Calls for reform increase Turkish tension

In a sign of rising political tensions in Turkey, both the Islamist-led government and military leaders have reacted furiously to a proposal from some of the country's leading private businessmen for sweeping democratic reforms. "Cheap political heroism" was the derisive phrase used by one military officer to describe the report presented to parliament last week by the Turkish Association of Industrialists and Businessmen.

Among the report's recommendations were more effective protection of the civil rights of ethnic Kurds, shorter periods of prison custody to prevent police torture and other human-rights abuses, and the subjection of the military high command to defence ministry control. The businessmen also proposed the abolition of the national security council, a powerful institution which ensures the armed forces considerable influence over certain areas of government policy.

Military officers, quoted anonymously in the Turkish press, dismissed the report's proposals as based on a "lack of knowledge" about the true state of affairs in Turkey. But liberal Turkish and foreign commentators said the businessmen had clearly touched a raw nerve.

The armed forces have seized power on three occasions since 1960, ostensibly to defend the modern secular republic against political enemies. The army has remained a powerful presence in the wings since 1983, when it last returned power to civilian politicians. It plays a particularly important role in determining policy in the civil war that has raged since 1984 in the mainly Kurdish south-east of Turkey.

The businessmen's report also attracted criticism from the Turkish government, a coalition of the Islamist Welfare Party and the centre-right True Path Party. The trade minister, Yalim Erez, said the report had been produced by "intellectuals who do not know the realities of this country".

However, the armed forces and the Islamists have not always seen eye- to-eye since Necmettin Erbakan, the Welfare Party leader, came to power last June as Turkey's first Islamist prime minister since the establishment of the secular republic in 1923. But, as far as the Kurdish war is concerned, Mr Erbakan, like his secular predecessors, has essentially left the army with a free hand to crack down on the rebels.

The report was by no means the first such appeal for more humane treatment of Kurds and for a political rather than a military solution to the war. A similar report, commissioned by the Union of Chambers and Trade Bourses and published in 1995, said that support for the far-left Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) would diminish if the government tackled the grievances of ordinary Kurds.

More than 21,000 people are estimated to have died in the war since 1984.