Turkey: PM Apologizes for 1930's Massacre (With Political Twist)
With little advance warning, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan shook up Turkish politics by issuing today what could be seen as the first official apology for the horrifying events that took place in 1937 in the eastern province of Dersim (now Tunceli), in which some 14,000 local Alevi Kurds were killed by state forces.These events and the state's involvement in them, though well known in Turkey, were hardly ever discussed openly until recent years. Mustafa Akyol, in a good Hurriyet Daily News column from today, gives some background on what happened in Dersim:
Dersim, a tribal province of Alevi Kurds, was a “lawless” region even under the Ottomans, who did not interfere in the affairs of the local communities unless they created big problems for the center. The Turkish Republic that was founded in 1923, however, had its own version of the “mission civilisatrice,” or the self-declared right to tame “uncivilized” peoples. Therefore, tension emerged in the 1930s between the tribes of the region and the government in Ankara, which wanted to impose “law and order,” including, of course, taxes.
Word has it that the first spark that lit the violence was the attempt of a Turkish officer to rape the beautiful wife of a local chieftain in March 1937. The chieftain killed the soldier, fled to the mountains to avoid the army backlash and burned a bridge that was recently built by the government for apparent military purposes. This incident was regarded by Ankara as the beginning of a rebellion. Large numbers of troops were deployed to the region, turning Dersim into a war zone.
In the following months, the city and the surrounding mountains turned into a huge occupied territory, where the soldiers killed not just armed rebels but also many non-combatants. War planes dropped bombs on the population, and even poisonous gas was used. In his memoirs, the late İhsan Sabri Çağlayangil, a former prime minister, wrote that people who fled into caves were “gassed like rats.”
But while Erdogan's apology is obviously a welcome and historic gesture, it also comes with a political twist that puts its motivations into question. As the Associated Press reports:
Erdogan on Wednesday offered his apology for the killings of 13,806 people in the southeastern town of Dersim — now known as Tunceli — between 1936 and 1939. The apology came after a war of words between Erdogan and the leader of the main opposition party.
An opposition lawmaker, Huseyin Aygun, from the Republican People's Party said a dozen of his relatives were killed in Dersim and added that details about the suppression of the rebellion needed to become known.
Erdogan's apology appeared aimed at embarrassing opposition party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, whose party was in power at the time of the rebellion. Kilicdaroglu's family is also rooted in Tunceli.
"Am I going to apologize or are you?" Erdogan asked Kilicdaroglu in a televised speech. "If there is need for an apology on behalf of the state, if there is such a practice in the books, I would apologize and I am apologizing."
An article from Today's Zaman about the apology gives an even better sense of how Erdogan may be using the Dersim issue to after the CHP and hang the events of the 1930's on the party's neck (Turkey was a one party country at the time). From the article:
“Dersim is among the most tragic event in recent history. It is a disaster that should now be questioned with courage. The party that should confront this incident is not the ruling Justice and Development Party [AK Party]. It is the CHP, which is behind this bloody disaster, who should face this incident and its chairman from Tunceli,” Erdoğan said, targeting Kılıçdaroğlu. The two politicians recently clashed over the long-controversial massacre.
In the widening debate, Erdoğan said at his party’s group meeting in Parliament on Tuesday that he planned to release a number of state documents about the incident on Wednesday. He then read excerpts from archive documents related to the massacre on Wednesday, saying thousands of people, including women and children, were killed during the Dersim operation and that the CHP was the party of the single-party government of the time.
Referring to a document dated 1939, Erdoğan said a total of 13,806 people were killed in operations carried out against the people of Dersim between 1936 and 1939. He said the document bears the signature of then-Interior Minister Faik Öztrak. Another document Erdoğan revealed related to the Dersim events was a Cabinet decree dated Dec. 23, 1938, which said 11,683 people were deported from Dersim and that 2,000 more were to be deported.
“All of these documents have the signatures of İsmet İnönü,” Erdoğan said, criticizing the current CHP leader for organizing commemoration ceremonies for İnönü but failing to confront the party’s past.
Erdogan has impeccable political instincts and clearly smells blood, issuing his Dersim apology at a time when the CHP appears to be floundering and, more relevantly, finds itself with an internal divide on how to deal with the issue of the Dersim massacres. And by challenging CHP leader and Dersim native Kilicdaroglu to take a stand on an issue that literally concerns his own turf, Erdogan appears to be pushing the beleaguered politician into a corner that could be difficult to get out of. (For some good background on the CHP's current struggles, take a look at this column by journalist Yavuz Baydar and this column by academic Dogu Ergil.) At the heart of the Dersim apology debate lies what may be the most delicate issue inTurkey: how to define the legacy and future of Ataturk and Kemalism, something I wrote about in this Christian Science Monitor story from last year. Turkey clearly needs to have a debate about its founding father and the actions taken during the early days of the Turkish Republic, among them the massacres in Dersim. But, though historically significant, the timing of Erdogan's apology for the massacres and the atmosphere in which it was delivered make the gesture seem less like an opportunity for national healing and reconciliation and more like one for scoring political points.