Thousands of Turkish hunger strikers starved themselves for half a year. And won. Lee Rhiannon explains.
Thousands of Kurds have just ended their political hunger strike claiming success in the tactical battle with the Erdogan government about the future of the Kurdish struggle for peace with justice.
The hunger strike, initiated in November 2018 by Leyla Guyen, a Kurdish member of the Turkish parliament, attracted more than 3000 participants. Most were prisoners in Turkish gaols, with some Kurds living in Europe joining the action.
The hunger strikers did not eat for more than 170 days, surviving on water and vitamins. The campaign has taken a heavy toll with some still in poor health. Eight people killed themselves over the lack of world attention for the plight of the gaoled Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan, and for the Kurdish struggle. The world’s media effectively failed to cover the mass hunger strike and for years have given scant attention to the struggle of the Kurdish people.
The hunger strikers achieved one of their goals when the Turkish authorities agreed that Ocalan could meet with his legal team, a right he had been denied for over eight years.
This move could bring a resumption of the peace talks closer, an essential next move to assist Kurdish communities to rebuild their lives as the military campaigns launched by the Erdogan government in Kurdish regions of Turkey have displaced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. It is estimated that since the insurgency began in 1984 more than 40,000 people have been killed.
The campaign for freedom for Ocalan and restarting peace talks between the Turkish government and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) has won broad international support from the British trade union movement, Desmond Tutu, Jeremy Corbyn, Angela Davis, Mairead Maguire and many others.
The Kurdish struggle is winning such diverse international support as it is seen as a legitimate liberation movement fighting for equal rights and Kurdish autonomy in Turkey.
This support runs counter to the activities of the western powers that directly back the Erdogan government or attempt to stay neutral on its human rights abuses. Britain recently struck a major arms deal with Turkey, and the US, Australia and Britain have listed the PKK as a terrorist organisation. In Australia the listing has been in place since 2006.
Although the armed wing of the PKK has been involved in military conflict, under international law this in itself does not constitute terrorism. In 1982 the UN General Assembly recognised that armed struggle is a legitimate form of conflict in certain circumstances. The UN position that helped build understanding and support for the struggles in Vietnam and South Africa is set out in UN resolution 37/43.
In November last year the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that the Kurdistan Workers Party was wrongly listed as a terrorist organisation between 2014-17. While EU officials have disregarded this ruling and have retained the PKK on their terrorist list, more individual countries are not following this path. China, Brazil, Switzerland, India and Egypt do not include the PKK on their official terror blacklist.
Stary Norton Halphen, an Australian law firm that has assisted local Kurdish groups, has pointed out that Turkey has a history of using terrorism allegations in order discredit the PKK struggle and limit the rights of Kurdish people. The activities of the armed wing of the PKK, including its military and security forces, do not fit the definition of terrorism.
The Melbourne-based group Australians for Kurdistan in its submission to a parliamentary review of terrorist listings stated that the PKK “has never deliberately targeted civilians or engaged in indiscriminate violence”.
Ocalan, now in his 20th year in gaol on the island of Imrali, 35 miles south-west of Istanbul, has been likened to a latter day Mandela type figure. His release is seen as critical to ending the four decades-old conflict and to achieving Kurdish autonomy.
The recent local government elections were another positive sign that the progressive voice for the rights of Kurds in Turkey is on the rise. Progressive opposition parties now control five of Turkey’s six largest population centres.
The Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), a leftwing party committed to ending the Turkish-Kurdish divide, made significant gains in these elections on a platform of participatory democracy, minority rights and equality.
Hopes are high that the mass hunger strike action, Ocalan being able to engage with his lawyers and the local government election wins are all signs that a broad popular front of progressive political parties uniting with community mass movements is on the rise.
While no-one underestimates the ruthlessness of Erdogan and his backers, the struggle for Kurdish autonomy is winning more support in Turkey. Like all campaigns for oppressed minorities that support now needs to generate a strong international voice.
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