x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Kurdish answers to Kurdish question

Turks are discussing ways of broadening the rights of their country's 12 million Kurds in order to end a conflict that has killed tens of thousands.

ISTANBUL // Only a few years ago, Abdurrahman Yakut would have risked several years in a Turkish prison for supporting separatism after he demanded publicly that Turkish state television broadcast soccer matches with a Kurdish-language commentary. But today, Mr Yakut's call is just one in a flood of fresh ideas being discussed as Ankara looks for new ways to end the Kurdish conflict. From sports to religion, from health care to the arts, politicians and the public have been discussing ways to broaden the rights of the country's 12 million Kurds in order to end a conflict that has plagued the country for decades. "The process of solving it has started," Sezgin Tanrikulu, a prominent lawyer and former head of the bar association in Diyarbakir, the main city in the Kurdish region, said in an interview yesterday. "I am hopeful. The whole development will make it easier to solve [the conflict]." Lowering restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language in public is the central idea in this new debate. For many years, Turkey tried to suppress the public use of Kurdish out of concern it would fan separatist tendencies. But more recently, top politicians and military officers in Ankara have agreed that the right way to win over the Kurdish population and drain support for the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) the largest rebel group, is to grant more freedom to the minority in the south-east. "Prejudices against the Kurdish language have disappeared," Mr Tanrikulu said. "This is a positive development." This month, Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, opened the debate about what can and should be done to solve the Kurdish question 25 years after the PKK started its armed struggle for Kurdish autonomy and triggered a war that has killed tens of thousands of people. Mr Gul called the Kurdish question Turkey's most pressing problem. He also was quoted as saying the current year offered a "historic chance" to solve the Kurdish question. Since then, hardly a day has gone by without some politician, media outlet or non-governmental official like Mr Yakut coming forward with an idea. Mr Yakut is the president of Diyarbakirspor, a football team from Diyarbakir that has just won promotion from the second league to the top group of professional football in Turkey, the Super Lig. Starting in late summer, Diyarbakirspor will compete with the country's biggest clubs for the national championship, and Mr Yakut said he thinks many Turkish Kurds who do not speak Turkish will want to cheer their home team on in front of their television sets. "Diyarbakirspor is the team of the region," Mr Yakut told Turkish media. "Therefore, we want our mothers and sisters in their homes and people who do not speak Turkish to follow our matches as well." Although Turkish is the official language of Turkey, many people in the Kurdish region do not speak it, especially women, who often lack formal education. Mr Yakut said broadcasting his team's matches in full, and with Kurdish commentary, would be a good way to improve ratings for TRT-6, which is competing with Roj-TV station, a satellite channel broadcasting from Denmark that is seen as a PKK mouthpiece. "If you want to increase the number of viewers for TRT-6 in the region and to capture the potential audience in the area of sports, our suggestion should be considered." There has been no statement from TRT on the subject yet, nor from the Radio and Television Supreme Council, the state broadcast regulator. Other ideas and plans being put forward involve the possible hiring of Kurdish-speaking healthcare workers to be sent to the Kurdish region. Last week, Recep Akdag, the health minister, was quoted as saying he was thinking about taking on Kurdish-speakers that could communicate with people who do not speak Turkish. Like Mr Yakut, Mr Akdag mentioned women in particular. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, has suggested allowing Kurdish villages in the region to revert to their original names. Meanwhile, Ertugrul Gunay, the minister for culture, said his ministry was researching if there were any legal restrictions that would prevent state theatres in the Kurdish region from staging plays in Kurdish, adding that he himself was in favour of that reform, the Sabah newspaper reported. Sabah also reported that the religious affairs directorate, which runs Turkey's 80,000 mosques, was looking for Kurdish-speaking imams. According to the Hurriyet newspaper, many imams in Kurdish villages have already started to deliver their sermons in Kurdish. Speculation that a comprehensive plan from Ankara may be in the offing was strengthened by a government decision to prolong the term of Emre Taner, the head of the National Intelligence Organisation, Turkey's main spy agency. Mr Taner, a 67-year-old public servant born in Diyarbakir, is closely involved in contacts between Turkey and the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq and is said to have excellent contacts in the region. tseibert@thenational.ae