Anyone who is interested in Turkey’s history as well as the 35-long conflict with the PKK, is likely to have a notion of military coups. The military in Turkey has shaped politics, the economy and social life, as well as the national psyche.
The most fierce, brutal yet “successful” military coup dates back to 40 years ago. Many intellectuals, writers, academics believe that today’s Islamic-Nationalist neoliberal and authoritarian presidential regime finds its roots in the military coup of the 12 September 1980.
That is why elders still compared the situation nowadays to that of 35 to 40 years ago, when the rule of law, human rights, freedom of speech, academia and workers’ rights were harshly suppressed.
According to official data, in the aftermath of the coup, 650,000 people were detained, 230,000 were tried in martial courts, 14 died during hunger strikes and 171 under torture in prisons and 49 were hanged. The military was depicted as the providential savior who ended the clashes between rightwing and leftwing groups that had caused great concern in the 1970s.
But the figures alone cannot reveal the depth of the coup’s effects. As historian Tanıl Bora put it: “September 12 contaminated everything.”
Though the architect of the coup, General Kenan Evren got a life sentence in 2014 and died soon thereafter, the period of reckoning is not over. Many stories remain untold, others have been forgotten. Beyond the revolutionaries, entire generations suffered from the coup.
Sociologist Göze Orhon, who was only 2 years old when “it happened”, dedicated her thesis to the memory of September 12. She contends that the untold stories, the lingering tensions within families had a profound effect on the psyche of the following generations. “September 12 left us with a mouth without speech”, she argues.
I can empathize with her definition, though my background differs greatly from hers. My father was a diplomat, who served for 2 years as an administrative director in Ankara. I still remember his pale face and the dossiers he would bring back home. I remember that my family was concerned with the clashes on the street. I could still go to primary school by foot. Yet one morning, I was suddenly woken up and sent to the neighbors. School had been suspended, which left me happy though I could not understand why I couldn’t go onto the street.
Soon thereafter, my father died of lung aneurysm. Probably because of this unexpected loss and grief, I was not interested at all with what was going on.
But the national TV channels – the only channels back then - constantly showed a certain general in his military uniform. My mother remarried and the talk of the town was that it was good for the country to have that general. Later, she and her new partner supported Turgut Özal, who served as the deputy prime minister in the first years of the coup. Not a single member of my family was a revolutionary or a leftist. All were right-leaning. We were told not to get political, not to speak out, like the rest of the country. And we didn’t.
As a teenager, I was astounded to hear the legacy of my school. Boys and girls had rebelled and chained themselves in the classrooms in the 1970s.
That seemed unthinkable, given the school’s strict discipline. The deputy head of the school would beat students who misbehaved, girls would get slapped. A dear friend of mine was regularly beaten because his father was a leftist activist. My motto was to avoid getting into trouble.
My political apathy continued in university. I had no interest in the protests, demonstrations on the campus of Robert College. I got married and soon had a son, whilst still being a bachelor. We were called the “Özal generation”, the apolitical generation. I disliked that term, but I was obviously one of them.
The politics, the truths did not hit me until I started journalism, in 1993. As I read and learned, I felt guilty. Some of the editors I looked up to, were former revolutionaries.
Still, I was afraid to report on politics. Journalists and ordinary people – I would later learnt about Kurdish villages being set on fire - were killed on the streets. A great war was being waged against the PKK.
This personal story is nothing compared to the generation that preceded mine, or to the ones that were actively opposing the status quo. Today, I know that had I not chosen journalism, had I not gotten interested in taboo topics, I wouldn’t know the truth. So many people from my generation, and the next, and the next, live unaware of their own history. Many claim to be democrats but refuse to understand, listen to what people went through.
A dear female friend, who spent one year in prison in 1984 and experienced those days in a horrible manner told me: “We did not tell our stories as much as we should have. Nobody wanted to listen to them. Yes, we are defeated. But we have to tell our stories over and over again.”
President Erdoğan is a political figure that regularly condemns military coups. On the 40th anniversary of September, 12 he made a speech in Yassıada (a remote island where Adnan Menderes and his cabinet were tried and sentenced to death. Menderes was executed in 1961). He only referred to 12thSeptember with these words:
“It has been understood that the military regime annihilated left wing groups in order to stop the PKK. It is also understood that the military regime gave way to FETÖ with this coup, and undermined the domestic, national interest. Now, were are free from the IMF.”
Yet Erdoğan has not uttered a single word on the sweeping violation of rights, his party’s affiliation with the Gülen organization in the past, or the Turkish economy, which is strictly tied to global finance systems.