A chance for peace

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 August, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 August, 1999, 12:00am

Yesterday's decision announced by Kurdish guerillas to abandon war for politics gives Turkey yet another chance to deal with its largest and most fractious minority in a reasonable way. With luck and wisdom, Ankara could now end a bloody insurgency that has cost some 31,000 lives, slowed economic development and given Turkey one of the world's worst records in the human rights field.

But doing so will demand more tolerance and flexibility than any Turkish government has shown to date. Ankara's preferred attitude towards its 12 million Kurds is to deny they exist, in an ethnic sense, by contending they are really something called 'Mountain Turks'. Kurdish demands for the right to use their own language in newspapers and schools, and otherwise cling to their traditions, have been granted grudgingly at best and often denied by the harshest means.

Now there is a chance to reverse this sorry record. The capture and conviction of Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish leader, has forced his followers to recognise that, while they may never lose, they cannot possibly win the freedom they seek. So they plan to withdraw armed units from Turkey and use political means to seek greater autonomy.

Ankara insists it won't negotiate with what it calls criminal gangs. But there is nothing to prevent it from initiating measures that would satisfy most Kurds, undermining the cause of radical violence. That could bring peace to a poor and troubled region as well as the improved European relations that Ankara wants.

To bring this about, the Kurds must mean what they say and that remains untested. But if they pass the test, one of the world's cruellest conflicts could be ended in ways of benefit to everyone.