In a private meeting not long ago where a couple of leading US senators met with a group of Turkish deputies in a quiet, prestigious restaurant in Ankara, I was the only writer to join the discussion.
When the issue of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) inevitably came up for debate, I distinctly remember one retired-ambassador-turned-deputy from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) accused the visiting US senators of aiding and abetting the enemy and courting what he termed “comrades” such as Massoud Barzani in northern Iraq.
When it was my turn to speak up, I said it was important to do our homework and clean our own house before shifting the blame onto others. It may be the case that the US could and should do more in stemming PKK terrorism operating across the border, but I emphasized that it was time to come to grips with the hard fact that we had done some terrible things in the southern part of this country in the name of fighting terror in the past. I challenged the group that, before asking our friends in the US, we should have clear vision of what we need to do on our own.
I remember an older deputy from the CHP accusing me of taking the “other” side during the debate. He interrupted my intervention by asking whose side I was on. Obviously he was referring to the PKK side. I held my ground and countered by saying I was merely stating the obvious on the “right” side. After the meeting, he came up to me and apologized but still argued that was the right tone to converse with what he called “these men,” referring to the US senators. I begged to differ.
For so long in this country, healthy discussions on issues challenging the country were hampered by a simplistic black and white approach. Anybody who raised a different perspective was accused of not being patriotic, and we always overlooked our own mistakes and brushed human right violations under the carpet. We thought we always held the higher moral ground and that all others, especially outsiders, were out to partition this country into pieces.
We have denied visiting dignitaries permission to go to the region out of fear that they might incite the unrest and expose our shortcomings. We had terrible relations with countries like Sweden and Norway because we considered them ardent supporters of PKK fighters.
Not any longer. Thanks to the sincere efforts of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government in the last decade despite misgivings and ambivalence at times, we are now best buddies with these countries. We see eye-to-eye on many issues. We proved to ourselves as well as to others that we make a distinction between fighting armed terrorists and addressing democratic shortcomings. With the Ergenekon case investigating a clandestine group of people nested within state agencies, from the military to the judiciary, with the aim of overthrowing the democratically elected government with vicious plans such as killing minorities, we’ve made a decisive point that nobody can act with impunity any more.
Now look how far we have come. I was in Brussels last month with Egemen Bagis, state minister and chief EU negotiator, who at one point recalled the vivid scene of how a group of EU ambassadors were in shock and awe in the eastern province of Van when a PKK attack killed nine of our soldiers. He said they asked to attend the funeral. Some, including the wives of these ambassadors, burst into tears during the ceremony honoring the fallen soldiers. They understand our pain and agony and share the grief of the nation.
The most important outcome of the recent democratization efforts is that the actions of the army are no longer unquestionable. In the past, if you dared criticize the military for anything, you would have found yourself in front of the judge, who was in all likelihood nationalist and vigorously trying to defend the army’s honor. In a blitz, you would be handed down a harsh sentence that went against everything in the name of media freedom and freedom of speech.
Now not only writers and intellectuals but also the general public is questioning the army’s mistakes and demanding accountability. How many times have we seen grieving fathers and mothers lashing out at officers during funeral processions and accusing them of sending their sons to combat after just two months of training? The military has no choice but to be more accountable and responsible to the demands of the general public. The denial and blame no longer convince people of this country.
The last example of denial appeared last week when a Turkish daily unearthed a scandalous communication between two air forces officers during which one officer asked an air forces pilot to shoot down drones because it was causing too many PKK casualties, whom he described as “our own.” The outspoken Chief of General Staff Gen. Ilker Basbug is keeping his silence on this case, despite the minister of defense’s comments that the officers will pay for the act of treason they committed.
But the outrage in the public is already growing, and the military’s silence is inflaming this furor further. It is time to clean up the bad apples nested within the military, and I hope the upcoming Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) meeting next month will offer an opportunity to do so.