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Recep Tayyip Erdogan Turkey's Kurds fete New Year under shadow of referendum

Tens of thousands celebrated the New Year festival of Newroz in Turkey's majority Kurdish city of Diyarbakir on Tuesday, with many calling for a 'no' vote in next month's referendum on expanding President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's powers.

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Newroz celebrations by Turkey's Kurds include campaigning for a 'no' vote in next month's referendum play

Newroz celebrations by Turkey's Kurds include campaigning for a 'no' vote in next month's referendum

(AFP)

Tens of thousands celebrated the New Year festival of Newroz in Turkey's majority Kurdish city of Diyarbakir on Tuesday, with many calling for a 'no' vote in next month's referendum on expanding President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's powers.

The annual event, which received official permission, took place under heavy security as the authorities pursue their fight against outlawed Kurdish militants.

In a sign of the tensions, police opened fire on a man carrying a knife and a rucksack who did not a obey a request to have his bag searched as he entered the designated area and shouted he was carrying a bomb, security sources told AFP.

The man was taken by ambulance to hospital where he died. It was not immediately clear if he had posed a danger.

Many of those attending brandished flags with the word "no!" in Kurdish ("na!"), urging voters to reject a plan to hand Erdogan an executive presidency in the April 16 referendum.

Police helicopters hovered warily over the area, a large tract of open space on the outskirts of Diyarbakir traditionally used for the event which was enclosed on this occasion by metal police barriers.

The celebration of Newroz in Diyarbakir and other cities in Turkey has its roots in Persian culture. A major celebration was also held in Istanbul.

'Struggle for peace'

The massive celebration of Newroz is an annual event for Turkey's Kurds play

The massive celebration of Newroz is an annual event for Turkey's Kurds

(AFP)

The event was organised by parties including the pro-Kurd Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), the third-largest party in the Turkish parliament.

But 13 HDP lawmakers, including its co-leaders, are currently in jail on charges of supporting Kurdish militants, accusations the party says were fabricated to prevent them from campaigning for a 'no' vote.

"We will continue with our struggle for peace, never giving up our quest for freedom through democratic politics," the jailed co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag said in a statement issued by the HDP.

"We will not bow to or kneel before tyranny and tyrants," they added.

It was at the Diyarbakir Newroz celebrations in 2015 that the jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, in a statement read by an MP, called for an end to its four-decade armed struggle against the Turkish state.

But that summer a fragile peace process collapsed as the PKK ended a ceasefire amid mutual acrimony, reviving an insurgency that has left hundreds of members of the security forces dead.

The government has sought to crush -- rather than negotiate with -- the PKK and has implemented massive military operations in the southeast backed by curfews.

This weekend, Turkey responded with fury after tens of thousands of people attended a pro-Kurdish demonstration in Germany, many brandishing Ocalan flags and pro-PKK insignia.

'A sadder New Year'

Only a few portraits of Ocalan could be seen at the Diyarbakir event but the boisterous Kurdish music was on occasion punctuated by pro-Ocalan chants, despite the urgings of organisers to avoid such slogans.

The Kurdish vote is seen as crucial to determining the outcome of the referendum and in Diyarbakir -- a stronghold of the HDP in 2015 legislative polls -- many strongly opposed the presidential system plan.

"We will say 'no' in the referendum," said Suleyman Ulas. "Kurds want peace, want humanity and want democracy. They don't want to be persecuted. We reject this one man regime."

However, not all of the Kurdish vote is anti-Erdogan and in the 2015 polls his ruling party won a majority of votes in neighbouring provinces with a large Kurdish population, like Elazig and Adiyaman.

With a massive bonfire as its centrepiece, the festival ushered in the New Year with a spirit of renewal and enthusiasm.

But the jailing of HDP leaders, the violence in the southeast and the ruin of the peace process cast a heavy shadow.

"Newroz is beautiful like every year," said participant Mehmet Sah Cinar. "But this year it's more sad. The world can see -- our deputies are imprisoned, our leaders behind bars."

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