of violence and any methods that involve violence an indispensable prerequisite for the solution of the Kurdish problem. We reject the assimilation policies toward Kurds and other elements. We oppose the use of Turkish-Kurdish separation as a means of mutual homogenization, otherization and alienation.

It is a must to confess that very bitter events have in the past transpired with respect to the Kurdish problem. These bitter events should be remembered as an experience for the prevention of similar events and should never be turned into a feud.

No one has been given a power of attorney by the masses. Therefore, we see the making of statements on behalf of a community and claims to having representative power as a style and method of judgment that makes it more difficult to find a solution.

It is of utmost importance to uphold the honor and dignity of the people of the region in order to realize our longing to live together and to improve economic development in our eastern and southeastern regions, which have a large Kurdish population.

In addition, it is compulsory to completely and unhesitatingly recognize all social, cultural and political rights included in all international laws about fundamental human rights.

Respect for one’s native language is part of respecting the person. We think that the right to speak one’s native language and to use it in teaching and education is an indispensable human right, and that opposing this right cannot have any justification. Conditions for a comprehensive amnesty law should be created.

We reject all practices that overstep the bounds of the state of law with respect to the Kurdish problem.

As the Abant Platform, we believe that this meeting makes a contribution to the creation and maintenance of a confidence-inspiring atmosphere committed to the supremacy of law and democracy.

Our search for a solution that aims for peace and a future draws strength from the centuries-old will to live together in unity.

Kurds, alongside all groups in Iraq, are our brothers. We see it a compulsory move to develop friendly ties with the federal Kurdish administration. Sustaining the democratization process in Turkey is also compulsory for solving the Kurdish problem. In this regard, the maintenance of the current EU perspective would facilitate both the continuation of the democratic process and the solution to the Kurdish problem.

Source: Today’s Zaman 7 July 2008

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