Protests in Turkey, the military & the elite: How it compares to Thailand – Part 1
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Protests in Turkey, the military & the elite: How it compares to Thailand – Part 1

First, this is not meant to be a summary of the large scale protests against the current Turkish government. It is beyond the scope of this blog for such a summary. The post is deals with similarities and contrasts between the situation in Turkey to what is/has been happening in Thailand.

At first glance, the Turkish political scene with a secular elite vs a moderate Islamist government does not appear to be related to Thailand, but if you dig deeper you can find a number of comparisons (although still many differences). Well-known Thai academic Duncan McCargo and Cambridge academic (currently at CFR) Ayse Zarakol last year had an article published entitled “Turkey and Thailand: Unlikely Twins” which was published in Journal of Democracy (v. 23 no. 3, pp. 71- 79). A full copy of the article is available from here.  They have summarized some of the similarities between Thailand and Turkey:

Thailand and Turkey have a lot in common. Both countries celebrate their avoidance of formal colonization by adopting Westernizing adjustments overseen by “modernizing” rulers in the 19th century. Both have followed similar state-led economic development trajectories in the 20th century, only to liberalize after the 1980s. Both are known for military interventions in the electoral process. Both are highly nationalistic and devoted to national myths of development centred around revered figures.

Both Thailand and Turkey welcomed in the last decade popular elected leaders – Thaksin Shinawatra and Tayyip Erdogan – who succeeded in displacing the dominance of the military and undermining the political myths that have shaped the nation for decades. In both countries, the traditional elite, convinced that its values lie at the core of the nation’s identity, has found itself challenged by a newly enfranchised electorate.

BP: There has not been a successful coup against the Turkish government so the timing is quite different. As a crude placing of timing, Turkey seems to be where Thailand was back in 2006. Having said that, it is not as easy to compare the current anti-government protesters on the streets with the PAD. Also, arrests by the current Turkish government have weakened.

Second, brief Turkish history lesson by way of Josh Marshall of TPM:

After World War I, for roughly eighty years, Turkey lived under various permutations of the Kemalist Republic. This was a western-oriented, nationalist and above all else secular republic. It was also democratic, after a fashion. The military played what might be called a custodial role in the country’s politics – allowing elections and democratic politics as long as things operated within pretty clear red lines. The military pressured and even overthrew civilian governments on multiple occasions. They even hanged a Prime Minister after a coup in 1960.

This status quo left many tensions unresolved, to put it mildly, one of the key ones being the role of Islam. The Turkish elite and military (heavily overlapping) was resolutely secular. But this was not so clearly true of the population at large, or at least not large segments of it. The country had its first elected Islamist Prime Minister in the 90s who was pushed aside in what might be termed a very soft military coup. No death or arrests. Just, he was out.

This left even more bare and perhaps unsustainable a basic contradiction that has always been at the heart of post-Ottoman Turkey: It’s secularism was simply not compatible with its full pretensions to democracy or republican rule.

BP: See this Wikipedia article on secularism in Turkey for more details about reform and negation of the Islamic caliphate.

On the comparison between Thailand and Turkey, from the  McCargo and Zarakol article mentioned above (page 72):

Moreover, despite the absence of formal colonization, both the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Siam had experiences with European intrusion that might fairly be called highly traumatic.

As a result, in both countries there emerged, first within the monarchy and then within the newly Westernized military-bureaucratic establishment, a reformist outlook that doggedly equated independence with state-led modernization and national cohesion

The important point is that in both cases the lesson drawn from history and applied throughout most of the twentieth century was the same: The modernization and economic development required to protect “the nation” had to be carried out under the careful guidance of an enlightened central power, which in Turkey meant the military and in Thailand meant the military plus the monarchy.

BP: Start to sound familiar yet?

Third, who is the Turkish government, and what have been its policies. According to Wikipedia, Prime Minister Erdogan was formerly the mayor of Istanbul (“many feared that he would impose Islamic law; however, he was pragmatic in office, tackling such chronic problems in Istanbul as water shortage, pollution and traffic chaos”), but lost office as he was jailed for less than one year in 1998 for threatening the laicistic order (i.e secularism) in Turkey for reciting a poem. He then formed his own party,  the Justice and Development Party (AK or AKP) in 2001 which won elections in 2002 with a majority (Erdogan had to wait for a constitutional amendment before he could become PM as his previous conviction made him illegible).

BP: The poem is very, very mundane….

On the AKP platform, The Guardian:

In 2001, after the Welfare party was banned, Erdogan helped found the AKP on a platform of jobs, better services and fairness for Turkey’s urban and rural masses.

BP: Formed his own party and won at the next general election? A bit like Thaksin. BP should note that Erdogan was not the only founder of the party and it did include other experienced politicians including the current President and you can’t overlook the Islamic link to the party (the party downplays this).

On economics, the current government has reduced public debt as % of GDP from 74% to 36% since 2002.

BP: You could say the same for Thaksin although under Yingluck we are likely to see an increase in public debt from the low 40s to up until 50% before the next election , but then again public debt did increase under Abhisit too.

The Economist:

A decade of AK rule has brought unprecedented prosperity. Per-capita income has trebled, exports have increased nearly tenfold and Turkish banks are in good health

Jeffrey Sachs in The Guardian:

Yet Turkey has made remarkable strides in the midst of regional upheavals. After a sharp downturn in 1999-2001, the economy grew by 5% a year on average from 2002 to 2012 [BP: When Edrogan was PM]. It has remained at peace, despite regional wars. Its banks avoided the boom-bust cycle of the past decade, having learned from the banking collapse in 2000-2001. Inequality has been falling.

Indeed, Turkey lacks its neighbours’ oil and gas resources, but it compensates for this with the competitiveness of its industry and services. Tourism alone attracted more than 36 million visitors in 2012, making Turkey one of the world’s top destinations.

So, how did Turkey do it? Most important, the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his economics team, led by the deputy prime minister, Ali Babacan, have stuck to basics and looked to the long term. Erdoğan came to power in 2003, after years of short-term instability and banking crises.

Having said that Spengler/David Goldman is much more negative on the economic situation:

Turkey’s high-flying economy, which expanded at a 10 percent annual rate of gross domestic product growth during the first half of 2011,[1] will crash-land in 2012. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s “economic miracle,” to use the Daily Telegraph’s admiring words,[2] depended on a 40 percent annual rate of bank credit expansion, which in turn produced a balance of payments deficit as wide as that of southern Europe’s crisis countries. Markets have already anticipated a sudden turnaround in the Turkish economy. The Turkish lira (TRY) fell by a quarter between November 2010 and September 2011, making it the world’s worst performing emerging market currency.[3] The stock market has fallen in dollar terms by 40 percent, making Turkey the worst performer after Egypt among all the markets in the MSCI Tradable Index during 2011.

The Economist in 2012:

But Turkey’s rapid recent growth comes with side-effects that have left its economy vulnerable. One concern is inflation, which was 10.4% in March—well above the central bank’s target and the inflation rates of most of Turkey’s emerging-market peers. A bigger concern is Turkey’s growing dependence on foreign capital to fuel its economy: its current-account deficit averaged 10% of GDP last year (see chart 2). Turkey’s deficit measured in dollars is second only to America’s.

Yet for all its undoubted strengths, Turkey’s dependence on external financing leaves it prone to volatile cycles governed by the greed and fear of foreigners

BP: Now, when things are politically stable, the high current account deficit may not be such a problem, but as Thailand found after 1997 money can quickly flee the country when problems arise… Having said that The Economist article also notes, “A recent research paper by Dani Rodrik of Harvard University showed that Turkey’s productivity record improved markedly in the decade after 2000.”

On poverty, the World Bank:

Poverty based on the updated methodology declined from 28.3 percent to 27 percent from 1994 to 2002

The conclusion that stems from this analysis is therefore that growth between 1994 and 2002 was not sufficiently strong to produce any sizable reduction in poverty, and the impact of the little growth there was, was dampened by an increase in inequality.

BP: Since 2002, under Erdogran, poverty was reduced to 18.1% by 2009. Hence, you see the contrast with similar time period under previous governments.

Like with Thaksin, under Erdogan in Turkey, we had falling public debt, better GDP growth, and reduced levels of poverty. Look at his Wikipedia page for more on the economy. BP can’t comment on specific Turkish economic policies, but even though things have stalled economically recently, given the problems of Greece and many other countries in its neighborhood, Turkey has done comparatively well so is not surprising why he has been popular up until now. Actually, the economic progress is arguably better than in Thailand….

On Freedom of speech/press, Turkey has a fairly dismal record in general. See the history:

When the Democratic Party under Adnan Menderes came to power in 1950, censorship entered a new phase….

Freedom of speech was heavily restricted after the 1980 military coup headed by General Kenan Evren. Today, broaching the topics of secularism, minority rights (in particular the Kurdish issue), and the role of the military in politics risks reprisal.[5][5]

Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Law (Law 3713), slightly amended in 1995 and later repealed,[6] imposed three-year prison sentences for “separatist propaganda.” Despite its name, the Anti-Terror Law punished many non-violent offences.[5] ]

Article 312 of the criminal code imposes three-year prison sentences for incitement to commit an offence and incitement to religious or racial hatred…In 2000 the chairman of the Human Rights Association, Akin Birdal, was imprisoned under Article 312 for a speech in which he called for “peace and understanding” between Kurds and Turks,[5] and thereafter forced to resign, as the Law on Associations forbids persons who breach this and several other laws from serving as association officials.[5]

BP: This makes it hard to compare with Thailand and one could see things were freer in Thailand in 2001, although pre-1980 one could hardly say things were free. Note the “Kurds” issue which will become more relevant.

Atatürk, the founder of Turkey and also founder of the main opposition party, is seen as being unique and there is a special law that makes it a criminal offence to insult his memory:

In 1951, the Turkish Parliament issued a law (5816) outlawing insults to his memory (Turkish: Hatırası) or destruction of objects representing him.[166] The demarcation between a criticism and an insult was defined as a political argument and the Minister of Justice (a political position) was assigned in Article 5 to execute the law rather than the public prosecutor. A government website was created to denounce the websites that violate this law.[167]

In 2007, YouTube, Geocities and several blogger webpages were blocked by a Turkish court due to the violation of this law.[168] The YouTube ban in the country lasted for 30 months, in retaliation for four videos on Atatürk.

BP: Insults directed at the father of the nation being against the law? YouTube being blocked? Sounds familiar…

To give an example of use of the law, International Policy network:

This is the law being used to prosecute Atilla Yayla, Professor of Political Philosophy at Gazi University in Ankara. In a debate in November 2006, Yayla questioned the Kemalist ideology, saying the basic foundations of civilization include private property rights, accountable government and freedom of expression. He called for Turkey to re-evaluate its past by these standards, asking whether its first republican period of 1925-1945 was as progressive as official propaganda claims.

BP: In the end, he only got a suspended sentence. Need one even mention a similarity with Thailand? You can see there is a difference in that we are getting suspended sentences in Turkey and a closer link between Atatürk who was the founder of the main opposition party than the situation in Thailand. Nevertheless, some of the parallels are rather interesting.

Reporters Without Borders’ summary is interesting though:

With a total of 72 media personnel currently detained, of whom at least 42 journalists and four media assistants are being held in connection with their media work, Turkey is now the world’s biggest prison for journalists – a sad paradox for a country that portrays itself a regional democratic model,” Reporters Without Borders said.

“The number of detained journalists is unprecedented since the end of military rule but is not surprising given the Turkish judicial system’s structural problems – very repressive legislation with broad and vaguely-worded provisions that allow all kinds of excesses, and markedly paranoid judicial attitudes that prioritize security concerns to the detriment of defence rights and freedom of information.

“Most of the imprisoned journalists are representatives of Kurdish media, a situation that again underscores the fact that freedom of information in Turkey is inextricably linked with the search for a peaceful solution to the issue of its Kurdish minority.


About 30 percent of journalists jailed in August 2012 were accused of taking part in anti-government plots or being members of outlawed political groups. Several have been linked to the alleged Ergenekon conspiracy, which prosecutors have described as a vast plot aimed at overthrowing the government through a military coup. According to the government’s theory, journalists were using news coverage to create the kind of societal chaos conducive to a coup.

Two prominent investigative reporters, Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener, were charged with aiding the Ergenekon plot and were jailed for more than a year before being released pending completion of their trials. The government alleged that Şık, with Şener’s assistance, was writing a book to further the goals of the Ergenekon plot. Şık was indeed writing a book about a sensitive topic—the spreading influence of the Islamic Fethullah Gülen movement. Şener said he was not assisting Şık but that he had drawn the government’s ire with his book outlining the authorities’ failures in solving the 2007 murder of editor Hrant Dink. CPJ’s review determined that the charges against Şık and Şener were based on the journalists’ professional work.

BP:  Will blog more specifically about the Ergenekon plot later, but as you can see RSF and CPJ are basically in agreement, there are around 70 odd journalists in jail with 30% of them being anti-government and the other 70% being Kurds. The relevance of this per a long RSF report from 2011:

Turkey is going through major changes, with the nationalist, military and secular ideas decreed nearly a century ago by Kemal Atatürk starting to crumble before a very active and diverse civil society. The role of the armed forces in public life is much smaller. Other political forces, including an islamist movement that is socially conservative but institutionally reformist, have moved to the fore. Long-taboo subjects, such as the place of the armed forces, national minorities, social battles and recent Turkish history, are starting to be discussed. Democracy and media freedom have progressed considerably over the past decade.

But some institutions, notably the legal system, are having trouble dropping their repressive reflexes inherited from the time, not so long ago, when the army was a major force in state institutions, and a fierce power struggle is raging around this big social change.

BP: You can see this from RSF noting that most of the imprisoned journalists are Kurds. The current government is purusing a peace deal with the Kurds (the PKK militia last month withdrew forces) and such negotiations with the Kurds is against the core national ideology, which the establishment is a stronger advocate of and the main opposition party is against. Hence, the jailing of Kurds is not really the government going after it opponents as such (see the part about “clash of cultures/Traditional Establishment” in latter post for a better explanation).

On the 30% anti-government and other actions by the Erdogan government, the PM introduced new legislation restricting speech with a new law making it a punishable offense to insult Turkishness (in 2008 changed to insulating “the Turkish nation” and an amendment which makes it obligatory to get the approval of the minister of justice before filing a case). Aside from the CPJ excerpt above, we have the below from Time:

The main government-critical news group, Dogan, was slapped with 4.8 billion lira ($3.05 billion) in tax fines in 2009 after a row with the government over corruption allegations involving members of Erdogan’s party. “Young reporters are now intimidated to ask certain questions of the Prime Minister and some ministers,” wrote Murat Yetkin, a veteran Ankara commentator for the Radikalnewspaper. Reporters worry that they might lose their press card or be banned from further meetings. Erdogan has personally sued dozens of cartoonists and journalists for defamation.

BP: So in essence the broadcast media have been cowered into submission which has become more relevant during the current protests with many protesters upset because of little TV coverage of the protests.

Zeynep Tufekci, who is a fellow at Princeton, blogs:

There has also been great pressure on media to self-censure (to be honest, most Turkish mainstream media is not lining up for press courage awards, either, so most have been compliant and cowardly to the degree that CNN Turkey was showing cooking shows while CNN international was showing the protests in Turkey as a major news story yesterday).

Then [BP: after the crackdown had started], the incompetent and cowardly media coverage started acting as usual–which meant a general blackout of crucial news. This, too, is not unprecedented. Many major news events, recently, have been broken on Twitter including the accidental bombing of Kurdish smugglers in Roboski (Uludere in Turkish) which killed 34 civilians, including many minors.  That story was denied and ignored by mainstream TV channels while the journalists knew something had happened. Finally, one of them, Serdar Akinan, was unable to suppress his own journalist instincts and bought his own plane ticket and ran to the region. His poignant photos of mass lines of coffins, published on Twitter, broke the story and created the biggest political crisis for the government. Serdar, unfortunately, got fired from his job as a journalist.


Two minor opposition channels have broadcast the protests extensively. “No television channel is broadcasting what’s happening here except Halk TV and Ulusal TV,” Cansu Kelesoglu, a 24-year-old protester, said in Taksim Square on June 1, when tens of thousands gathered as police withdrew. “We are mostly following the incidents through Twitter.”

Many of the media bosses fund their broadcast and print operations with other businesses in fields including energy, banking and mining.

BP: So hence the self-censorship lest their other interests are also affected… Nevertheless, BBC Monitoring, shows the print media are more forthright in their criticism, both Islamist and secular papers, summarizing (with plenty of excerpts in the article) “[m]ost of the newspapers in Turkey are of the opinion that the protests over the redevelopment of Gezi Park in Istanbul have been mishandled by the police and the government, in particular Prime Minister Recap Tayyip Erdogan”.

Back in 2006 in Thailand you had self-censorship and Thaksin going after journalists as well. Having said that BP is of the view that the situation in Turkey is worse in terms of the number of journalists being jailed and the large fine together with the government going after is critics. Then again, lese majeste is a bigger problem in Thailand due to the severity of the punishment. There are broad comparisons between Erdogan going after his critics just like Thaksin did, but as we saw after the coup removing Thaksin didn’t mean we suddenly have freedom of speech/media….

In subsequent posts will look at the traditional establishment in Turkey, the s0-called deep state, the divide between supporters of the establishment and supporters of the government, and also the opposition/current protest movement demands and so additional comments on the government.