May 14

“Coal isn’t free” – Turkish government culpability for Soma

soma protest 2

Much of the anger that has enveloped Turkey since the Soma mining disaster twelve days ago has been directed at the government. “Prime Minister resign!” shout the crowds of protestors marching all over the country. “Soma was a massacre, not an accident!” People are sickened by the scale of the tragedy and the apparent negligence of the mining company, but there is also a strong sense that the government was complicit in this disaster. The day after the blast, during a protest in Istanbul, I saw a young woman with a coal-smeared face, quietly holding a placard which read: “So it seems coal isn’t free”.

Here was a cynical message that got to the heart of Turks’ anger at the government. It referred to something more serious and deeply grounded than the spectacularly botched PR job of the Prime Minister’s visit to Soma, his insensitive cataloguing of 19th century European mining disasters, apparent slapping of a Soma local, the use of force by riot police on mourning relatives of the miners and the absence of apologies, resignations or explanations days after the blast.

“Coal isn’t free” is a darkly significant statement in today’s Turkey. Tayyip Erdogan’s government has made itself extremely popular over its twelve years in power by declaring itself the champion of the masses and giving out subsidies to poor families all over the country. These subsidies have included bread, macaroni and coal and are often bestowed in the run-up to elections. So far, so socialist, at least superficially. At the same time, however, the AKP has thrown itself into accelerating the program of privatization in Turkey that began in 1984. While government spokesmen boast of the billions of lira generated by these sales, the AKP’s critics accuse it of selling assets cheaply and strategically to sole bidders, and failing to check up on workers’ standards post-sale. A statement from the four main Turkish unions shortly after the blast accused the government of complicit guilt, for “even privatizing the safety supervision in the workplace”.

The Soma mine was privatised in 2005, and Soma Holding now pays royalties to the government in the form of 15% of its coal production. The mine still technically belongs to the state, which guarantees that it will buy all coal produced at the site, giving every incentive to the mining company to ramp up production while cutting costs. In an interview in 2012, the owner of Soma Holding, Alp Gürkan, boasted that he had reduced the extraction cost of coal from £77 per tonne to £14 through measures like making electric transformers on site rather than importing them. Miners who worked at the site also said that the company employed cheap technical specialists who were not union members, and failed to replace old, outdated equipment, which became particularly dangerous given the furious rate of production. When asked why the mine did not have a refuge chamber, Gürkan replied that it was not required by law.

All this adds up to a powerful impression that the government does not legislate on safety measures and the mine owners do not bother to meet them because this is mutually beneficial. Only two weeks before the blast, on 29th April, the AKP majority rejected the opposition’s parliamentary proposal to look into safety standards at this particular mine, saying that the mine was perfectly satisfactory and that “God willing, nothing will happen – not even a nose bleed”. The Energy Minister, Taner Yildiz, visited the Soma mine nine months ago and branded it “an example to all mines in Turkey”. Despite Prime Minister Erodgan’s claims that the Soma disaster was on a par with almost any other international mining accident in the world since 1862, Turkey’s rate of mining deaths is shocking at seven lives per million tonnes of coal, compared to China’s four. In terms of general workplace safety, Turkey is third worst in the world.

The incriminatory facts and figures of the Soma disaster were compounded by the government’s response to public anger. Dramatic images from the past ten days speak volumes of the government’s zero tolerance to criticism: a top aide of the Prime Minister kicking a mourner in Soma, lawyers handcuffed, a weeping 10 year old protestor dragged away by police in Izmir and journalists under custody in Istanbul. One Turkish lawyer said to me: “What has Turkey become? It feels like living in a Central Asian dictatorship; it feels like Borat.”

In the wake of outrage over Erdogan’s handling of the crisis many are adamant he should not stand for President in August. If he does, they don’t want him. Given that the AKP’s core voting base continue to support him wholeheartedly, however, this mining disaster has contributed to what feels more and more like sectarianism in a country that once gave so much cause for hope.

Article first published in the New Statesman, 23rd March issue. Since then, Soma mining officials have been arrested and released in a limp scape goat operation. Erdogan has addressed a rally of Turks in Cologne, Germany, slamming the German government (and “the West” in general) to wild applause and accusing his opponents of smelling the Bosphorus rather than the Soma mine. A bizarre and aggressive speech.

Photograph from the BBC

May 14

Soma Updates and Donation


It’s hard keeping up with the horrible news unfolding. Everyone I know here is struggling to come to terms with the news, especially as the rescue effort is hijacked by a media frenzy over the PM’s unfortunate visit to the mines. Here are some articles which cover what miners themselves are saying and give some background about the effect of privatisation on mines’ safety standards after 2005. I am trying to keep up with first hand reports on Twitter – @AScott.

I have posted a link below to a fundraising site to help families who have lost not only their loved ones in the mines but their livelihoods too. Thank you.




Funding site: http://www.gofundme.com/97qeg8

May 14

Erdoğan’s self defence over Soma disaster was badly misjudged


Yesterday in the devastated town of Soma, a crowd of angry mourners mobbed the Turkish Prime Minister’s convoy as it drove slowly through the streets. Boos and jeers threatened to drown out the Prime Minister’s words as he addressed the families of those who died in the blast. When he attempted – briefly – to walk amongst the crowds, their hostile reaction forced his anxious bodyguards to hustle him into a nearby supermarket, where he became embroiled in a scuffle. This was a far cry from the welcoming flowers, smiles and cheers that Tayyip Erdoğan usually receives on official visits.

The Prime Minister has badly misjudged the Soma disaster by delivering an insensitive speech bristling with self-defense. Telling the relatives of dead and dying miners that “these types of incidents are ordinary things” was his way of deflecting any kind of responsibility for the blast in the wake of reports that the government ignored safety concerns about the privately-owned Soma mine raised as little as two weeks ago by opposition MPs. The anger in Soma was echoed in cities across Turkey as thousands of people with coal-smeared faces took to the streets, carrying placards that read: “Soma was not an accident, it was a massacre”. They called for the resignation of the energy minister, Taner Yıldız, and of Erdoğan himself.

There is anger at a generally blasé attitude to worker safety that prevails nationwide, and a strong sense that this blast in particular could have been prevented. Twitter has yet again proved itself as Erdoğan’s bête noir by facilitating the spread of several damning photographs relating to the government’s response to Soma, pre and post-blast. One of these shows an opposition minister speaking in Parliament on 29th April, brandishing a miner’s hard hat and warning of poor conditions in the mine, as two AKP ministers chat amongst themselves in the background. Another photograph, taken yesterday, shows the Prime Minister’s advisor Yusuf Yerkel (above) enthusiastically kicking a protester in Soma as he lies on the ground, already overpowered by a couple of gendarmes.

The government and its media mouthpieces have jumped into self-defense mode, and Erdoğan’s speech yesterday was typical of the belligerence that marks his response to any kind of criticism. Yesterday, he chose to recount a long list of mining disasters which have occurred abroad, stretching back to a British disaster in 1862 and lingering on accidents which have occurred in America, “which has every kind of technology”. His advisors seemed to have spent precious hours researching foreign mining history instead of coming up with a detailed course of action to assure the public of Erdoğan’s commitment to finding those both directly and indirectly responsible for the blast.
To many people, the insensitive tone of this speech and the irrelevance of much of its content needs no spelling out. However, when I spoke to an AKP supporter this morning about it, he was keen to explain the speech to me in its best possible light. Erdoğan expressed deep sorrow, he pointed out. It was quite right to remind the public of similar disasters – what fault was there in that?

The instinctively protective reaction of this AKP supporter explains, in a nutshell, why Erdoğan will survive what in most countries would be a serious PR disaster. He has survived more personally targeted attacks in the last six months, and his prickly self-defence is unlikely to fail him now, when he enjoys the fanatic support of almost half the population. He is rattled, however, and the protests yesterday had a raw anger that was missing from recent, more political protests. Soma is now the biggest mining disaster in Turkey’s history, and people want answers.

Photo via CNN Türk
This article first appeared in the Guardian’s comment pages 15th May

May 14

May Day in Istanbul


This year, the Turkish government did their best to ban May Day in Istanbul by blocking off the traditional meeting ground of Taksim Square with layers of steel barricades and 39,000 riot police in the surrounding area. Last year, Taksim was also officially out of bounds but we had hopes this year that, post-Gezi and amid public anger at increasing government authoritarianism, protesters might succeed in pushing through to the square and exercising their constitutional right to protest there. The police presence proved overwhelming, although there were clashes elsewhere with a reported 40 people hospitalised and around 200 people detained. In the capital, Ankara, there were a reported 141 arrested, and their Taksim equivalent, Kızılay, was also blocked off. The authorities were thoroughly prepared for today’s events.

Below, I have copied Amnesty International’s press release condemning the police action today.

My personal experience started with an expedition with friends across Taksim Square and Gezi Park, which involved elaborate subterfuge. Pretending to be lost tourists, we asked at first to be allowed back to our hotel in Taksim Square, and were eventually ushered past the barricades by a group of frustrated police officers who became tired of fielding our questions. One of them, a plain-clothes officer with a gun tucked casually into the waistband of his jeans, kindly posed for a photo with us and attempted to explain the concept of May Day with hand gestures.

The square was empty and completely silent, lined with row upon row of barricades, bored-looking police and one lonely TV crew reporting in front of the emptiness. For an urban nucleus which usually teams with commuters, tourists, hawkers and traffic at all times of day and night, the silent space was surreal. From there, we made our way across Gezi Park – similarly deserted, with the odd clump of police picnicking and playing cards on the grass. Exactly two years ago, the park and square were full of people marching happily along, singing the usual May Day songs, enjoying their day off work. I do not remember a single incident – I do not even remember much of a police presence (the two are, by now, related). That was back when Taksim Square was a legal place to protest.

We made our way up Cumhurriyet Caddesi, which is the road leading from Taksim to Şişli, where we knew there had been clashes recently. Encountering people wearing hard hats and gas masks walking the other way, we learned that the clashes had moved to Beşiktaş. A friend of mine in the area told me that residents were taking in protesters fleeing the gas, and that police had started going into apartments to track them down, just as they had done during Gezi.

We arrived in Beşiktaş to find a strange kind of stand-off, in which lines of riot police faced football fans and ordinary protesters and street food sellers supplied both sides with refreshment. One was selling raw rhubarb from a cart. At one point, a Fenerbahçe fan lit a flare, and a little later fans joined hands, many of them holding up scarfs on which the faces of the dead Gezi victims were printed. The whole atmosphere, however, was somehow aimless and defeated. People were there to make a point, but the sheer number of police had dampened the Gezi spirit that had seen the same area overrun with protesters last year.

While we lingered, a jaunty May Day song blared out from some unseen speakers near the CHP offices in the square, over and over again, its rabble-rousing message at odds with the inaction. Moving away from the square, we discovered signs of previous clashes – pools of red water from the canons, the occasional canister, the odd pile of stones collected into a haphazard barricade, a bank with its windows and door smashed. Lingering tear gas made everyone splutter, including police. As evening approached, we made our way back towards Taksim along the sun-dappled Dolmabahçe road, which had a vaguely holiday feel, empty of traffic save for the odd opportunistic taxi.

Today made me wonder whether anything like Gezi would ever be possible again, at least under this government. Yes, there was evidence of the same defiance and anger from the public, but the government has learned its lessons from last year – there was no way Taksim Square could have been properly accessed given the police presence and barricades. Physical boundaries like that are important, and significantly affect public morale. Taksim is an important, symbolic place of traditional protest in Istanbul, and the government know that – hence the ban. They are taking no chances, and they certainly won’t take any notice of statements of condemnation such as the one below:


1 May 2014

Turkey: Riot police in reprehensible crackdown on peaceful May Day protest

The use of tear gas and water cannon against peaceful protesters today by police in Istanbul is a reprehensible move to crack down on free expression and peaceful assembly, Amnesty International said.
Riot police sealed off the whole of central Istanbul near Taksim Square to ensure that no protesters made it to a peaceful demonstration planned there to mark May Day.

“A peaceful march this morning was cut off by a human wall of riot police blocking the main access road from Şişli into Taksim Square, the epicentre of last year’s Gezi Park protests,” said Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s Turkey expert, who witnessed the events first-hand.

“In a repeat of the abusive tactics that have sadly become the Turkish authorities’ stock response to peaceful protests, tear gas and water cannon were fired to disperse the crowd assembled there. 

“Police sealed off the entire area, with one riot police officer on the roadblock remarking: ‘No people, no problems’. The Istanbul Governor had justified the ban on the grounds that it would disrupt traffic and tourism – then sealed off the area to everyone. What should have been a lively peaceful protest in the square has been denied – one more nail in the coffin of freedom of expression and assembly in Turkey.”

After several years of peaceful large-scale May Day celebrations in Taksim taking place with the approval of the Turkish authorities, in 2013 they refused to allow demonstrations to take place and police prevented and dispersed peaceful protesters with abusive force. This year, a reported 39,000 police officers and 50 water cannon trucks were drafted in as the authorities refused to allow demonstrations to take place.

With scant warning, police today used tear gas and water cannon against a crowd of several thousand people peacefully assembled close to the DÝSK union confederation building in the Şişli district. The scene was a carbon copy of the abusive force against trade unionists in 2008, found by the European Court of Human rights to violate their right to peaceful protest in the case of Disk and Kesk vs. Turkey.

On occasions when the authorities have allowed May Day rallies to take place in Taksim Square, they have passed peacefully and without injuries or damage to property. On occasions where the authorities have refused permission for Taksim May Day rallies to take place, they have resulted in the use of abusive force by police against demonstrators, injuries and major disruption across the city. This year has proved to be no different.”

Photo above via Selin Asker for Reuters