x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Political shift divides Kurds in Turkey

The Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, appears to be losing its tight grip on Kurdish politicians and artists.

ISTANBUL // For more than 30 years, the singer Sivan Perwer has been the "voice of freedom" for Turkey's Kurds - and a potentially dangerous separatist in the eyes of the Turkish state. But in a sign of fundamental shifts that are changing Turkey's long-running Kurdish conflict, Perwer, one of the most respected figures in the Kurdish scene, has publicly distanced himself from rebels fighting Ankara.

For many years, the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, a rebel group that has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule since 1984 in a guerrilla war that has cost tens of thousands of lives, had a tight grip on Kurdish politicians and artists. Now that grip appears to be loosening.

This week, 41 Kurdish intellectuals living in exile issued a declaration rejecting threats by the PKK against Perwer and several Kurdish writers and journalists.

"That is a new phenomenon," Can Fuat Gurlesel, head of the Institute for Strategic Studies, or Turksae, a think tank in Istanbul, said in an interview. "The PKK can no longer say it is speaking for all Kurds."

In January, Perwer met with Bulent Arinc, a Turkish deputy prime minister, in Germany. The meeting triggered a wave of criticism directed against Perwer in media close to the PKK. Among other things, Perwer was called a traitor. A militant group close to the PKK is said to have put Perwer and other dissidents on a death list. Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed PKK leader, has been quoted as saying this month Perwer should not allow himself to be used by the government.

The singer, who has lived in exile in Germany since he was forced to flee Turkey 35 years ago, reacted with an angry speech he posted on YouTube after the PKK said he betrayed the Kurdish people by meeting Mr Arinc. "You don't have the right to declare anyone a traitor," he said, addressing the PKK and its followers. "If there is a traitor, it is he who accuses others of treason," Perwer added according to a Turkish translation of his speech, which he made in Kurdish.

The condemnation of the PKK by one of the most prominent and revered artists of Kurds in Turkey has been widely debated in the Turkish and the Kurdish press. The Turkish government and Kurdish intellectuals have praised Perwer and called on the public to support him. But some Kurdish politicians have derided the singer as the "good Kurd" in the service of Ankara.

Public criticism of the PKK by a prominent Kurd in Turkey has been rare, but is becoming more widespread as more and more Kurds question the rebels' reluctance to give up violence even though the Turkish government has started to take steps to end the conflict by political means. The rebels have killed Kurdish dissidents in the past, and one of Perwer's aides told Turkish media in February the singer had cancelled a concert in Switzerland after receiving threats. The concert did not take place.

In his video, Perwer said the PKK would not be succeed in intimidating him. "They should know one thing: Sivan Perwer will never give up what he believes in."

Perwer, 55, fled from Turkey in 1976, at a time when the Turkish state did not allow the public use of the Kurdish language. In exile, the "voice of freedom", as Perwer calls himself on his website, became a living symbol of the Kurdish resistance.

"We have to always struggle for our freedom, Turks always want to occupy and finish us," he said in an English language interview in 2006, posted on the website of Freemuse, a Danish organisation campaigning against censorship in music. At that time, more than 60 per cent of his songs were still banned in Turkey, he said.

But times have changed since. Many restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language have been lifted, and Turkey introduced a state-run television station broadcasting in Kurdish in 2009. Perwer has welcomed the reforms and talked about a possible return to Turkey in his meeting with Mr Arinc, the deputy prime minister.

Crucially, Perwer offered his support for the government's programme of political reforms for the Kurdish conflict, known as the Democratic Opening, which the government says is the first chance in decades to end the guerrilla war between the PKK and the Turkish state, but which is rejected by the PKK and Turkey's main Kurdish party.

"We spoke about the Kurdish question and we agreed that it can be resolved by the current policy of reforms," Perwer told the Turkish news channel NTV after his meeting with Mr Arinc. "I offered to contribute what I can as an artist to support these reforms."

This week, TRT, Turkey's state-run television, broadcast a documentary about Perwer's life, a step that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. According to reports in the Turkish press, Perwer praised Mr Arinc, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, and Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, as "sincere and clean people".

Orhan Miroglu, a Kurdish intellectual and newspaper columnist who has received threats from the PKK as well, said Perwer had helped to overcome a "blockage" that had kept Kurdish artists from criticising the Kurdish rebels. "Sivan is the honour of the Kurdish people."

tseibert@thenational.ae