Thousands of Kurds gathered in Diyarbakir, Turkey, to pay a final tribute to the three Kurdish activists assassinated earlier this month in Paris.
The day before, the bodies of three women activists, members of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., were flown from Paris back to Diyarbakir, the unofficial Kurdish capital of eastern Turkey. The women were murdered in their Paris office earlier this month, presumably to scuttle extraordinary negotiations between the Turkish government and the P.K.K. The head of Turkey’s national intelligence service has been discussing with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned former leader of the P.K.K., how to get the group to lay down arms in exchange for better protecting Kurds’ rights.
And so much of the country waited anxiously on Thursday to see if the funeral procession would turn into the kind of angry, violent demonstration that could derail peace talks. And then it waited some more.
Turkey has a score or more 24-hour news stations, most of them privately owned but all with one ear to what the government is thinking. But that afternoon there were no live broadcasts of the tens of thousands of people who gathered on the streets.
“No one can win the war; no one can lose from peace,” some of the marchers’ placards read.
It wasn’t until the next day that some newspaper headlines breathed a sigh of relief. “Common Sense At Last,” ran one. “Diyarbakir Says Peace,” ran another. There had been no arrests. “No one can win the war; no one can lose from peace,” some of the marchers’ placards read.
The well-ordered, dignified display of grief “was a message to Turks and Turks couldn’t see it thanks to the Turkish media,” a colleague from the BBC tweeted. Several Turkish columnists complained that the government, nervous that public opinion would turn against its peace initiative if the funeral procession got ugly, had put pressure on the networks to remain silent until it was clear the story had a happy ending.
The government’s wariness is understandable: Its memory of the incident at Habur, Turkey’s border crossing with Iraq, is still fresh. In October 2009, in a gesture intended to end hostilities, Turkish officials organized the return of eight P.K.K. fighters based in Iraq. They had hoped the fighters would appear repentant, but the event turned into a victory celebration for the Kurdish militants, with thousands of ordinary Kurdish people coming out to welcome the young men. Many Turks were outraged, and a newly begun “Kurdish Initiative” intended to bring about a settlement was aborted.
Two years later, in late 2011, in what now seems to have been preparation for the resumption of talks, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan summoned media owners and editors to a closed-door meeting to discuss ways of tailoring their coverage of the Kurdish question so as to protect the national interest. Most attendees were more than happy to play along, my informants told me. And they appeared to be on Thursday, too.
Yet this time the cause of peace would have been much better served had the media done its job properly. The message from Diyarbakir last week was that the Turkish government does indeed have a historical opportunity to reach a compromise with Turkey’s Kurds.
When Bashar al-Assad does eventually fall, the Kurds of northern Syria are likely to gain more autonomy, as was the case for Iraqi Kurds after the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq war. Turkey cannot hope to play an effective role in these countries — Iraq is overtaking Germany as Turkey’s largest export market — if it continues to be at loggerheads with its own Kurdish population.
But compromise is the one thing the Turkish public has been taught not to accept. Both the Erdogan administration and previous governments have been all too successful in branding even the Kurds’ legitimate aspirations, including the use of their own language in court and in school, as terrorism.
The government now shows a new willingness to negotiate; let us hope it won’t lose its nerve. The peaceful funeral rally in Diyarbakir should reassure Ankara that the Kurds are eager to give peace a chance. But the gathering was also a show of unity, strength and resolve — a warning perhaps that Turkey’s Kurds will not accept peace at any price. This notion may be difficult for non-Kurdish Turks to accept, but the government will find it easier to convince them if it finally allows the media to show them things as they really are.