Erdogan also said one of the main obstacles to Turkey’s becoming “one of the world’s most powerful states is that it can’t face up to its past, history, taboos and fears.”
ANKARA—Turkey’s prime minister apologized Wednesday for the first time for the killings of nearly 14,000 people in a bombing and strafing campaign to crush a Kurdish rebellion in the 1930s.
The apology by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was no big change of heart but a political tactic to tarnish the reputation of the opposition party, which was in power at that time. Still, comes at a tense time for relations between Turkey and its minority Kurds, and it sparked calls for Turkey to face another dark chapter of its history—the Armenian Genocide.
Erdogan on Wednesday offered his apology for the killings of 13,806 people in the southeastern town of Dersim — now known as Tunceli — between 1936 and 1939. The apology came after a war of words between Erdogan and the leader of the main opposition party.
“The apology by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was no big change of heart but a political tactic to tarnish the reputation of the opposition party, which was in power at that time. Still, comes at a tense time for relations between Turkey and its minority Kurds, and it sparked calls for Turkey to face another dark chapter of its history, the mass killings of Armenians in 1915,” said the European Armenian Federation for Justice.
According to Hurriyet Daily News, Erdogan showed documents dated August 1939, which stated the operations had killed more than 13,000 people between 1936 and 1939.
Erdogan further defined the Dersim killings as “the most tragic incident of our near past.”
An opposition lawmaker, Huseyin Aygun, from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) said a dozen of his relatives were killed in Dersim and added that details about the suppression of the rebellion needed to become known.
Erdogan’s apology appeared aimed at embarrassing opposition party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, whose party was in power at the time of the rebellion. Kilicdaroglu’s family is also rooted in Tunceli.
“Am I going to apologize or are you?” Erdogan asked Kilicdaroglu in a televised speech. “If there is need for an apology on behalf of the state, if there is such a practice in the books, I would apologize and I am apologizing.”
Some ruling party lawmakers called for a probe into the Dersim slayings, where troops of Turkey’s newly founded republic brutally crushed Kurdish clans that rejected central authority.
“Instead of looking for a culprit, we must choose to face history,” government legislator Mustafa Elitas said.
Mustafa Armagan, a historian and researcher, told state-run TRT television on Wednesday that the military’s campaign in Dersim was followed by forced migrations and massacres as well as policies of assimilation.
The prime minister also said one of the main obstacles to Turkey’s becoming “one of the world’s most powerful states is that it can’t face up to its past, history, taboos and fears.”
Turkey is also under pressure to acknowledge other dark pages in its history, including the Armenian Genocide a special wealth tax imposed on Jews in the 1940s and attacks on its Greek minority in 1955.
In response to an accusation from CHP that this is a prelude to apologizing to the Armenians for 1915, Erdogan said, “You are putting me in the same basket with the Armenian Diaspora. Shame on you! How dare you put me and the Armenian diaspora in the same basket!”
“The current discourse is highly hypocritical and insincere. At this very moment, more than 10 dams are being built in Dersim. To build dams in order to flood the region and displace people were items of the reports in the 1930s about the ‘Dersim problem,’” said Dr. Bilgin Ayata in an interview with Armenian Weekly editor Khatchig Mouradian.
She added, “While under the AKP government, the last phase of the systematic destruction of Dersim from 1938 is being implemented and carried out today, any reference to the ‘Dersim massacres’ by Prime Minister Erdogan serves first and foremost to portray and frame the state intervention in Dersim as a past event, while in fact, it is being completed at this very moment.”
Ayata, who is at the Free University of Berlin, noted that many important, sacred and religious sites of Alevis and Armenians in Dersim have been flooded since last year because of the dams. “People in Dersim regard this as the last phase of the destruction of the Dersim culture. By bringing up the Dersim issue, Erdogan is not only hunting for votes amongst Alevis or abusing this issue in order to discredit his political opponent Kilicdaroglu, he is actually killing two birds with one stone by diverting the issue of the dam building in Dersim that his government is responsible for. I also do not think that he ‘opens up’ the discourse. in fact, he sets limits to the discourse of Dersim 1938 by framing it as a ‘massacre.’ The term ‘Dersim massacre’ is only an improvement in the discourse if your starting point is the Turkish official ideology.”
“If your reference point is the International Genocide Convention from 1948, it is merely a sophisticated continuation of denial policies, as the case of the mass violence between 1936-38 easily fits the criteria set in the convention to constitute genocide,” concluded Ayata.
Despite the calls for search for truth over the Dersim incidents, Erdogan’s government has said it would only halt its current military drive if the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK disarm. However, the government has left the door open for future talks.
Turkey has long realized that it can’t end the Kurdish rebel war through military measures alone, and the government has granted more cultural rights to the Kurdish minority such as broadcasts in the once-banned Kurdish language on state television.
But the rebels and Kurdish activists insist on autonomy and Kurdish education in schools, which Turkey fears could divide the country along ethnic lines.