The primary aim of the PKK as an ethnic insurgent group is to create a separate state or to elevate the social status of the Kurds (Byman 1998). The main argument of PKK is that historic grievances over the last century under both the Ottoman Empire and then the Republic of Turkey left no option other than strategic violence. Harsh counter policies by the Turkish government were subsequently used by the PKK to further legitimate its existence, not just locally but internationally (Ekici, Ozkan and Demir 2007). The group placed a great deal of emphasis on language as it is a powerful trait of national identity (Weber 1978). Through language the PKK attempted to strengthen the idea that ‘to be a Kurd’ meant ‘to not be a Turk’ as envisioned and promulgated by the Turkish government. Distinguishing and psychologically pushing an ethnic identity that is separate from the dominant secular Turk identity promotes great sympathy if not outright allegiance to the PKK as an ethnic insurgent group. The PKK, for example, forces the Kurds to use Kurdish language in both social and official life.
The PKK has employed psychological operations (psy-ops) to force non-compliant or rival groups to emigrate from the southeast region. Ultimately, it wants to strengthen ethnic identity by literally changing the demographic makeup and character of surrounding regions. The PKK is effectively using this method in East Anatolia. In order to obtain a more expansive population advantage, PKK operatives force Kurds to migrate from heavily-populated Kurdish areas to less-populated ones. With this tactic, the aim is to win mayoralty elections and ultimately achieve extended autonomy for radical Kurdish politics.
Thus, political activities are also very important for the PKK. A formal political party serves as a legal home-base for urban militants. Through this legal structure, new members are recruited to more radical insurgent operations. During the mayoralty elections in 2009 in Van, members of the Peace and Democracy Party (Baris ve Demokrasi partisi – BDP) created great fear amongst the public to force a heavy voter turnout for BDP. In this manner, the PKK becomes institutionalized under the legal structure of the Turkish state and organizes a second front of political struggle against the government.
The fog of war between the PKK and Turkish government resulted in the victimization of non-aligned Kurdish civilians. On 20 June 1987, PKK killed 30 villagers - 16 of them children - in Mardin (Ergil 2000). After this attack, the government decided to employ several methods in retaliation. First, the government deployed military troops in the southeast region. The army initiated counter-operations, conducting routine patrols and providing convoy protection. Additionally, two elite Special Forces units were created to counter PKK terrorism: Special Teams working as a unit of gendarmerie in rural areas and Special Operation Teams working as a unit of police in urban areas. Finally, the government also deployed air forces and conducted air attacks against PKK camps in mountainous regions.
Perhaps more controversially, the government organized an armed village guard system from Kurdish villages. Tribal leaders were assigned as the head of the village guard system. By using this system, the government was aiming to create local opposition against PKK militants. This system, however, brought about the misuse of power by tribal leaders and antagonism between Kurdish villagers and PKK militants. Beginning in 1985, PKK threats and attacks dramatically increased against Kurdish civilians who were suspected of supporting the village guard system. Allegedly, Abdullah Ocalan even ordered to kill families of village guards as they were seen as ‘state collaborators’ (Imset 1993). This violent polarization forced people to pick sides. Due to societal deficiencies in education and a lack of communication technologies such as internet and TV broadcasting to Kurdish areas, many young Kurds were convinced by the PKK to fight against the Turkish government. With this increased number of militants, the PKK created new units of fighters.
The government could not establish an effective way to prevent the enlarging popularity of the PKK. It declared a regional "State of Emergency" (Olaganustu Hal Yonetimi - OHAL) in Kurdish-inhabited zones, including the cities of Bingol, Diyarbakir, Elazig , Hakkari, Mardin, Siirt, Tunceli, and Van in 1987. A short time after this declaration, the region of "emergency management" was expanded and continued for an almost inexplicable 20 years. After the declaration of the OHAL, severe armed fighting with PKK militants became more common. Turkish military authorities had outlawed Kurdish organizations and banned all forms of ethnic and leftist movements with the coups of 1971 and 1980. Many people, including Kurdish nationalists, were jailed, the use of Kurdish language was forbidden, Kurdish village names were changed to Turkish ones, and Kurdish families were coerced to give Turkish names to their children (Ergil 2000). These military coups, aimed to ensure the ‘integrity’ of Turkish society, instead created the perception of deliberate discrimination and assimilation by the Turkish government, trying to annihilate Kurdish nationalism.
These maneuvers and counter-maneuvers are what started the truly destructive war with the PKK. The primary victims of this war were civilians who were stuck between Turkish security forces and PKK fighters. They had to endure dual atrocities: suppression and execution by the PKK when suspected of collaborating with the state and the evacuation and destruction of Kurdish villages by the Turkish military when suspected of helping the PKK. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 1996 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, 2297 villages had been evacuated or destroyed and 2 million Kurds had been forced to leave their homes or villages (Ergil 2000). From 1996 the OHAL was gradually softened and in 2002 it was finally lifted. The policies implemented during the OHAL process, however, continued to restrict daily social life and caused bitter grievances within the Kurdish population.
Thus, restrictions on social practices and cultural freedom, police discrimination, and oppressive regime operations, all intensified by the military coups, strengthened Kurdish separatism/nationalism. These things not only helped spur the creation of the PKK, they unintentionally helped foment its deepening ties within Kurdish society. Turkish counter-policies stirred up the Kurdish problem; ruthlessly suppressing demands for cultural, linguistic, and political rights ironically caused the solidifying of Kurdish extremism (Olson, 1996).
The devolution of the Kurdish question in Turkey represents the destructive effects of poorly thought state actions trying to force a uniform national identity. All of this chaos between the PKK and Turkish government has forced tens of thousands of families to migrate to other cities. This migration consequently increased the poverty level and street crime in various regions, stressing the already weak welfare state in Turkey (Durna and Hancerli 2007). In addition, as this crisis became a globalized phenomenon, supporters of the Kurds living in Iran and Syria, as well as the strategic involvement of European countries, made the Kurdish question far more complicated than just labeling the PKK a terrorist organization. With the new millennium, the Turkish government started to develop more moderate policies by trying to develop improved economic and social conditions in Kurdish regions. This effort to strengthen the ‘loyalty’ of Kurds to the state is called the "democratic opening" in Ankara. However, the trends seen so far in the "democratic opening" movement indicates a lack of optimism based on the non-transparent and non-inclusive nature of the project. Both sides accuse each other of being insincere and having secret, hidden agendas.
In sum, the Kurdish question is the product of a negative blending of social, economic, cultural, and political factors in an environment in which both sides have been unwilling to empathize with each other. Misperception and prejudice prevents them reaching the roots of the problem. The authorities’ unwillingness to understand the concerns of the Kurds is perceived as humiliation and discrimination. This perception brings about hate, loss of identity, and an increased risk for fanaticism and terrorism. The Kurds argue that the government’s approach left them no choice but to resort to collective violence and terrorism. The Turkish government may need to accede to the idea that addressing different perceptions about identity does not necessarily entail accepting them as reality; but taking them into account can provide a true progressive first step to solving what has up to now been an intractable social problem throughout an important part of the Turkish state.
* This piece is partially excerpted from a larger article from Springer International Publishing AG 2016, A. Farazmand (ed.), Global Encyclopedia of Public Administration, Public Policy, and Governance, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_2977-1