Thursday, 13 June 2013


The peaceful good humoured protests in Taksim Square (in Istanbul) ended amid violent scenes as riot police cleared the square with a combination of tear gas, water cannon and brute force. What began as initially a demonstration by environmentalists in protest at the development (a planned shopping mall) of Gezi Park has turned into something far larger and more significant a fight by a coalition of pretty disparate groups for greater freedom in Turkey and a preservation of the country's secular order.

The protestors see an authoritarian a government with neo-Islamist agenda with the highest number of journalists in the world in prison, restrictions on alcohol sales, and massive construction projects which have prioritised over human rights and environmental concerns. The protests show no sign of fading away yet, as demonstrators have regrouped in nearby Gezi Park, the proposed redevelopment of which sparked peaceful protests which have widened into nationwide anti-government unrest.

Taskin Square and Gezi Park
The unrest began back on May 28th as a protest about the plan to demolish of one of Istanbul's few remaining green spaces took place. Gezi Park is part of Taksim Square, which sits in the heart of the modern city. It has long been  a place of hugely symbolic value to many Istanbul residents and those Turks with more secular leanings. The proposed development aims to build a replica Ottoman-era barracks and a mosque on the square, in a city which critics say is pretty well-served by Islamic houses of prayer.

The Ottoman-era military barracks will be rebuilt near the site, and the historic Ataturk Cultural Centre will be demolished. Turkish critics say the decision to go ahead with the redevelopment was made too fast and without proper public and media debate. They also have questions relating to the choice of developer, in this case the Kalyon Group, a company who have close ties with the governing Justice and Development (AK) Party.

The proposed reconstruction of the barracks may have some other symbolic significance as some suggest that it was at these barracks that a failed mutiny by Islamic-minded soldiers with the intention of bringing in Sharia law took place in 1909. The barracks were demolished back in 1940, and the attempt to rebuild them are seen by opponents to have the ring of Islamism. Tempers were already high after police stopped leftist marchers holding a May Day rally on the square this year.

So for the best part of two weeks, the central square in Turkey's biggest city was under the authority of a growing protest movement. The Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told parliament (on Tuesday) that the protest movement was an international conspiracy against Turkey to destabilise its economy. He has lashed out at the foreign press for launching attacks on the country and warned protesters that they were pawns in a wider game – something that will go down well with his supporters rather than being remotely close to the truth.

Turkey is a democracy and while the protest movement has grabbed the headlines around the world, Mr Erdogan's support base is conservative, more religious and better organised than the democratic opposition which is deeply divided. The Turkish PM has won three general elections, he has hugely increased Turkey's international prestige, opened the country's EU accession talks and launched a peace process with the Kurdish minority.

The demonstrators accuse (and not necessarily inaccurately) the Prime Minister of becoming increasingly authoritarian and trying to impose conservative Islamic values on a secular state. Whatever happens from here on in there is a sizeable percentage of the population who feel deeply alienated from the current Turkish  government (something that won’t be helped by the volatile threats being made by the Turkish PM) and they won’t be put off from protesting by clouds of tear gas and baton rounds.

In Turkey and elsewhere in the world the questioned of democracy, planning and balanced development remains a contested issue. Whether we are talking building on a park, increasing the size of proposed housing developments, on shore wind farm development or building on agricultural land (Wales effectively has no green belt) the question remains just exactly who is it for? who will benefit? And how does the local community in Caernarfon, Cardiff, Carmarthen or Cwmbran or Istanbul actually benefit?

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