Remember people power at Edsa? Remember how the Filipino people gathered as one to oust not one but two presidents? It was our crowning glory as a nation: Together we stood and showed the world that a nonviolent revolution can command change. All in the name of freedom, of democracy.
I was there on both occasions. I was young in 1986, but I remember it clearly. My parents took the family there right after it happened. We bought some souvenirs and even had pictures taken amid the debris and all. The second one, in 2001, I was working as a journalist, but it didn’t feel like work to me. It felt like I was there as a concerned citizen.
Today I’m in another, well, expression of people power, in a foreign land whose language I barely speak but whose passion I understand fully. I’m in Turkey, and the past weeks have been ugly. There is an ongoing resistance here that the Philippine media have not really played up. With a little over 5,000 overseas Filipino workers whose safety is pretty much intact, understandably this isn’t the kind of story that hits the headlines and rakes in the ratings. It’s a shame because this is the kind of fight we can very much relate to. Which is why I stood among the crowd, amazed at the burning desire of the Turkish people to retrieve the democracy that has, in a sense, been neglected.
I know, it isn’t my battle as a Filipino. Yet I’m here, soaking it all up and helping out. I’d scream and chant in any language to free the oppressed. “Her yer Taksim, her yer direnis (Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance).” They are singing the song of my freedom-loving people. These are the lines I know by heart, so that even if we don’t share a bloodline, I know I have picked the right battle…because democracy and freedom cross all boundaries.
Like me, thousands of young professionals work by day and protest at night. Never mind the dreary mornings marked by fatigue and headiness from the tear gas the night before. These same young professionals had greatly benefited from a vibrant economy. Secure jobs, health benefits, social security—the works! Just last month, the government announced zero credit in the International Monetary Fund. It’s a feat worth applauding as Turkey’s neighbor, Greece, continues to bleed in an economic crisis. Turkey might as well prance around in pride because apart from its healthy market, it was also tagged as one of the key players in ending the Syrian crisis, the hope in the Arab world. In the international scene, Turkey was the “it” country. Everything was looking fine and dandy!
Until May 31, at the crack of dawn, when police descended on the activists camped out in Gezi Park in Istanbul. These activists were holding a sit-in protest against the local government’s plan to build an Ottoman-style mall that would destroy the only green space left in Istanbul. (Think Luneta turning into another SM mall made of bamboo and possibly coconut weaves.) Tents were burned and volleys of tear gas were fired. It was a nightmare; hundreds were hurt. But why? These were hippies singing and dancing just the night before.
News of the attack spread through social media. A friend of a friend, friends of friends started retweeting each other, posting on Facebook and Instagram, reposting and hash-tagging the scene from Gezi Park. In less than 24 hours, the streets in major cities of Turkey, including the capital Ankara, were filled with angry demonstrations.
This is my scene. I cannot just sit at home and watch TV. At the height of the protests, major TV channels were airing a penguin documentary and cookery shows. And just outside, horns were being honked and pots and pans banged to the tune of “Tayyip (the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan) istifa (resign).” The main square Kizilay in Ankara, similar to our Edsa, was a sea of people. Police helicopters swirled like birds during mating season. Once in a while, riot police tried to break the protests through tear gas or water cannons or an armored personnel vehicle rightfully called “Scorpio” when directly translated to English. This APV is a straight-out-of-the-movies kind of police vehicle with a Rambo-like cop shooting stun grenades in rounds that I thought would never stop.
But, were the protesters stunned? Nope. It was the beginning of a history more colorful than the Turkish past of sultans and harems. This is the history of members of a new generation, and they are claiming it on the streets.
What followed was a succession of everyday protests. My walk to work is never uneventful. Tear gas lingers in the air. I have been breathing it for weeks, and now I have this persistent cough. There is a new way of spending your evenings here: protesting.
Now where is the government figure in all of this? The prime minister offers no comfort. He is a man of steel, with stern words peppered with insults, calling the protesters “chapulcu” or looters and provocateurs, consequently dividing this country furthermore—on one side the supporters of the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), and on the other, an amalgamation of organizations with different ideologies and individuals who want to see a more liberal government.
Yes, a more liberal government. On the outside, people think that the AKP is a beacon of Islamic modernity. Covered ladies in government offices? No. Scarves in universities? No. You can’t wear your religion openly, shocking for the Muslim community. Yet just recently, the prohibition of the sale of alcohol from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. was ratified into law. Last month, a couple kissing in the subway were publicly scolded for public display of affection. It is a confused state, if you ask me. And the byproduct? The resistance on the streets. For years authorities had been sweeping public discontent under the carpet, until that carpet could hide secrets no more.
There will always be anarchists and looters during protests; we see them in any country. But the government fails to see the families with children in tow, the teenagers, the young professionals, and the brave women at the front of the line—this, in spite of the excessive police force. They are not frightened anymore. Journalists, judges, lawyers, soldiers, activists, even tweeters, are being jailed. But these scare tactics are no longer working. Sadly, authorities don’t ask themselves why, and instead blame this resistance on the international media, or some grand-conspiracy theory.
Turkey is a rich country, not like the Philippines where poverty is a common sight. Yes, its stocks are falling now and investors are pulling out. But it will get over this turbulence. The country is so blessed with natural resources and beauty that when all is said and done, it will be back on its feet. But one cannot buy freedom of speech and expression, one cannot silence the people and cloud their thoughts by gassing them daily.
Remember Edsa? Turkey also wants to be remembered that way.
Karen Lim, a former broadcast journalist in Manila, is now based in Ankara, Turkey, where she works as an English teacher and a freelance journalist.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.