TURKEY: ANALYSIS

Protest groups united in anger to challenge Turkey's government

After weekend demonstrations, momentum is building in Turkey for a larger political movement to challenge an authoritarian regime

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 June, 2013, 1:03am
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Sitting on the grass in Taksim Square's Gezi Park, university English tutor Serem Ramau helps some of her students with their homework. Less than 24 hours after some of the biggest protests against the Turkish government in years, the park has been transformed, at least for the moment.

The only evidence of the weekend turmoil are banners and posters on the fences, walls and trees.

Ramau explains why she and her pupils joined the protests. "The people just want to be able to express themselves, but [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan wants an authoritarian regime. We reject that, and that is why we are here."

The country's Islamic-rooted government said yesterday it had "learnt its lesson" and appealed for an end to the mass rallies.

The government sought to ease tensions by apologising to wounded demonstrators and admitting that actions by security forces against people with "rightful demands" had caused the situation to get out of hand.

"The government has learnt its lesson from what happened," Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said. "We do not have the right and cannot afford to ignore people. Democracies cannot exist without opposition."

Arinc called on "responsible citizens" to stop the protests which he said had left about 300 people wounded in five days although rights groups have put the number of injured much higher and two people have died.

Arinc said he would meet some of the organisers of the original Istanbul protest but it appeared to be too little too late.

Shops were shuttered on a main avenue leading to Istanbul's Taksim Square, the focus of the protests, as thousands of demonstrators marched by. Barricades of rubble blocked other streets leading to the square and the acrid smell of tear gas hung in the air.

Onur Aygunes, a 29-year-old consultant, said that for the first time he felt as if there was real momentum behind a larger political movement: "My friends and I felt increasingly oppressed in Turkey, but this is very inspiring. Most of the people here have never been politically active."

Aygunes, who has participated in rallies such as Istanbul gay pride or May Day demonstrations, believes the excessive police violence used in the square was counter-productive, bringing more and more people onto the streets, rather than deterring them. "I have been tear-gassed for the first time here, and all it did was to make me more determined."

A large group of students pay tribute to modern Turkey's founder, chanting "We are Mustafa Kemal [Ataturk's] soldiers" as they walk past a handwritten sign, which reads, "We will not kill, we will not be killed, we are not anyone's soldiers" - the slogan of the anti-militarist movement in Turkey.

Flags of the environmentalist movement, rainbow banners, flags of Ataturk, of Che Guevara, of different trade unions, all adorn the park. Trees bear the names of recent car bomb attack victims in Reyhanli, and of the 35 civilians killed in a Turkish air strike on the Iraqi border in 2011.

"We are neither anti-Islamist nor anti-secularist," Aygunes says. "All groups of society are here. This is the first time this has happened. I am so excited."

A few volunteers hand out food, water, clothing, umbrellas and medical supplies. A sign asks for donations of blankets, tents and rain gear.

A group of women in smart office clothes gather, carrying flags bearing a portrait of Ataturk. "We will not go to work today," one of them says, laughing. "Our boss supports this protest."

However, some protesters worry about the increasingly nationalist tone of the demonstrations, which started as a peaceful sit-in against the redevelopment of a small park into a kitschy Ottoman-style mall and hotel complex.

"For some people here it is completely natural to wave Turkish flags and to invoke Ataturk in their slogans," said documentary filmmaker Bingol Elmas. "But for me, as a Kurd, these symbols are connected to problems that we have not yet solved in Turkey. Some people shout, 'How happy is the one who says I am a Turk, but that excludes us'."

Additional reporting by Reuters