To the dismay of observers and people in Turkey, the country has remained much the same 36 years after a military coup on this day which ended the political violence that had killed 5,500 on both the right and the left during the 1970s but decisively set back democracy, individual liberties and press freedom.
Sept. 12 is the 36th anniversary of the 1980 military intervention led by the now-deceased Gen. Kenan Evren and his colleagues. The intervention heralded Turkey’s darkest chapter in human rights and democracy and opened a bloody episode in the Kurdish conflict, which only worsened as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) gained considerable strength through fresh recruitments among Kurdish youths who went to the mountains in protest of the military regime.
Under the coup that was carried out on this day 36 years ago 650,000 were detained, more than 49 prisoners were executed after being sentenced to death, thousands of people were tortured, 171 of them died due to torture in prisons, hundreds of thousands of passports were revoked and all political parties were shut down. Parliamentary democracy was suspended for three years, until new parliamentary elections were allowed in 1983 by the military council which ruled the country with an iron fist.
According to most people, the 1980 military intervention left a lasting impact on the collective memory of the nation.
The Cumhuriyet and Birgün dailies ran front page stories on Sept. 12 pointing to the bitter fact that Turkey has not changed much 36 years after the 1980 coup.
Birgün even went on to claim that the Sept. 12 coup rule is continuing with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. In a similar headline, Cumhuriyet said: The Sept. 12 [coup] that never ended.
The daily’s report reveals striking similarities between today’s Turkey and the period that followed the military coup 36 years ago today, in terms of governance and suspended liberties.
The military regime introduced curfews and emergency rule across the country in 1980. Now, Turkey is again being governed under an emergency rule declared by the AKP government on July 20, five days after a failed coup attempt.
A rogue faction within the military tried to topple the government, but it was decisively defeated when it failed to secure the backing of a majority of the army. The police sided with the government, and people took to the streets, standing against tanks in support of the government.
But the coup failure did not bring more democracy; instead it worsened Turkey’s already fragile liberties and imperiled whatever was left of a democratic system.
Turkey has faced significant setbacks in terms of democracy and rights since the failed coup of July 15. More than 150,000 public servants have been dismissed in massive purges, nearly 50,000 people were detained, and half of them are now under arrest pending trial.
The government has shut down 934 high schools, 19 universities and more than 1,000 companies and confiscated all their properties.
All faculty deans were forced to resign, and the government has recently dismissed 2,346 academics as part of its crackdown on universities.
In a striking similarity, universities were the first target of the military regime as generals saw them as sources of “anarchy,” citing the intense politicization of university students.
The military junta ended the autonomy of universities and set up the Council of Higher Education (YÖK) through a new law that has regulated higher education since then. YÖK gave the authorities tools to strictly control the academic world in Turkey. The military council also dismissed hundreds of academics seen as threats to the regime, a policy that inflicted a fatal blow to academic freedom.
Today, the government has dismissed atheist, leftist, Alevi and Kemalist academics along with Gülenist academics. Academic freedom is in a dismal state now amid relentless purges and the detention of critical academics.
Professor Gençay Gürsoy, a neurologist of international fame and success who was dismissed from his university after the 1980 coup, compares both periods. He told the Cumhuriyet daily that the universities are in much worse shape today and that purges are far wider than those of 1980.
“At most, 5,000 public servants were dismissed after the military coup in 1980. Today, that number has already surpassed 100,000. Today is worse,” he told the daily.
He said with the exception of two or three academics, no scholar was arrested in the 1980 coup. But, he added, dozens of academics have been jailed today in the ongoing witch-hunt.
“The most paradoxical thing is the fact those who carried out arrests in the 1980s were the ones who led the coup. Today, it is those who stopped the coup carrying out mass arrests,” he said.
Orhan Alkaya, an artist who was dismissed from the State Theaters by the military junta in 1980, spoke about the challenges writers and artists face today. He says the relationship between authorities and the art world is in worse shape today, citing the pressure and censorship that artists face. While the authorities employed de-politicization policies after 1980, today the government has pursued a policy of polarization, dividing the society between “us” and “them” or “the rest.”
Labor unions were also targeted both in 1980 and today. Workers suffered setbacks in terms of the political struggle to secure their rights. Suleyman Çelebi, a lawmaker from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), drew parallels between the two periods and told Cumhuriyet that the military junta dealt a fatal blow to unions after the coup. Hundreds of union members were jailed, while the junta shut down leading unions and labor organizations, confiscating their properties.
He says the government is on the same path today after cancelling workers’ right to strike. He said the AKP government has already shut down numerous unions and curbed the power of others. After what he calls the “so-called” coup on July 15, the government suspended 11,301 teachers, 9,843 of whom are members of Eğitim-Sen, a leading union that represents the rights of people working in the field of education.
As of the second week of September, the government had dismissed nearly 50,000 teachers from the Education Ministry.
The Kurdish conflict entered a bloody phase after the 1980 coup as the PKK widened its base with reports of mass torture in Diyarbakır Prison emerging in the media. Thirty-four prisoners were believed to have been tortured to death in Diyarbakır Prison. The military banned Kurdish in public spaces and arrested people for listening to Kurdish songs. Thousands of young Kurds went to the mountains after the torture reports and such bans.
While the AKP government has improved the rights of Kurds, removing all bans and allowing education in Kurdish at private schools as well as broadcasting in Kurdish in the media, its recent hawkish policies are the subject of much criticism regarding resolution of the decades-old Kurdish question.
On Sunday the AKP government appointed new administrators to 28 Kurdish-run municipalities across Turkey’s Southeast after removing the elected mayors. The move sparked sharp criticism, and the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has called for mass protests.
Critics say the decision may benefit the PKK, which always capitalizes on Ankara’s authoritarian policies and expands its base among youth at a time when it struggles to hold firm against the military.