Turkey: Hunger strikers inspire hope, defy authoritarian regime

May 19, 2017
Semih Ozakca and Nuriye Gulmen have been on hunger strike for more than 70 days.

The mood in Turkey is low, and not just among those who oppose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Even some of his supporters are disoriented by developments in the country.

In the aftermath of the failed coup of July 15 last year, Erdogan orchestrated the dismissal of tens of thousands of government employees. The figures from the ongoing Turkish purges are startling.

The day after the failed coup, Erdogan’s government fired a third of all judges, 2745 in total. Not long after, over 100,000 civil servants, teachers and journalists lost their jobs.

The tally is now astoundingly high: 138,147 civil servants, teachers and academics fired; 50,987 arrested.

The human cost of the purge is stark. At least 37 of those fired have taken their lives. Seventeen of those who killed themselves were police officers, four were soldiers and two were prison guards. The humiliation and the fear took its toll.

Hours after the coup failed, Erdogan called it a "gift from God." The coup has allowed him to go after anyone he deems an adversary, ranging from those who were once allied with him to those who have always been his opponents. This is the hallmark of an authoritarian system.

Literature professor Nuriye Gulmen and school teacher Semih Ozakca were both fired by the Erdogan-led purges. Each day they gather with supporters at Ankara’s Yuksel Street near a statue to commemorate human rights.

These two intellectuals have been on hunger strike for more than 70 days. Gulmen has lost 8 kilos and Ozakca has lost 17 kilos. Both are in perilous health.

Outside Turkey there is little news coverage of their vigil.

Their slogan, "I want my job back," is elegant. It has raised the hopes of thousands of others like themselves.

Across Turkey, other teachers and academics have joined in sympathy hunger strikes, forming a new phalanx of resistance.

Groups of academics went on solidarity strike for 24 hours in Istanbul as did faculty and students from the Middle East Technical University. Silently, in fear, others admire Gulmen and Ozakca.

The situation in Turkey’s southeast is miserable. Curfews have closed down towns and cities, while troops of the Turkish state act with impunity.

A United Nations report from March 2017 urges Turkey to cease its "serious" abuses. Thirty towns have been affected by the government operations, with half a million people displaced from the region.

Part of the crackdown on the Kurds was directed at the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which is a broad alliance of left and Kurdish political organisations. The government arrested 11 party officials, including its co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag.

The point seems to be to break the spirit of the organisational forces arrayed against Erdogan.

A recent hashtag circulating on Turkish social media read "It is not over yet." A journalist told me she has never seen Turkey so divided. "We’ve lost the mortar that holds us together," she said.

An academic told me that "the mood amongst the public is varied depending upon one’s political affiliation." The secular left is alarmed by the purges and the destruction of reason.

The pro-Erdogan section is "very insensitive to these firings. Some may even think that this was a worthwhile elimination of subversive elements."

Turkey is being run by those who are obedient to Erdogan. Critical thinking has virtually been banned.

On the 69th day of their hunger strike, Nuriye Gulmen, weakened but not defeated, declared a day of solidarity with the hunger strike of the Palestinian political prisoners.

Her body consumes itself, but she does not turn inward; her gaze goes south to Palestine. People like Nyriye Gulmen are emblems of human dignity, precisely the attribute denied by the government of Erdogan.

[Abridged from AlterNet.]

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