Have Turkey's Kurds discovered the power of Gandhi and Rosa Parks?
It certainly looked that way in mid-September as thousands of school children across Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast stayed away from school to protest the lack of Kurdish-language education in Turkish state schools.
Acts of mass civil disobedience have been largely absent from the 26-year war that the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, has waged against the Turkish state.
Today, observers believe it could become a key Kurdish nationalist tactic, as the PKK faces off against a Turkish government trying to revive efforts to end the war, and struggles to retain the support of its Kurdish support base whose loyalty risks being worn away by a growing economic prosperity and steady, if slow-paced improvements in civil liberties.
Timed to coincide with the start of the new school year, the five-day long boycott was called by a Kurdish NGO that has no known links to the PKK. But it was the backing of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) -- a Kurdish party that shares the PKK's support base -- that ensured that thousands of children stayed away.
The BDP has developed quite a taste for boycotts recently. On September 12, in a face-off against the government, it called on Kurds to boycott a constitutional referendum, and got what it wanted: roughly half of voters in the southeast stayed at home, with absenteeism in some areas higher than 90 percent. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Analysts said the referendum results, which provided fresh proof of the BDP's regional clout, acted as a catalyst for fresh talks between the government and the BDP. The renewed dialogue began September 23 after a long break. During the meeting, BDP representatives called for an end of military operations in Kurdish areas. Turkish leaders, meanwhile, reiterated their opposition to Kurdish-language education. A second meeting could take place before the end of September.
The idea of using civil disobedience as a tactic appears to have crystallized at a Kurdish nationalist congress held last June.
Working under banners proclaiming "autonomy for Kurdistan, democracy for Turkey," a slogan borrowed from the PKK's imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, delegates agreed that calling on the Turkish government to improve Kurdish rights was not enough: "We also [need to] take de facto steps to govern ourselves", a communiqué read.
If pro-PKK Kurds had not had satellite television channels running out of Europe since the mid-1990s, Turkey would never have opened its state-run Kurdish channel in 2009, argued Mahmut Alinak, a prominent Kurdish politician who is a long-time supporter of civil disobedience. "You need to oblige the state to make moves. If you don't send children to school, then the school loses its value. You paralyze state institutions," he said.
In some parts of southeastern Turkey, according to some analysts, that is exactly what is happening.
In Yuksekova, a nationalist stronghold, many locals say they turn to the PKK, not the police and courts, to solve problems. The state seems to have turned in on itself too: rather than stepping out onto the high street, local police now use a new supermarket opened inside headquarters. Pro-PKK graffiti covers the old army recruiting office, abandoned for new, safer premises out of town.
"The basic attitude is 'you ignore us, we ignore you'", said Hakan Tahmaz, an ethnic Turk who has written widely on the Kurdish issue. "Boycotts do not polarize the country in the same way as PKK attacks on Turkish soldiers do, but the philosophy behind them is in some ways more radical: creating de facto autonomy."
The schools in Hakkari province, which includes Yuksekova, were almost completely empty this week, less than a fortnight after only 9 percent of locals voted in the constitutional referendum.
But some analysts contend that Hakkari, and the neighboring province of Sirnak, are exceptions rather than the rule. They also portray the boycott as a sign that the PKK's power over its support base may be fading, rather than growing.
"Here in Diyarbakir, and the surrounding region, the [school] boycott had little effect", said Serdar Yilmaz, head of an Islamist NGO in the southeast's largest city. "The PKK is being pushed back into the mountain areas" next to Turkey's border with Iraq.
For Yilmaz, the PKK's implicit support for acts of civil disobedience, such as the boycott, are part of its efforts to adapt itself to changing conditions. "Everything points to the PKK, sooner or later, dropping its guns," Yilmaz said. "America wants it to, Turkey's neighbors want it to, Turkey - at last - is taking steps to persuade it to, it wants to itself. But disarming creates a dilemma. For years, guns and war, the struggle, martyrdom, have been the PKK's means of mobilization. Now, if it is to stay alive, it needs to find more 'civil' ways of mobilizing support."
The school boycott was the not the only example of civil disobedience in Kurdish areas this month. On September 21, 20 men charged with links to the PKK refused to speak Turkish in a Diyarbakir court. Pro-Kurdish news agencies, meanwhile, were reporting on plans to organize boycotts of military service, compulsory in Turkey for men over 18.
It is too early to say whether Kurdish nationalists' new-found taste for civil disobedience will persuade the Turkish government to speed up snail-paced reforms. On 15 September, Education Minister Nimet Cubukcu described the mass truancy as a "misuse of parenting rights tantamount to exploitation" and threatened parents whose children didn't turn up for school with prosecution.
As to whether boycotts and civil action can provide a foundation for a new, civilianized PKK, most analysts remain skeptical. They point to the growth of a new middle-class in cities like Diyarbakir opposed to the group. The PKK's authoritarian-like mistrust of anything that smacks of independent thought, they add, makes it ill-adapted to civilian life.
Serdar Yilmaz warned against the assumption that a Kurdish nationalism stripped of its guns might be more amenable to deal-making. "Kurdish national feeling is profoundly anchored in the minds and hearts of people in this region," he said. "If Ankara thinks that ending the war and a pushing through a couple more cosmetic reforms is going to be enough, it is in for a shock."