By Gonenc Uysal
Recently, the Municipal Government of Istanbul decided to rebuild the Taksim Military Barracks (Topcu Kislasi) in Taksim as either a shopping mall or a hotel. This project involves building over much of Gezi Parki, in Taksim. However, Mayor of Istanbul Topbas and AKP (Justice and Development Party) officials including PM Erdogan denied any damage to trees, stating they would ‘dislocate and plant’ trees elsewhere. Protesters including young people, civil rights activists and environmentalists started to flock to the park after the beginning of demolition and construction on 29th May. When asked about the protest, Mayor Topbas declared PM Erdogan would make the final decision, but the latter refused to review the project.
This is not the first time this year that Taksim square has been at the centre of protests. On 1st May 2013 workers’ unions were denied the right to march into the square -arguing that potholes prevented a safe demonstration. Taksim holds vast symbolic importance in Turkey’s recent Republican history. On that occasion, police reacted with heavy-handed crowd control methods including gas rounds and water cannon, resulting in several wounded.
The present protests have seen unprecedented and disproportionate use of force by police –including burning down tents of civilian protesters, tear gas bombs, and water cannon. Undeterred and rallied through social media such as Twitter the number of protesters swelled to tens of thousands turning up on Saturday 31 May. Protests quickly spread to other big cities including Ankara, Izmir, Eskisehir, Adana, Antalya, Trabzon, Gaziantep and Balikesir, Hatay and Tunceli. Simultaneous protests were also organised in cities abroad such as London, Brussels, Berlin, Amsterdam, the USA such as New York, Chicago.
This protest, unlike many in Turkey’s politically fractious past, includes protesters from different sectors of society. There are elderly and young, men and women, secular and veiled, Turkish, Kurdish, or other ethnic, Muslim, non-Muslim, Sunnis, Alevis, leftists, rightists, Revolutionary Muslims, anarchists, Turkish and Kurdish nationalists, environmentalists, conservatives, non-party partisans, LBGT rights activists. Some, who would not descend to what are becoming street battles with 7ft high barricades of cobble stones, make noise with cooking pots in their balconies. Additionally, on Monday the KESK union federation (with 240,000 members) has begun a two-day strike in support of the protests, accusing the government of ‘state terror’, as has the Istanbul branch of EGITIM-SEN. The level of individuality, and claims of citizen’s rights in these protests is highlighted by criticism of the main opposition parties, CHP (Republican People’s Party) and MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) for their inability and unwillingness to provide a concerted opposition or take action in parliament. On the other side of the spectrum, protesters have been unable to appeal to wider working class concerns, which makes participation of working groups unlikely, unless the growing protest movement is able to speak to dire economic, social and political concerns of workers.
Although demands and concerns are far from coordinated and comprehensively supported, a brief summary of the main ones seems necessary. For further reference, see at the end of the article for a list of sources and websites to follow the demands and developments.
-the reversal of plans for Gezi Park;
-the reversal of the decision to demolish the historic Emek Sinemasi (cinema) in Istiklal, Beyoglu, and Ataturk Kultur Merkezi (Ataturk Cultural Centre) in Taksim, Beyoglu.
-revision of the Constitution by the AKP government –the AKP government launched an amendment to change the first three articles of the constitution (which define the fundamental principles of the Republic), and to introduce a presidential system;
-opposition to the government’s Syrian policy, which they contend is bringing instability to the South of the country -with instances such as Reyhanli;
-reversal of policies restricting alcohol consumption
-concern about state control of the media
-widespread arrest, imprisonment and trial of opposition military leaders, journalists and intellectuals, activists since 2007 –symbolised by detention in Silivri prison.
-concern about rapid privatisation programmes and the role of private firm in rural areas
-accusations of corruption at executive government and judicial level;
-recent changes in the education system promoted without consultation and despite educators’ concerns;
-concerns about mistreatment of minority entities like Kurds, Alevis and others (see for instance the Uludere incident). The naming of the proposed third bridge over the Bosphorus as ‘Yavuz Sultan Selim’ –Selim the First (responsible for a massacre of Alevi in the 16th century) has become a symbol of this issue
-concerns about domestic and public, physical and verbal violence against women and LBGT
-call for PM Erdogan to resign
-wider environmental concerns
Evidently, it is no longer the issue of the park that is drawing such disparate groups together; the protests have now escalated with a rising number of diverse and, so far, uncoordinated demands. The park, however, is still the only issue that commands broad consensus, with requests to cancel the demolition of the park and the construction of the Ottoman-style barracks, accountability over recent police excesses in Istanbul and the right to protest. As of the time of writing protests continue, with hundreds camping out in city centres. Disproportionate use of force police has continued, with one casualty confirmed as of Tuesday afternoon.
PM Erdogan has notoriously criticised Syrian President Assad for his use of force against opponents and ignoring democratic demands. On the other hand, Turkish protesters are not spoken of in the same light, instead being labelled by government sources and the PM as ‘marginal’, ‘plunderers’, ‘drunks’ and agents of the Republican Party out to destabilise the country. Furthermore, he highlights that his leadership is supported by the 50% of the country that voted for him in the last election. On 3rd June Erdogan left for a scheduled visit to Morocco and today 4th, the Deputy Prime Minister Arinc has declared that the original protests against the redevelopment of the park were ‘just and legitimate’ and offered talks with the protesters on the subject of the park. He offered a very qualified apology to protesters victims of police excesses adding ‘I do not think we need to apologise to those who create destruction of public property in the streets and who try to prevent the freedom of the people in the streets.’
Another major issue has been the role of the mainstream national and independent media including NTV and even CNNTurk (the Turkish franchisee of CNN) have not been covering the protests except for the reverberations events have had on stock market valuations. This silence, notoriously including cooking shows and documentaries about penguins being aired during the protests, has revealed the extent to which the government is able to control major state and independent media outlets, provoking protests against the media. Smaller outlets such as Halk TV, Ulusal Kanal and T24 have been reporting on the protests, as well as foreign media including the BBC, CNN, Reuters, Al Jazeera, AP, AFP and others.
Considering the partial abstention of mainstream media from the events, not unlike events in North Africa and the Middle East in the last two years, observers following events are left with snippets of information from social media and online depositories of photographs and video. The evidence so far points to widespread abuse by police forces including thousands of arbitrary arrests, beatings of protesters, excessive use of tear and other crowd dispersing gas agents, and serious injuries caused by the widespread use of rubber bullets, water cannon.
Amnesty in Turkey have published a report (3rd June) detailing round numbers for injured protestors on the basis of hospital data. In Istanbul, at least 1500 people received treatment during demonstrations. In Ankara, at least 424 people received treatment in hospitals; in Izmir, 420 people received treatment in last two days. Amnesty in Turkey calls for an immediate end to abusive use of force against demonstrators. It states that the use of tear gas and water cannons is not acceptable during peaceful demonstrations. It also calls for authorities to launch impartial and independent investigations into the policing of demonstrators. It also indicated that lessons should be for the future policing of demonstrations.
This is the biggest public protest since Cumhuriyet Mitingleri (Republic Protests) in 2007 against the candidacy of politicians from Milli Gorus –a predecessor of AKP. During these protests, many marched to ‘protect Republican values’ especially secularism. Although today’s protests include all Republicans, it goes beyond to include above-mentioned various groups.
It would not be accurate to describe these protests as a ‘Turkish Spring’. For a start, Turkey is already a democracy. On the contrary, I read the protests as a claiming its right to practice democracy beyond the ballot box and in protest form. A variety of dissatisfaction with the AKP government is certainly the key to these protests, and it is clear that the PM is unwilling to address or be seen to address this dissatisfactions, as many have read his persistence in continuing his scheduled trip to Morocco and the much-belated offer by Deputy PM Arinc to have a dialogue about the park.
Finally, I wish to highlight a crucial point that I feel is at the core of the non-park aspects of the protests: democracy is a right and principle that extends beyond the ballot box and includes freedom of expression and protest as well as demanding accountability from government. Peaceful protests, freedom of speech and government accountability are constitutional principles in Turkey; these protesters are actualising their claim to these rights.
Amnesty Turkey (TR): http://www.amnesty.org.tr/ai/
Amnesty International (ENG): http://www.amnesty.org/en/region/turkey
Amnesty International Public Statement 3 June 2013 http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/EUR44/015/2013/en/cf65a448-50ea-4d5b-9bdb-ffcd89f81b9c/eur440152013en.pdf
Turkey Revolts / Occupy Gezi: http://vimeo.com/67595914
Delilim var (I have a proof): http://delilimvar.tumblr.com/
Direnin (Hold on): http://www.diren.in/
Neden Gezi’deyiz? (Why are we at Gezi?): http://nedengezideyiz.tumblr.com/
AK Parti’li Direnisciden Basbakan’a Mektup (A letter to PM Erdogan from a protester who supports AKP ) by Bulent Peker:
Basbakan’a Mektup (A letter to PM Erdogan) by Genc Siviller: http://gencsiviller.net/2013/06/04/basbakana-mektup/
Gonenc Uysal holds a BA in International Relations from Bilkent University and a MA in War Studies from King’s College London. She is currently a PhD candidate in Department of War Studies and Defence Studies Department at King’s College London. She works as a Research Assistant at Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey. She loves travelling and discovering new cultures.