Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast has launched a major intiative to use the Kurdish language in the region and demand greater regional autonomy. The move has sent political shock waves through the country.
Under the Kurdish umbrella organization, the Democratic Society Congress, the Kurds' main political party, or BDP, joined leading Kurdish figures to launch the initiative.
The demands include democratic autonomy, a separate flag, and a parliament and defense force for Kurds. But according to the head of the BDP, Selahattin Demirtas, use of their language is key.
((DEMIRTAS ACT-TURKISH IN & UNDER))
"People should be able to use their native language in trade," he said. "The names of businesses and all the brands should be in their native languages. There are Kurdish people in this country, and they have their own native language. It is their most natural right to demand that its use is as free as Turkish," he said.
In the predominantly Kurdish southeast's main city, Diyarbakir, local road signs and all notices in municipal buildings are already written both in Turkish and Kurdish. Some restaurants also have their menus in Kurdish. The move is seen as groundbreaking since, until the end of the 1980s, the Kurdish language officially did not exist in Turkey, and strict controls on its use were only eased in the last few years.
The demands are the same as those of Kurdish insurgent group the PKK, which has been fighting the Turkish state since 1984, although it's now observing a cease-fire. Political scientist Soli Ozel says the intiative is a clear indication that the struggle is shifting from a military to a civilian level, a move that has caught the government on the wrong foot.
"There always advancing a step ahead of the government and basically defining the issue. In general the country is sick and tired of the violence that plagued us for 26 years, that cost us 40,000 lives and over a $100 billion. Therefore violence is no longer, not for the Turkish military not for PKK either," Ozel said.
Observers say the ruling AK party has so far said and done little about the initiative, other than dismissing it as a populist move ahead of next year's election. But recently, a senior state prosecutor said the government will investigate the intiative and the BDP. The speaker of parliament also warned the party that it could face closure. The BDP officials reacted swiftly, warning if its party was closed down, it could result in the return of conflict. The Turkish Armed forces also weighed in. On its web page it warned of the danger to the unity of the state with Devlet Bahceli, head of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, launching a blistering attack against the initiative
"We cannot allow Turkey to be divided, to be divided in to geographical regions, we cannot allow multicultural, multilingual Turkey, we cannot allow the demolition of the unity of the state," he said.
Analysts say such attacks will make it difficult for the government to make Kurdish concessions, especially since it is looking for nationalist votes in next year's general election.
But Ozel warns the government may pay a price for such inaction. "It does not want to do anything until elections, because if it does something, it fears to lose to the support that it has from conservative Turkish nationalists in central Anatolia. But the government, by not trying to take any risks, is basically risking losing control of developments," he said.
The government's own Kurdish initiative has been halted, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promising to address Kurdish demands after next June's election. But observers say the patience of the country's Kurds appears to have run out.