ISTANBUL - Thursday's historic address from the jailed Kurdish guerilla leader Abdullah Ocalan was not a mere ceasefire, nor a passing order to lay down arms. It was a call to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to bid farewell to arms, and end a 30-year period of war and bloodshed that has claimed over 40,000 lives.
On Mar. 21, the day that marks the Kurdish spring holiday of Newroz, Ocalan addressed millions of his followers through letters that were read out at a Turkish government-backed event in the southeastern Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir. It was the first time the leader made an address with full support from both Turkish and Kurdish leadership.
Let’s take a look at Ocalan’s rhetoric in the letter. Not only did he call for an end to the armed struggle, but he also called to enter a new era of “democratic politics.”
“Let the weapons fall silent and let the policies speak up,” he said. But this phrase has been uttered before. Not by Ocalan but by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been repeating these words for the past two years.
Ocalan, who has spent the past 14 years in solitary confident on the island of Imrali, used a direct quote from Erdogan to reaffirm the joint aspirations in this peace process.
The missing word
Peace talks have been carried out in the past between Turkey and the PKK, but this is the first time that the Turkish government has made the process public. For Kurds, the process comes with hopes and demands for rights under the Turkish constitution, and freedom to express their identity within the country.
There are some other important details within Ocalan’s address. He says, “Today we wake up to a new Turkey, a new Middle East and a new future.”
Now, for the Kurds there is still something missing in this equation: Kurdistan. For years the PKK has been fighting for autonomy and Ocalan previously had ambitions to carve out an independent region from Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. But in this letter the word is only used once in a different context. It is used to describe a geographical region like “Anatolia,” and is not described as a separate political entity. Now it seems Ocalan’s aim is to have ‘modernist democracy’ instead of a separate political entity.
Ocalan said his call was “Not an end, but a beginning.” Erdogan has welcomed Ocalan’s address, calling it “positive.” The Turkish Prime Minister announced that once the militants drop their arms, Turkish military operations would also be halted.
Having successfully passed the critical Newroz threshold, there is a lot for both the government and the PKK to do in order to secure this peace process. A series of confidence-building measures will be needed in order to bring an end to a painful chapter in Turkey's history.