'Standing man' inspires silent opposition in Turkey

Protesters find new ways to express anger over government's response to recent Taksim Square demonstrations

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 June, 2013, 10:39pm

By lunchtime in the waterfront district of Besiktas in Istanbul, Ismail Orhan had been standing silently under a yellow parasol in the blistering heat for more than four hours.

"We'll be here for weeks, for months," said the 25-year-old, as office workers used their lunch break to join him in a new wave of passive resistance to the authorities.

Instantly dubbed the "standing man" protest, fuelled by Twitter and other social media, the mute, peaceful, immobile gesture of resistance to a government that has used brute force to dispel three weeks of protest began on Monday evening in Istanbul's Taksim Square, launched by a performance artist, Erdem Gunduz.

"I am just an ordinary citizen of this country," Gunduz told Hurriyet TV. "We want our voices to be heard."

As dusk fell on Tuesday, hundreds were following his lead, standing quietly and facing either a giant portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, or a phalanx of police officers keeping watch over the crowd a short distance away.

The "stand-in" spread. Silent protesters swelled into hundreds across other parts of Istanbul, and to Ankara, Izmir and Antalya. About 10 were detained by police in Istanbul after refusing to move but were released.

In front of Orhan, by a sculpture of an eagle, were two pairs of flipflops, two pairs of trainers and a pair of baby's bootees, placed in remembrance of the four people killed during the street unrest of the past three weeks and for the pregnant woman who lost her baby when riot police tear-gassed a hotel on Saturday where protesters and the wounded were sheltering.

Meanwhile, hundreds more people have been joining the protests. Some have brought books to settle in for a long haul against a government increasingly seen as high-handed and out of touch.

"I'm just stopping, standing, not speaking. Just drinking water," said Merve Uslu, 21, a student. "I heard about the standing man and it touched my heart so much. I don't support clashes with police but we're just resisting basically."

Elsewhere in the city on Tuesday, however, police swooped on dozens of hard-left activists, arresting more than 90 people in the first big clampdown since the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ordered police to fire tear gas and use water cannon on Saturday to clear Gezi Park of thousands of demonstrators, inciting a night of violence across central Istanbul.

Erdogan's response has brought growing criticism internationally. The UN's human rights commissioner, Navi Pillay, called for punishment for officials and security forces using excessive force. "It's important the authorities recognise that the initial extremely heavy-handed response to the protests is still a major part of the problem."

But the message from Erdogan was the opposite as he divided Turkey into friends and foes, and characterised the largely peaceful protests as orchestrated violence. "Thanks to this process, we know our enemies and allies."

In addition to Tuesday's arrests, at least 90 other protesters were detained during the weekend violence. According to Turkish media reports, most were released but 13 will go before the courts.

Erdogan has struck a defiant tone throughout the unrest, which poses the greatest challenge to a 10-year rule marked by an economic boom and a drive to extend Turkey's influence beyond its frontiers.

"In the face of a comprehensive and systematic movement of violence, the police displayed an unprecedented democratic stance and successfully passed the test of democracy," he told members of his ruling AK Party in parliament in a speech punctuated by loud cheers.


Solitary symbols of defiance

Turkey's "standing man" protest joins other singular actions and images that have sometimes influenced history and transformed obscure figures into symbols of their era.



Neda Agha-Soltan was a 26-year-old aspiring musician. On June 20, 2006, at a protest against the re-election of Iran's then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a bullet allegedly fired by a pro-government militiaman pierced her chest, with Neda dead within minutes. Amateur video of her death went viral and within hours Neda was transformed into the symbol of protests against Ahmadinejad.



There was no such name recognition for the "tank man", the anonymous figure who stood in front of a column of Chinese tanks on June 5, 1989, a day after PLA troops massacred pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Had it not been photographers and video journalists perched on a nearby roof, that personal act of defiance in the face of overwhelming power would have passed without notice. Moments after forcing the column to a halt, the man jumped on the leading tank, made his way to the hatch and appeared to talk to the commander. Finally, two figures in blue clothing pulled him away and disappeared into the crowd. To this day, authorities haven't identified the man nor given any indication of his fate.



On June 10, 1963, journalists gathered on a street in South Vietnam's capital, Saigon, having heard that "something important" would happen. Suddenly, hundreds of Buddhist monks appeared carrying banners denouncing repression of the Buddhist majority by the Catholic-dominated government. of then-prime minister Ngo Dinh Diem. Thich Quang Duc, one of the monks, sat on the pavement. As a colleague poured petrol on his head, Duc recited prayers, struck a match and set himself on fire. A photo of the moment, horrified the world. Five months after Duc's death, Diem was slain in a military coup.

Associated Press