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Turkish military aids enemies of reform



Possibly without intending to do so, Turkey's most powerful institution, the military, has strengthened the hand of conservatives and Islamists opposing the attempts of the Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, to improve the country's human rights image.

Mrs Ciller's bout of reform-mindedness is partly to impress the European Parliament, which must ratify a European Commission decision to go ahead with a customs union with Turkey, due in 1996. The free-trade pact will bring Turkey closer to the 15 than any other non-member and act as a psychological anchor for Turkey's 65 million Muslims in the Western system.

But an unholy alliance has risen against the 49-year-old Mrs Ciller, Turkey's first woman leader. In May, President Suleyman Demirel attacked Mrs Ciller's reforms from the right, jealous of his former protegee's recent successes. In June he was joined by a cross-party coalition of Islamists and conservatives in parliament who started to undermine the progress of a package of constitutional reforms.

Then came last Friday's statements by the deputy Chief of General Staff, General Ahmet Corekci. Far from the traditional stiff memoranda signed by all service branch chiefs, his comments came as waitresses in mini- skirts helped host a rare military press briefing about Turkey's belief that Greece is working to split Turkey by supporting the separatist rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

When asked in question time about the notorious Article 8 of the Anti- Terrorism Law, General Corekci plainly said the army was against Mrs Ciller's plan to lift it, although he added the army would of course obey any orders. Article 8 forbids the articulation of separatist sentiment "with whatever thought and purpose it may be". Lifting it would free many of the 160 people jailed in Turkey simply for expressing their views, usually about the need for greater cultural and political rights for the country's 12 million ethnic Kurds. Such rights are anathema to Turkey's old guard. "This is the salami tactic. The more you cut, the more they want," said General Corekci, saying that the army would never approve of Kurdish-language education or television broadcasts.

For good measure, General Corekci added that the army believed that such fussing about human rights and democracy was holding back the struggle against Kurdish rebels, raging in Turkey's south-east and killing an average of 14 people a day.

Since Friday the general's comments have provoked confusion. Were they a shot across the government's bows of the type that heralded the military interventions of 1971 and 1980? Or did the mild and almost accidental nature of the commentary simply show how far the armed forces were from even thinking of a coup?

It is hard to know how much courage the military's comments will give to the Islamists and conservatives who helped knock down 17 of 24 planned amendments to the constitution, drawn up under military rule in 1982. The second round of voting starts this week.

Newspapers yesterday echoed public impatience with the failure of parliament and state to catch up with Turkish society. The hide-bound institutions in Ankara have been left behind as a dozen private national TV networks and hundreds of local stations air wide-ranging debates on all issues.

"Don't let's miss this historic chance. Let's develop a civilian, democratic and secular constitution," said identical editorials in Hurriyet and Milliyet, tracing the bumpy past two centuries in which Turkey has struggled to Westernise and modernise.

Only Cem Boyner of the small New Democracy Party had the courage to oppose General Corekci openly, saying he should have been retired straight away for interfering in politics. A few commentators demanded that the civilians stand up for themselves for once, even if opinion polls show the military is still Turkey's most trusted institution by far.