The 1980 junta on trial: Facts and myths

The 1980 junta on trial: Facts and myths

Turkey experienced four “military interventions” into democratic politics in the past half-century. The coup launched on the morning of Sept. 12, 1980, however, stood out as the most brutal one. The junta formed by the very top generals stayed in power for three years, and inflicted a reign of terror on hundreds of thousands of citizens. The military regime arrested all politicians and activists from all camps, including my own father, whom I saw behind barbed wire in Mamak, a Dachau-like prison camp, while I was 8.

The number of detainees in such military prisons amounted to a staggering 600,000 people in total. Thousands were subjected to brutal torture, during which 175 died, and many others were left disabled. Fifty people were sent to the gallows.

The generals argued that they had launched the coup to “end the era of anarchy and terror” that beset Turkey in the late 1970s as a result of armed clashes between Marxist and nationalist militants. That was not untrue, but the terror the junta unleashed proved to be far greater. Besides, it sowed the seeds of future violence. The Kurdish inmates, who suffered the worst forms of torture in the infamous military prison in Diyarbakır, craved revenge after their release, and some of them, under the banner of the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), launched a terrorist campaign that would hit Turkey in the decades to come.

That is why I have always hated the 1980 coup, along with the other three, and considered them as the occupation of Turkey by a hostile military – a military which, ironically, waved the Turkish flag.
And that is also why I am very happy these days to see that the living masters of the 1980 coup, Gen. Kenan Evren, 94, and Gen. Tahsin Şahinkaya, 86, are finally put on trial – thanks to the constitutional amendments of 2010. It is not about seeing these two old men in prison, but seeing that they will finally be convicted for their crimes.

However, having said all that, let me also add that I do not agree with the popular conspiracy theory about the 1980 coup, which has made its way into the indictment against Evren and Şahinkaya as well: That the generals “nurtured” the coup in the late 1970s through “provocations” that heightened the tension between Marxists and the nationalists.

It is conceivable that the Turkish military’s covert hands (a.k.a. “the deep state”) had some role in the chaos of the late 1970s, but this can be well explained as a part of the “anti-communist” mission of the military, which was then its main concern. To extrapolate this into a larger conspiracy, and to think that the military orchestrated every case of violence for a predetermined cause, I think, is delusional.

This delusion not only turns history into a spy novel, but it also blinds us to the real problems in our society: If we think that the military is the only source of our troubles, we lose sight of all the fanaticism, dogmatism and prejudice that is prevalent within our communities.

In other words, Turks are not a nation of Smurfs that would have lived happily had there not been the evils of Gargamels in uniform. The Turkish military has certainly been a huge threat to our democracy, our rights, and sometimes even our very lives. But neither its authoritarianism nor its arrogance is an isolated problem: They reflects deep-seated troubles in our very political culture.

So, let’s indeed try the 1980 coup. But let’s also look in the mirror and see how Turkey was drawn into the near-civil war of the late 1970s. For some of the zealots that haunted Turkey then are still alive and kicking today.