How Turkey Tamed Its Army

Fifty years after the country's most infamous military coup, Turkey finally appears to be strenghening its democratic institutions.

On May 27, 1960, Turkish military officers arrested democratically elected Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, and members of his cabinet. Menderes was placed on a trial before a military-orchestrated special court on charges of treason, and was subsequently hanged. For the last half century, Turkey has been struggling to overcome this original sin in civil-military relations.

Finally, there are some encouraging signs that Turkey has made progress in forging a stable democratic system. Turkish militarists are increasingly the subjects of legal and societal scrutiny -- despite their best attempts to turn back the clock on Turkey's democracy.

Contrary to the views of some Turkish and Western analysts, the primary struggle within Turkey is not between Islam and secularism, but rather between a militaristic pseudo-autocracy and liberal democracy.

In June 2009, the daily newspaper Taraf courageously published what the editors said was a leaked military document that included covert operations to undermine the elected Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government and marginalize its base of support. Among the tactics was the planting of weapons in the dormitories of students sympathizing with Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen and later confiscating those weapons in order to depict the movement, which is resolutely non-violent, as a terrorist organization.

Attempting to contain the fallout from these revelations, Chief of General Staff Gen. Ilker Basbug rushed in front of the cameras and vowed the document was just a "piece of paper," setting the tone for others in Turkey's nationalist-secularist circles. To them, this could only be a fabrication of the "Islamists," who would like to discredit the military, the self-proclaimed guardian of self-styled secularism. They constantly overlooked reports submitted by top official forensic institutions in Turkey to civilian prosecutors confirming the authenticity of the document. In March, the military prosecution also concluded that the signature on the document belonged to Dursun Cicek, a colonel working for the Turkish General Staff at the time.

In January 2010 Taraf again exposed a mind-boggling story: portions of an approximately 5,000-page-long document involving an alleged military coup plan from 2003, called "Sledgehammer." The scenario described in the documents was explosive: A group of senior officers was deliberating on how to destabilize Turkey to pave the way for a military takeover. Their creative ideas included the deliberate downing of a Turkish fighter jet to escalate tension with Greece and bombing two major Istanbul mosques to provoke social unrest. Consequently, dozens of active duty and retired military officers, among them generals, have been arrested by a civilian court.

The initial reaction of the militarist camp was familiar: denial, cover-up, and accusations of a vast conspiracy by Gulen's supposed sympathizers in the military, the police and the judiciary.

All this points to an unprecedented revolution in Turkish politics. This is the first time in modern Turkish history that the military's lack of accountability is being challenged in such a high-profile way. The generals have accomplished at least four direct military interventions in Turkey over the last five decades and always got away with them. Not this time.

The spirit of Turkey's new reformist trend is best exemplified by a landmark trial and investigation into Ergenekon, an agglomeration of many different groups comprising scores of military officers and militarist civilians dedicated to preserving the crumbling Cold War-era regime in Turkey. According to prosecutors, Ergenekon suspects laid the groundwork for a military takeover by employing vicious tactics, including political assassinations, terrorist bombings, and propaganda directed by the friendly media at the Turkish public.

The Ergenekon investigators had previously discovered the documents, which they say bear the signature of Colonel Cicek, even before they were made public by Taraf. Seized maps led police to the sites of secret stockpiles of military-owned weapons buried underground. The documents also revealed the purpose of such weapons. According to an operation called "the Cage plan," undersigned by numerous military officers, they would clandestinely harass and kill non-Muslim figures in Turkey in order to put the blame on the ruling AK Party.

The militarist lobby has highlighted some of the problems of the Ergenekon investigation, such as early-morning police raids of the suspects and poor wording in the initial indictments. Overall, however, the prosecution's case seems very strong. It is supported by court-ordered telephone wiretaps, seized documents, a large amount of explosives and weapons, detailed assassination plans, and military records. In a country where the military has repeatedly intervened in political affairs, such a conspiracy is not inconceivable.

Encouragingly, the Turkish public has also shown considerable support for the case. Nearly 60 percent of respondents to a recent MetroPOLL survey, conducted in March 2010, expressed support for the detention and arrest of military suspects associated with the alleged 2003 coup plan. A major exception, not surprisingly, are members of Turkey's old guard. In the same poll, nearly 70 percent of Republican People's Party (CHP) voters, a favorite party of the old establishment, disagreed with the indictments.

In the eyes of many CHP voters, the secular state is being weakened under the guise of democratization to lay the groundwork for a theocracy. But though Turkey is a nation of faith, just like the United States, the country has little or no appetite for radicalism or theocracy, even among the most religiously conservative segments of society. On the contrary, major religious conservative elements such as the AK Party and the Gulen movement are openly pushing for more democracy in Turkey. Under AK Party rule, Turkey has met the Copenhagen political criteria, which determine if a country is eligible to join the European Union, and subsequently began accession talks with the EU in 2005. The Gulen movement sponsors its annual Abant Platform series of talks, where a diverse group of intellectuals and public officials discuss how to improve the country's democracy. They are not without fault, but militarists treat almost every influential pious group as Islamists with a hidden agenda.

The faith-based civic movement inspired by Gulen has attracted the most attention. The 69-year-old Gulen, who now lives in the United States and rarely appears in public, advocates a contemporary interpretation of Turkish Sufi tradition, compatible with modernity and science. Having started as a small community in the late 1960s, it has over time been transformed into a large, loosely knit movement with a formidable presence in many key areas of Turkey's public sphere. But as with any other successful independent movement, the militarists see it as a threat to their narrow vision of Turkey.

Reformist liberals such as Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's Nobel laureate in literature, also has been subjected to their share of smear campaigns from the same crowd. Pamuk has publicly said that Ergenekon intimidated and threatened to kill him. It's no surprise that Kemal Kerincsiz, an ultranationalist lawyer who spearheaded legal efforts to curtail Pamuk's right to free speech, has been indicted as an Ergenekon suspect.

The militarist lobby presents the Ergenekon case as a political campaign to silence secularist opposition to the AK Party government and its supporters. But while there have been signs in government circles of increasing discomfort with criticism on the eve of upcoming 2011 general elections, political opposition is largely alive and well in Turkey. Hundreds of secularist, nationalist, and liberal pundits freely criticize the government every day.

What we see occurring in Turkey today is a process of democratization, spurred by growing civilian control over the military. However, due to problems deriving from the country's illiberal constitution, which is a product of a 1980 military coup, progress has not always been smooth. Critics have charged that the Ergenekon investigation has proceeded for a long time without delivering convictions. This is a common and regrettable feature of Turkey's judicial system: Proceedings that started in 1982 against Dev-Sol, an alleged left-wing extremist organization, took 28 years before 39 individuals were finally convicted. The solution is a comprehensive constitutional reform that includes the judiciary. Such a step would not only improve the role of law, but strengthen Turkey's case for European Union accession by harmonizing the country's judicial process with European standards.

The principles of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk loomed large in the minds of the young officers who spearheaded the 1960 coup, and Turkey's military class continues to justify its stance in the name of Turkey's founding father. But Ataturk was essentially a pragmatic reformer whose main goals were modernization and integration with the West. The static, statist, and militarist instincts of Turkey's old guard have only slowed progress toward these objectives. The notion of the "untouchable state" preserved by the military and their comrades has changed dramatically in the last several years, but much work still remains to be done. Despite the objections of his self-declared defenders, Ataturk would be proud.



Why the Vietnamese Don't Want to Go to Rehab

Drug treatment in Southeast Asia is brutal, exploitative, and practically worthless.

This month, nearly 600 drug addicts broke out of a rehabilitation center in the northern Vietnamese city of Haiphong. The addicts overpowered guards at the state-run treatment facility and made a break for it. "We were completely overwhelmed," a security guard told the Associated Press. "Forty of us were not able to prevent them, many with canes and bricks, from escaping." Videos on the Internet show crowds of escapees marching through city streets.

Why were hundreds of patients fleeing treatment? Because in Vietnam, "treatment" looks a lot more like forced labor, complete with beatings and years of involuntary detention. Like neighboring Cambodia, China, Laos, Malaysia, and Thailand, the government of Vietnam has adopted a "get-tough" approach to drug treatment rather than evidence-based treatment. In Vietnam, more than 100 government-run facilities detain between 35,000 to 45,000 people for extrajudicial sentences of up to four years.

Vietnamese in these treatment centers are engaged in what the government calls "therapeutic labor": long hours at menial jobs for below-market wages -- whatever's left, that is, after the centers deduct for the cost of their meager food and Spartan lodging. Those who fail to meet work quotas are beaten. Patients who violate center rules can be locked in solitary confinement. "[T]hey beat people up, kicked the face, kicked the chest," a former resident of a rehab center near Hanoi told the BBC in 2008. "Later, people were made to work very hard. They said work to forget the addiction, work is therapeutic."

Opium cultivation and smoking are not new phenomena in Vietnam. But with economic liberalization and increased migration since the 1980s has come greater economic polarization and drug abuse. It is estimated that there are more than 100,000 injecting drug users in the country today, and nearly one in three is HIV infected.

Drug treatment hasn't kept pace with increasing abuse, and aside from some small-scale programs, allowed by the government but largely funded by other donors, effective treatment is virtually nonexistent. Instead, the government emphasizes compulsory, institutionalized treatment that isn't just inhumane, but also next to useless. Government reports have said that 70 to 80 percent of those who spend time in a center return to drug use. Other estimates put the rate closer to 90 percent -- and when drug users do relapse, they have no place to go, especially not to a compulsory "treatment" center. According to a study published this spring in the Journal of Urban Health, drug users in Vietnam who have been in rehab centers are more likely to be infected with hepatitis C than those who have not. Another study found that detention and fear of police led to greater risk of HIV infection among Vietnamese users.

In fact, Haiphong's escapees probably stand a better chance on the outside, if they can stay there: The city is one of three in Vietnam that is piloting the use of methadone to manage opiate addiction, the preferred approach in most developed countries. Indeed, trials of methadone maintenance therapy were already successfully conducted in Hanoi in the mid-1990s. So why not increase the number of slots in the Haiphong methadone clinic and offer the escapees voluntary enrollment? The U.S. government could help ensure that those who escaped can access services by redirecting its funding, which currently goes to HIV-treatment programs inside these abusive centers (though not the centers themselves), to programs based in the community.

Indeed, were Haiphong to expand access to the community-based drug treatment services it already offers and add counseling, employment prospects, and housing assistance, the city could become a model of humane and sustainable treatment. Those who were only occasional drug users -- and who don't need drug addiction treatment in the first place -- are more likely to find meaningful work and social support networks in the community to avoid becoming addicted. Serious addicts and casual users alike are likely to find better HIV prevention programs and services in the community.

Drug rehabilitation should provide drug users with a chance to regain control of their lives, repair broken relationships, and overcome destructive addictions. Rehab in Vietnam ruptures the lives of drug users, severs social support, and pretty much guarantees a return to drug use after years of abuse. No wonder drug users are escaping.