ANKARA– The Kurds’ hunger-strike for Abdullah Ocalan began with a single person, grew slowly from dozens to hundreds and, more than six months later, it reached about 3,000 participants. But it ended very quickly.
On Sunday morning the lawyers of Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), told the press they had met their client in prison on Imrali island and he wanted the fasting to stop.
Within hours the lead striker, legislator Leyla Guven, declared she would resume eating. She was taken to hospital to begin receiving nutrients in a special way. She had consumed nothing but sugary water, salt and vitamins for 200 days.
By Monday morning a spokeswoman of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) was saying the other 3,000 hunger strikers had ended their fast. “It’s all over,” Bermali Demirdogen told Sigma.
Both sides could claim to have won something. The strikers had demanded the government allow Ocalan, imprisoned since 1999, to see his lawyers and family members. They secured Ocalan’s access to his lawyers.
The government secured the end of a protest that was embarrassing, and which threatened to become worse as it continued.
When Guven began the strike on November 8, she had been detained without trial for more than 10 months. By January 25, after 79 days without solid food, her body had withered and doctors were warning her of permanent harm. The government released her because it did not want her dying in its custody. But Guven continued her fast at home.
Other factors came into play. The government is facing a tough battle to get its candidate elected mayor in the repeat Istanbul election of June 23. Kurdish voters had made a significant contribution to the opposition’s victory in the now-invalidated election of March 31.
Political analysts such as Sinan Ulgen of the Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies have forecast the government would make “initiatives involving Ocalan” to win over Kurdish voters in Istanbul.
There has also been speculation the government had enabled Ocalan to see his lawyers on May 2 because it wanted to draw the PKK leader into peace negotiations. Every week or so Turkish soldiers are dying in clashes with PKK guerrillas.
Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul denied any such motives in a chat with the press during an iftar (fast breaking) meal on May 23.
Ocalan’s meeting with lawyers “has nothing to do with a new (peace) resolution process. It cannot be said that ‘a resolution process is starting again’. It also does not have anything to do with the Istanbul elections,” Gul said, according to the online journal Bianet.
One of the lawyers, Newroz Uysal, quoted Ocalan as saying no peace negotiations have started, Reuters reported.
But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan evaluates his moves very carefully. If his ministers take a step, he expects a reward.
When Ocalan met his lawyers on May 2, it was the first such meeting since 2011. They met a second time on May 22. When Ocalan met his brother Mehmet in January, it was their first get-together since 2016.
The government’s sudden decision to permit such meetings can only have been calculated. The Ocalan lawyer Ibrahim Bilmez told the online journal Al-Monitor that he believed “the government is above all concerned with getting our client to use his influence to help end the strikes.”
Bilmez added that if a hunger striker died, it could provoke unrest among the Kurds, who amount to 20 percent of the population.
Thirty of the hunger strikers were reported to have vowed to fast until death, suggesting they would eschew the sugar, salt and vitamin B that the other strikers were taking.
Ocalan addressed this issue in his statement read out by his lawyers on May 26, Bianet reported:
“I expect you, especially the ones who have gone on a hunger strike and death fast, to put an end to your protest in the light of the comprehensive statements to be made by my two lawyers,” Ocalan said.
The lawyers said Ocalan was grateful to the hunger strikers, saying their “sacrifice” had been honourable and had “achieved its purpose”.
“He said what matters is the democratic political struggle, and the physical, mental and psychological well-being of strikers is more important than all else,” the lawyers reported.
The strike resonated widely in the Kurdish community. Last week a think-tank, the Tigris Social Research Centre, held a conference in Diyarbakir on how the lessons of South Africa’s peace process could be applied to Turkey and the Kurds. The organisers allowed the mother of a hunger-striking prisoner to address the conference.
“I don’t want my son to leave prison in a coffin,” said the mother, wearing a headscarf of white lace. Her speech was quite off the topic, but the delegates listened to her with respect.
However, most Turks shrugged off the hunger strike. For them, it was a self-punishing action undertaken by imprisoned extremists. Out of sight, out of mind was the prevailing view.
What nobody can deny, though, is that the strike highlighted the role of Ocalan. The government had cut him off from visitors for about three years. The most likely reason was the resurgence of warfare in 2015-16 when PKK guerrillas fought the security forces street by street in the towns of the southeast.
When the strike began last year, the best-known Kurdish grievance was not Ocalan’s isolation, but the fact that the government had dismissed the Kurds’ elected mayors in more than 90 southeastern towns, including Guven’s hometown of Diyarbakir, and appointed administrators.
Just as the government had chosen Ocalan to make a point to the Kurds, so the Kurds chose him to make a point to the government. The imprisonment of the Kurdish militant leader is a double-edged sword.