Treatment of Turkish protesters

The situation in Turkey has naturally been headline news around the world for the past couple of weeks, I just wanted to add my thoughts about the reaction of the police and state to the protest and protesters.

Last night the Police moved in with force and evacuated protesters from Gezi Park, again with tear gas and water cannon.  This forceful evacuation may come as a surprise after Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey, supported the apology announced by Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc for the ‘misuse’ of force by police officers against those who had started the protest with sincere environmental concerns about the park’s redevelopment plans. Surely it is in the park that most of these environmental protesters are located? Perhaps he felt that as he’d postponed plans for the redevelopment until a court rules on its legality, and told the protesters to go home once again after announcing this change of plan, it’s now permissible to take whatever action he deems necessary to remove the protesters from the park.

But it is this heavy handed approach that sparked the wider protests in the first place. On the night of the 31st May the police moved in to the park occupation with tear gas and water cannon. This led thousands of people amongst the 50% of Turkey who did not vote for Erdogan to come out into the streets (initially spreading into Taksim Square where Gezi Park is located but then around Istanbul and to other Turkish cities) to express their anger at the treatment of the protesters, and their concerns about the government more generally. There seems to be a collective unease among Turkey’s more liberal citizens that this conservative, Islamist government is increasingly restricting freedoms and imposing Islamist values on an officially secular state.

I feel there is a contradiction in Erdogan’s attitude which may support this notion: while he appears to say (by his apologies for the police’s action and his postponing of development plans) that a sincere concern about the environment expressed through protest should be tolerated, he does not appear to tolerate sincere concerns expressed against him or his government. This intolerance of political criticism seems in line with what one might expect from an authoritarian regime – exactly the criticism protesters are levelling against him.  They feel their country lacks a democratic decision-making process and that citizens are not listened to by the government.  Erdogan defends his, and the police’s, actions by saying that these extended protests are illegal and have been hijacked and led by extremists. Firstly, the original occupation of Gezi Park was not a legal protest as far as I am aware (hence the police’s initial action to remove them). I disagree too with the second of Erdogan’s arguments, that the protests are being led by extremists. In any large-scale protest there will be groups of people not interested in the cause but there only to instigate violence or vandalism and behave in ways they can’t normally behave, and there will also be groups who do hold strong political beliefs but are much more willing than most to engage in violent and destructive actions. However, (and I speak mainly of the situation as I’ve understood from the protests in Istanbul) that does not appear to be the primary theme of these particular protests; we’ve seen every night people staying in the square and park all night, singing and dancing, camping, setting up stalls and a ‘library’, as well as other such community based, peaceful activities. These do not appear to me to be the actions of angry, destructive extremists. Yes, we have to admit there has been destruction and vandalism in parts of Istanbul (primarily around Taksim Square), examples being the barricades the protesters create each day in preparation for the nightly tear gas and water cannon strikes. Indeed Arinc has been quick to say that the government should not apologise to those who vandalise public property and cause public disturbance, and many governmental supporters in Turkey would agree.

In the UK police resort to ‘kettling’ in an attempt to control protests, the use of tear gas and water cannon in Turkey is almost the opposite tactic to this – dispersing protesters rather than confining them – but for me both ring massive alarm bells, and I don’t feel that in this case the tear gas and water cannon can be justified, particularly in the amounts they have been employed and when we consider that they were first used while the protest was a peaceful occupation of a park. Destruction of public property can rarely be justified but the announcements of the Prime Minister and his Deputy focus on the actions of the protesters without mentioning that the police were the first to use (and repeatedly use) force. They, much like Cameron and other UK government officials during the student protests (the incident at Millbank comes to mind), focus on the actions of a few to distract the masses from the motives of the majority of protesters.

This all began as a result of people engaging in an act of non-violent direct action, people who had a simple demand: not to develop GeziPark. Instead of engaging with the protesters constructively the reaction of the police and state has resulted in at least four deaths, thousands of injuries, a falling stock market and widespread disruption around Turkey. Trade unions have also called strikes in solidarity with the protesters, and one has even claimed the state is committing ‘state terror‘ in their response to the protests.

Erdogan appears now to be on ‘damage control’ (I’m sure the stock market and his country’s bid for the Olympics and to join the EU are very much on his mind at the moment) – stating that this is no ‘Turkish Spring’ he has organised rallies in both Ankhara and Instanbul in an attempt to regain control and galvanise his own supporters, but what has become quite clear over the past couple of weeks is that there is a substantial division in Turkish society, and after the barricades have been cleared and people have finally gone home that division will still be there, and in the minds of all Turkish citizens. Now the large numbers who oppose Erdogan have been angered and energised it waits to be seen whether they maintain that energy, and what will happen if they do.

Lastly, just a final thought on the treatment of dissent during this period, it should be noted that officials last night warned that anyone remaining in the park will be considered as being ‘a supporter or member of a terror organisation‘ – it seems contradictory to admit that these are people with sincere environmental concerns one day then to be willing to label people terrorists another day. Increased criminalisation of dissent is unfortunately not something we are unfamiliar with here in the UK, and it paints a worrying picture that other Council of Europe states are resorting to measures which attempt to deter individuals from speaking up against their governments.

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