Interview with José Antonio Gutiérrez by the Kurdish News Agency Rojhelat
Rojhelat: We have interviewed Mr. José Antonio Gutiérrez D. a well-known Latin American political activist and author asking him a number of questions. He believes that Democratic Confederalism advocated by Ocalan holds great relevance for peaceful coexistence with people. He also criticises the International Left for overlooking thinkers such as Abdullah Ocalan.
Dear José Antonio Gutiérrez D, may you introduce yourself to our readers?
I am an activist based in Dublin, Republic of Ireland, but originally coming from Latin America. Since a young age I have been involved with the libertarian left and here I am heavily involved with the struggle of the social and popular movements in Colombia, denouncing State terrorism and US and EU complicity in it. We have a centre for solidarity with Latin America in Dublin. I participate in a number of international publications, I write for the Chilean paper El Ciudadano where I have a regular column of opinion and also am very involved with the international libertarian project www.anarkismo.net
When did you first come to know the Kurdish question?
I heard about the Kurdish question a long time ago. I remember when in 1999 Ocalan was abducted in Kenya by the US and Israel to Turkey I was a student in college, in Universidad de Chile, the main university that became a focal point of students protests last year, and we staged a spontaneous demonstration in solidarity with Ocalan. We did not know much about him or the Kurdish struggle but we all thought that it was a terrible precedent of international piracy, of a blatantly illegal action that ended up with a bogus trial which completely ignored the reality of the armed conflict and the seriousness of the Kurdish demands. Unfortunately, what we witnessed with the abduction of Ocalan became later the norm during the so called War on Terror, when citizens of various countries have been kidnapped in the so called extraordinary renditions carried by the US, and illegally held in an international network of detention and torture centres, the black holes. Once again, the repression against the Kurdish people proved to be some form of laboratory to experiment.
The first time I was personally confronted to the Kurdish question was actually in Turkey, during the Alternative Water Forum in Istanbul a couple of years ago. I remember that time we were drafting the final resolutions and there was talk about the situation in Northern Kurdistan with a number of dams that were affecting communities. So the resolution talked about our solidarity, as a forum, with the people in Kurdistan. That was enough for a couple of nationalist Turks to get up and denounce the forum as nothing short of a smokescreen for “terrorism” and they had the nerve to demand that the word Kurdish was abolished and that reference to Kurdistan was changed to what the man called it its proper name: South Eastern Turkey! This moment was very upsetting, it seemed terribly wrong; you could see there was something seriously wrong with Turkish identity not to be able to stand the mention of the word Kurd. It was just a superficial expression of a form of deep seated hatred, based in a form of authoritarian nationalism. After this there was no denial there was a serious “Kurdish question”. A lot of participants including myself, stood up against this and claimed that we were Kurdish as well... we obviously weren’t, but we just wanted to emphasize that humans can always relate to situations of oppression and suffering and build up a common identity of all oppressed peoples.
After the talk I approached one brave Kurdish woman who stood her ground and I asked her about the Kurdish problem, and she said, I remember well, there is no such a thing as a Kurdish problem. As you saw, the Turkish have a problem, it is not us. In fairness, after witnessing that, I cannot accept people that tell me, sure, everything is alright in Turkey, it is just a bunch of Kurdish “terrorists” causing troubles. No one can deny the potential violence I witnessed in that short intervention by this Turkish nationalist.
It is then that I decided seriously to look into the Kurdish question and learn more about it. The parallels with the Colombian situation, which I know well myself, are quite obvious. My interests has grown since then because I believe that there is a living experience in Kurdistan of people marching towards building its own future from which the whole progressive movement and the left in the world can draw important conclusions. I mean, you look now to what is happening all over the world with the Occupy movement, with the 1% movement, with the Arab Spring, with the rise of the social movements as political actors all over the world, and in many ways, many of the things we are witnessing now have been done and implemented by the Kurdish movement for the last ten years or even more. You name it, mass mobilisations, demands for grassroots democracy, participatory forms of local government… it all has been done quite successfully, if you consider the hostile conditions of the conflagration, by the Kurdish liberation movement.
I consider thinkers such as Abdullah Ocalan or Cemil Bayik to be seriously overlooked by the international left, their emphasis on horizontalism, direct and participatory democracy, a new dialogue between the peoples of East and West, their fresh look at questions such as democracy, State, capitalism, socialism, it should all be in the discussion agenda of the people in the whole world since they are quite valuable contributions. Sure, you can say there are parallels between what they say and former socialist thinkers such as Marx, but also, thinkers from a libertarian socialist tradition such as Kropotkin or Bookchin. All that is true, but here you have a movement who has arrived to those conclusions through their living experience and the self-criticism and reflection of their own practice. So this fact gives more value and strength to their reflections, and makes them an invaluable contribution to the political development of socialist ideas in the 21st Century. I also want to name my friend and comrade Sinan Çiftyürek, from the Kurdish socialist organisation MESOP who has been very important for my own political development and understanding of the Kurdish question.
Turkish government pretends to be democratic but how democracy could account for Sirnak Massacre?
Something like the Sirnak massacre is simply impossible to justify no matter what your perspective on democracy is. It just shows an absolute and complete disregard for human life, particularly for the Kurdish population, a sizeable percentage of the people living under the Turkish state. If anything, you can say it reflects quite a sinister take on democracy, as standing for “all Kurdish people have a right to be bombed and killed”.
Sure, they’ll throw some cash for their families and will announce that investigations will be carried on the facts of this horrible carnage. This investigation in all likelihood will go no where, or at most, will target one or two people in the army, ignoring there is a State policy behind what happened in Sirnak. They’ll say this is what democratic governments do, but I wonder if that will soothe in any form the sorrow of those who lost relatives and friends. And war will keep going on ahead as usual, perpetuating the conditions for more Sirnaks to happen in the future.
Now, the Turkish State will insist that mere formalities such as elections are the ultimate definition of democracy. But obviously, formalities are not enough, least when you incarcerate Kurdish people that have been democratically elected, persecute people and attack them with absolute disregard for any form of international law or human rights.
And then, there is the challenge launched by the Kurdish liberation movement to the very concept of democracy as being centred in State institutions. At that point, the contributions of Ocalan in his Prison Writings are quite insightful. When he argues that democracy means strengthening the communities, opening up participatory spaces, building up collective leaderships, creating networks to distribute power among communities and social movement, he is actually challenging the traditional, formal and capitalist vision that democracy is just elections. And this form of direct and grassroots democracy created by the Kurdish people in their process of struggle, which has cost sweat and blood, is under constant attack by Turkish authorities who fear real democracy. They fear that the Kurdish example could be contagious for the Turkish population.
When Turkish militaries are killed in battle with the PKK fighters, the international powers get so vocal, but in the face of Sirnak Massacre, they are dead silent. What could account for such a discrepancy?
This should not surprise anyone. It is the typical double standard of international powers. That happens all the time in Colombia as well: they rejoice at the most hideous crimes of the State and then shed crocodile tears and get indignant when the rebels strike back. This is because international powers do not look objectively at political developments in Kurdistan, or Colombia or anywhere really. They have their own interests, which are economic and geostrategical. And they see a truly democratic and revolutionary force as a problem for them. They really fear the power of the people, so they will always support those who might serve best their interest. In the Turkish case it is the Turkish establishment, that whether it presents itself as nationalist or Islamist, it will always be subservient of the strategic interests of imperialism in the region, in spite of minor and secondary scuffles when their particular interests seem to clash. But they quickly get to an understanding and go back to business as usual.
Kurdish resistance movement led by the PKK is designated as “terrorist” by the US and the EU. Do you think that such a labelling could give free hand to Turkey in suppressing the Kurdish people? What are the consequences of such a labelling?
Well, you mentioned the main consequence: it gives a free hand to suppress the Kurdish people and particularly its liberation movement. This undue meddling in the local affairs of particular countries has also another aim and is to shut down spaces for a political solution to the conflict. It is the most extraordinary thing that in spite of repeated and numerous offers by the Kurdish liberation movement of negotiations, with clear, concrete and realistic demands, the Turkish state has consciously opted for continuing the war and the bloodshed, what obviously leads to natural resistance on the side of the Kurds. The Turkish state is encouraged in this course of events by the signs they are getting by their backers in the EU and the US. So basically all this “terrorist” talk and all the non sense attached to it is indeed fuelling the conflict, and since this talk became hegemonic in political discourse we have seen half the world gone in flames.
The most striking thing of all is that there is absolutely no objective basis to label an organisation terrorist. Obviously, I don’t think neither the US nor the EU, with their current illegal actions in countries such as Iraq or Afghanistan, not to name their extraordinary renditions, their participation in coups d’etat in Haiti, Honduras, or their meddling in the Libyan conflict to the people’s detriment, have any moral high ground to call anyone a terrorist. But this goes beyond that, I am saying that there is actually no objective ground for the label of “terrorist”: what makes someone a terrorist? Wanting to overthrow a government acknowledged by the UN? Then why the PKK who has said they have no interest in overthrowing the Turkish government are considered terrorists, and the most unsavoury Islamist elements among the Libyan rebels, who were bent in over throwing Gaddafi are considered “freedom fighters”? Is a “terrorist” then someone who has attacked the Western powers in their own territory? Then why do they accept the Taliban to open offices in Qatar, of all places, to negotiate with the US, while the PKK who never attacked the EU or the US are still proscribed and criminalised? Is killing civilians what makes a “terrorist”? Then why no intelligence service of any Western power or their Third World allies is in the terrorist list? Sure the CIA or the Turkish intelligence services, as proved by the Ergenekon case have been involved in the systematic murder and abuse of civilians.
So you see, there is no real, objective base for the “terrorist” label, whether they are Kurdish, Colombia or Tamil rebels. How come the Taliban are off the list now? What changed? Why the Maoists in Nepal were taken off? What objective ground is there to justify such a decision? Why Libyan jihadists are now welcome in the main Western cities as heroes after a decade of collaboration with Gaddafi in their suppression? Why the PKK, the ELN, the FARC-EP remain in the list? Why the Colombian and Turkish States, who have been involved in systematic and massive violations of their own citizens are not considered terrorists? It all has to do with their immediate objective interests, with realpolitik, with what suits them best at a certain point, not with principles. This list is a landmark of Western hypocrisy and imperial arrogance. It serves no purpose for peace and political dialogue; it only exacerbates all the problems we already have. I think progressive people should openly oppose for such a list to even exist. We should deny the right of the so called “international community” to meddle in internal affairs of specific countries to promote their own interests at the expense of the local population, we should object to their cynical manipulation of facts to accommodate who’s in and who’s out.
We should not allow resistance and the legitimate right of human beings to rebellion to be labelled a criminal activity.
After Sirnak Massacre, the local people are calling on the PKK to retaliate. The PKK has also warned to respond the state. What options are available to the PKK in this stage because if the PKK represent the Kurdish people, the people are calling for retaliation?
I don’t feel I have any authority to talk much on this really. I mean, on the one hand, I understand that retaliation is contrary to the principles defended by the liberation movement and goes in stark opposition to socialism and democracy as a goal. The PKK itself has said that their actions are legitimate self-defence. Yet, it is very easy for me to pontificate about this from the safety of my own home… how can you deny the real suffering of the people confronted to the massacre? How can you ignore the fact that those affected by it know they will have never any justice or truth in relation to what happened? How can you bring back a beloved one from the dead?
Of course if the Kurdish liberation movement retaliates, the so called international community, with their traditional hypocrisy will cry out loud that this is “terrorism”, but they will take actions out of context and will use their short memory to ignore the wrongs done to the Kurdish people.
So I don’t want to be saying what the Kurdish liberation movement should do or shouldn’t do. The options are known to the people on the ground and I only hope that whatever they decide, they don’t lose from sight the big objective of equality, fraternity and liberation at the roots of the movement. Decisions have short term but also long term impacts and whatever is decided has to be measured from this perspective. The hardest task in an asymmetrical struggle as this is to keep intact your own humanity in the face of an inhumane enemy. But people have a right to resistance in the face of murder and oppression, we don’t have to lose that from sight either.
Following the Wan earthquake and Sirnak Massacre many people think that Kurds and Turks could no longer live together. Why Kurds couldn’t avail of the right of self-determination enshrined by the International laws?
Again, we have to look into the role of the international community in all this. Rights of international law are not put in practice by objective organisations, but by organisations which in one way or another reflect the current balance of power in the world, and reflect the interests of those big super powers. So they decide who deserves the right of self determination according to those interests: why South Sudan or Kosovo have a right to self determination but not the Tamils or the Kurdish, let alone the Palestinians? Imperialism has no objective interest in solving no ones national question. We can only rely on the struggle of the people themselves.
As for Kurdish and Turkish people living together, again, I don’t want to pontificate on the issue. After the horrible expressions of nationalistic chauvinism by Turkish nationalists who cheered for the victims of the earthquake and who remain indifferent at best to the massacre of Sirnak, it is hard to look to a Kurdish person in the face and tell them, look, Turkish people are your brothers and sisters, even though they are. All humanity belongs together, we should all learn to live together, but national-States get in the way with their militaristic ideology poisoning the minds of otherwise likeable and decent people.
All I want to say is that the Kurdish liberation movement has outlined a political proposal, the Democratic Confederalism, which holds great relevance for laying the basis for peaceful coexistence with people. As a matter of fact, the Kurdish people need the Turkish people to win their own struggle. It is necessary to deepen the work done to build more bridges with the Turkish working class and the poor people in Turkey to create a rejuvenated, more democratic; more equal Middle East, a democratic confederation mastered by its own communities and people. I think the Kurdish liberation movement, in a moment of passion should not turn its back to years of hard work to create this proposal for peace and direct democracy. It should not help burn those bridges created with sectors of the Turkish people that the State is so wiling to see burned.
The current period is one of revolutions and people’s mobilisation. The political response to Turkish nationalism should be to strengthen the ties with those demanding more democracy, more freedom, more equality in Turkey and abroad, infusing revolutionary content to this relationship and show that the Arab Spring needs to blow on Turkish soil as well. And Kurdistan may only be the starting point of much bigger things to come that may change forever the face of the Middle East. You have a great deal of power and have to see the best ways to use it to advance the cause of freedom and human tolerance.