Tomorrow a referendum

The Kurds are a nation that has never been allowed to come into existence.

The landlocked homeland where thirty million or so of them live is divided between Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria.  They hoped that, like other peoples, they would have “self-determination” after World War One and the breakup of the Ottoman empire; it never happened.

As you may know, horrifically oppressed like others under Saddam Hussein, they gained after his fall de facto autonomy – in the fraction of their homeland that is northern Iraq.  There they set up a democratic state that has had its lapses but is on the whole a beacon of hope for the region.  They have been the most effective in stopping and then rolling back ISIS.

This Kurdish state and the government which barely controls the rest of Iraq have been trying to discuss a future that would fairly preserve Kurdish autonomy.  The Iraqi government is a sectarian travesty, the Kurds have realized that the negotiations are hopeless.

Tomorrow, Monday, they will hold a referendum with the question: “Do you want the Kurdistan region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region’s administration to become an independent state?”  To say it’s non-binding is an under-statement: it will be a sounding of opinion, with no immediate practical consequence.

Yet it is stridently, even ferociously, opposed by not only the Iraqi government, Iran, Turkey, the Arab League, but the US, the UK, France, and the European Union.  The Iraqi government threatens military action if the referendum goes ahead, Iran masses troops on the border, the other powers say “Don’t do it.”

Well, what do you think about it?

I append now a bit of history that I stuck at the beginning of my rather crude human-rights picture book, Think Like a Mother.  My list of the Kurds’ attempts to be free was compiled in 1995 and I won’t try to bring it up to date.  For the Kurds, it’s always more of the same.


… They are the world’s largest community that has not attained some form of self-rule.  It’s not for want of trying:

…the Baban revolt against the Ottoman empire (1806-08), the uprisings of 1815, the revolt of the Bilbas in 1818, Mir Mohammed’s revolt (1832-36), various revolts crushed in 1837, the revolt of Bedir Khan Bey (1843-47), the revolt of Yezdan Sher (1855), the revolt of Sheikh Obeidullah (1880), the revolts of Sheikh Mahmoud against the British in 1919-20 and 1923, the 1925 revolt and its horrific repression, the Mount Ararat revolt of the Hoyboun league (1930), the revolt of Simko against Iran (1920-30), the revolt of Jafar Sultan against Iran (1931), the revolt of Sheikh Mahmoud and then of Ahmed Barzani against the British (1931), the revolt of the Barzanis (1933), the revolt of the Kurds of Dersim (1936-38), the revolt of Mustafa Barzani (1943-45), the crushing of the Kurdish Mahabad republic and hanging of its leaders (1946-47), the revolt of the Kurds of Juanroj (1956), the revolt of Mustafa Barzani (1960), the revolts in Iraq of 1961-64 and 1965-66, the Kurdish peasants’ revolt in Iran (1967-68), the Iraqi attempts to crush the Kurds by war (1969-70) and assassinations (1970-74), the war in Iraq (1974-75), the renewed war in Iraq (1976-78), the war of Iran on its Kurds in 1979, the uprising against Saddam Husein after the Gulf War of 1991…

In August 1983, eight thousand male Kurds of the Barzani clan “disappeared.”  Iraqi authorities did not admit to arresting or killing them, but President Saddam Husein remarked in a speech: “All those people were severely punished and went to Hell.”  Throughout the summer of 1988 the Iraqis carried out a huge extermination, obliterating more than four thousand villages (down to scraping graveyards and filling wells with concrete) and ousting about a million people, thousands of whom were transported to the large pits in which they were to be shot and buried.  An Iraqi aim has been to depopulate (of Kurds) a broad zone along the Iranian border, and to move a large proportion of Kurds to distant areas on the other side of Iraq where they will lose their identity.  At present the Kurds of northern Iraq are precariously protected from Iraqi fury by a United Nations no-fly zone, and have held elections of their own.

Turkey–which had already (from 1894 on and especially in 1915) stamped out its other great pre-Turkish minority, the Armenians–long denied the existence of its twelve million Kurds, calling them “Mountain Turks,” and forbidding use of Kurdish language, names, or music.  Turkey is now launching all-out war in its southeastern provinces, using 220,000 troops, plus warplanes and helicopter gunships made in the U.S., against 20,000 guerrillas of the Kurdish Workers Party.  Both sides use brutal methods, burning villages and expelling the villagers either to deny refuge to the guerrillas, or for consenting to join the government-organized “village guards”; by March 1994, 874 villages had been burned and a million people forced out. …

Kurds dying before an Iranian firing squad, 1979.

9 thoughts on “Tomorrow a referendum”

  1. I think every group of people has a right to self-determination. Unfortunately, since World War I, victorious powers have hypocritically promoted the idea of self-determination of favored groups and denied it to people on the “losing” side or any other group that wasn’t on the correct side of the victorious narrative. Many of the Balkan people and central Europeans were allowed referenda to determine their national affiliation after 1918 whereas Austrians were either denied a plebiscite or the two regional ones that were held were ignored by the Allies. Self-determination of peoples likewise did not apply to German minorities in several other neighboring countries of which they suddenly found themselves citizens. The seeds of future war were planted, in part, as a result of that hypocrisy. And now, today, Catalans are demanding the right to vote on their future but being placed under increasing pressure from the Spanish central government to abandon the vote. The reaction of the higher order governing body always seems to the same, namely to obstruct and oppose the will of people for self-determination, witness the reaction of European authorities to the Brexit vote in England. Self-determination for all, whether an ethnic group or citizens of a sovereign country, should be the ideal.

    1. Some separatisms are justified, others are not. I don’t think of the Brexit referendum as in the least similar to the Kurds’ referendum – or to the desperate wish of, for instance, Tibetans, Uighurs, and southern Mongolians to be out from under the empire that colonizes, tyrannizes and exploits them. Britain benefited in manifold ways from the EU, contributed to a greater good by belonging to it, and was an equal partner among the component states; by contrast the Kurds have been brutally oppressed by the states that enclose them. A principle is that peoples who wish to rule themselves should be able to do so; but it may be overridden by the principle of not doing net harm to the broader world. Thus the Northern League (“for the Independence of Padania”) would like to break off the more industrialized northern part of Italy from the south which it considers it is subsidizing. Without being really familiar with this case, I would think that all countries are liable to have more and less prosperous parts, and that declining to share wealth with the less lucky is like hoarding surplus income and leaving a disadvantaged relative to starve. Catalonia, relatively industrialized and prosperous, may be a similar case, though again I’m no expert on it.

  2. This is a little off-subject, Guy, but what is your opinion of the Invisible Children, Inc. charity???????

    1. Joseph, I had not heard of Invisible Children, Inc., so now I google it. It appears to be dedicated to a very valid cause. My sister, who died this year, worked in western and central Uganda for 26 years for a Christian organization, and I know she was horrified by this north-Uganda perversion of Christianity into violent exploitation by a sadistic megalomaniac. I think that some time last year I read that the LRA had mostly been driven out of Uganda but continues to emslave and militarize children in Sudan and other neighborinh regions. There may be a case for international intervention, but I’m not qualified to give an opinion on that or on Invisible Children, Inc.

  3. While much more violent and vicious than the Czech experience, there are parallels with the “nationhood” of Bohemia. One major difference is that there WAS a time when Bohemia was the CENTER of the Holy Roman Empire. But after the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, the Czechs were even denied their language frequently. Expand that example with the “modern” “technologies” of two world wars and then guerrilla warfare “refined” by revolutionary movements on BOTH “sides” of the east/west divide and you have the horror of Kurdistan.

  4. I say No. The anti-imperialist content of the old colonial struggles have vanished, to be replaced by (small) nation building exercises subordinated to western imperialism. The Kurdistan Workers Party is an excellent example of this: their efforts to carve out a homeland have been mired in ongoing maneuvers with the US. They ally with the US’s criminal assault on Syria, where they covet land to add to what would be a still-born nation.

    At the heart of this is the desire of the Kurdish bourgeoisie to exploit the immense oil resources of the land and the labor of the Kurdish working class. Whether Catalonia, South Sudan or Scotland, there is no principled or progressive opposition to imperialism or capitalism.

    For the socialist unity of the Arab working class and oppressed! No to borders!

  5. Being allowed to come into existence is only the start of a long and difficult story…

Leave a Reply to Marcia L. Barr Cancel reply