Posted by: Dr Churchill | June 4, 2013

600 Trees and the tale of two cities two countries and two political systems

Here in Beijing, the fourth of June is the bleakest day in recent Chinese history, because it represents the 24th anniversary of the hard line military crackdown against pro-democracy activists & protesters in Tiananmen Square that left scores of thousands of dead and injured protesters. All were back then young idealistic and patriotic University students and were mowed down like so many blades of grass.  Now more than two decades on, the government has never disclosed what happened, and the city is under increasingly terrifying guard on this anniversary with military police everywhere. Still some quiet calls for more openness and transparency are increasingly heard in the digital sphere across China … and as is customary the government is ramping up the Great Chinese Firewall blocking all access to outside Internet and naturally, all the main economic and business indexes are dropping like lead in a sea of swirling equities battered by this tumult of the red anniversary and other dark recent events.

And some of these events are clearly outside of China’s sphere of influence. Just like Tiananmen square, it is now Taksim square that rattles the tremulous investors perpetually half full glasses. And it’s not trader’s fat fingers that cause the synchronous drops all around the markets. Because Turkey is now another country that is facing the same chaotic convulsions as China faced back then – quarter of a century earlier – and the lesson is not lost to the Turkish PM nor the public. People simply want FREEDOM and DEMOCRACY — yet the current heavily Islamic government is bent on restricting those basic freedoms the modern Turks have aspired to. Lot’s of things have changed. Istanbul is by many means a European city straddling East & West. Half in Europe and half in Asia is the only city that spans two continents. And as such it also bears the hall marks of both influences. Yet the Asian islamic influence has swayed the pendulum way too far by restricting the sale of wine & beer and all other alcoholic drinks, forcing women to cover up, not allowing lipsticks to be sold and other such insults to personal freedoms. And the needle that broke the camel’s back came when the government decided to deprive the citizens from the last open green space of Istanbul by cutting down the last copse of 600 trees. From then on, the conflict became inevitable.

And the Turkish Islamic government went again too far feeling secure in it’s power. And they forgot the rule of law. Because unleashing state terror and using lethal force can sometimes be your ticket to continuity of the party in power, and the leader’s maintenance at the helm, but it will not ensure the longevity of the doctrine espoused by the ruling class. Especially when the application of the force is allowed willy-nilly, regardless of the collateral damage. A sad lesson to be learned on the back of people’s lives — but there you have it in practice. A practice, as Machiavellian as it gets.  So the Turk PM Erdogan is using the same authoritarian harsh tactics to silence the protesters of Taksim Square, and maintain himself in power, as the CPC used 24 years ago in Beijing, fearing the unknown outcome of Democratization as called for by the Tiananmen protesters and their calls for Freedom & Democracy.

Still – not knowing where this call for liberalization might lead to, is not a fair excuse for launching a blood bath against your own citizens. A slow opening of the safety valves of Democracy and Freedo is always a better way to defuse the situation and lead to positive outcomes for all concerned and where all stakeholders have a say.

Yet in my experience all authoritarian leaders are reactive and never thoughtful or mindful enough to observe the situation deeply and then stick their oar in the water and simply direct the ship of state, to go with the flow. And because the Turkish Spring uprising is not all about trees, but much more importantly, it’s about freedom & democracy, justice & the rule of law, transparency & accountability, anti-islamization, and so much more … a similar nasty end as in Tiananmen square — appears to be in the offing.

It all started innocently enough as a popular protest about saving the tiny park type forest of 600 old trees in the centre of the city.
A few days ago, the people of Istanbul met peacefully on Taksim Square to ask for the maintenance of the Gezi Park and in support of the last open green space in this vast metropolis. What followed was a scene of unfathomable violence and brutality to come. Heavily armed policemen from the provincial islamic fundamentalist ranks came specifically ordered to quell the rebellion with any means possible. All sorts of brutality ensued. Village people armed to the teeth with the advantage of the powers of the Gendarmerie, attacked the protesters as if they were going to war against the young urbane city folk. These ‘village people’ dressed as riot police, came psyched up and ordered for confrontation, trying to disperse the crowd with intense use of tear gas, many thousands of rounds of rubber bullets and ample use of the long steel core fortified batons and electric cattle prods…. The Turkish Officials gloried in the scenes of law and order dispensed from the guns’ mouth. But the message had already spread far from the square, and well beyond the issue of the 600 trees.  Now it was all about Democracy and the rule of law. People started pouring from all corners of the city on the city’s main thoroughfare streets that convene in what is the nerve center of the city, Taksim square. Protesters joined all around the country in solidarity demonstrations, supporting the right of people to demonstrate peacefully, and with their own peaceable assemblies condemned the violence used by police and the Erdogan Islamic Government. People rushed to provide relief to the wounded, from both sides of the confrontation, and to offer shelter. Above all, people still ask the Turkish Government to stop the violence and open space for a democratic discussion.
The Gezi park in Istanbul adjacent to Taksim square — the area all demonstrations originate in this city, and where this uprising started as well, has been a memorial point for centuries. Other uprisings have started here and quelled in a blood bath in the past. Now this part of the city is scheduled for destruction by Prime Minister Erdogan. Mr Erdogan ingloriously wants to raze the whole park along with it’s sentinels, the 600 ancient trees that have been planted there since Byzantine times, in order to replace it with a giant mosque adorned by a shopping mall. Building a mosque is considered the highest duty of a good Muslim and thus Mr Erdogan wants to oblige, and by the by enhance his image as ‘the new Conqueror’ or the Muslim saviour of the country. Difficult to tell his ambitions as they become more and more fundamentalist by the day.

Hubris, grandiose ideas and excessively glamorous plans derived of an inflated ego, have a way of  being smashed when they hit against the hard implacable wall of the laws of physics, and specifically gravity…

And in this instance Mr Erdogan has declared war on the few trees that stand in the way of his ambitions. An unfair battle is what this represents to me… Unfair for the errant PM that is, because as it appears the 600 trees of Gezi park have some great guardians of their own. The young people of the city that recognize their future without the trees will be rather bleak have something to say about the matter as well. And they speak eloquently and loudly on behalf of the trees and all that they represent. And thus this war has sharply turned against Mr Erdogan and his Grand Ayatollah designs…

So this Taksim square uprising was sparked by the interest of the youth of the ancient city of Istanbul who want to save the precious 600 odd trees, and this action has precipitated the Turkish Spring spreading throughout the country in the last week. It’s now seen as Turkey is gripped in an era of protest and occupation of public spaces by citizens with the aim of overthrowing a despotic fundamentalist regime… eerily similar to the demands of the Tiananmen Square protesters a quarter century ago, and pivoting on the same axis of Democracy, Freedom of Speech, and Liberty, with predictably the same bloody obvious results to come.

It comes as no surprise to me that the demolition of Gezi Park – the issue which sparked the protests – is a part of a wider urban redevelopment project in Istanbul which in turn is part of a massive Islamization project of the current regime, and a project that the people reject both as a concrete jungle for the city and as a concrete jail for the country.

So this struggle should be seen as a simile for the larger contest: The battle between a secular Democratic country and a an islamic ghetto that the PM wants to turn the country into.

Citizens of the city are incensed mainly because the concrete project includes uprooting all the trees [to the last one] and in their place building a giant Mosque with a religious shopping centre – like the Ayatollah Khomeini Centre in Teheran] which PM Erdogan wants as his legacy. Testament to his vanity and temerity, is that he has tried to built this giant mosque, ever since he was the Mayor of Istanbul some years back… Yet citizens of the country are similarly incensed that the current regime wants to turn the country into an Islamic state where the rights of the people are subject to Sharia law and to the extreme fundamentalists of the Erdogan islamic movement. Witnessing the ban in the sale of Alcohol during the night hours where all entertainment occurs, and the covering up of all women as enforced by the religious police now roaming freely the city,  is a clear message of where the country is going and the people don’t like it the least bit.

The PM Erdogan’s Taksim square and Gezi park building plan, also includes rebuilding an Ottoman-era military barracks near the site and demolishing the historic Ataturk Cultural Centre. Another attack on the institution representing the secular European style democracy the modern founder of the country had envisioned and decreed.

Admittedly – even by their own accounts – the current government has been making grandiose, ambiguous, and fairly inconsistent plans about the Gezi park mosque project. Couple this with the fact that the PM is becoming increasingly autocratic, and is exercising a despotic far right Islamic type of regime, and you can easily see that which is causing grave concern among the protesters of Taksim Square in Istanbul and beyond. And of course those protectors of the trees, who valiantly oppose cutting them down, and replacing the ancient trees of the beautiful and last open green city park with more grey concrete… are to be commended for their valour. And those in the islamic Erdogan government and the PM himself are to be condemned for their short sightedness, wanting to cut down the last trees and wanting to replace them with another mosque come shopping mall, in the city that is chock full of them and where all of them stand empty…

So what began as a demonstration in support of the last open tree covered park inside the city, and especially against the general loss of trees and precious green space in a city that is already a dirty polluted and hard to breath concrete jungle — has turned into a wider expression of anger against all government policies that lead to loss of Democracy and Freedom. Because people have seen what happened in Egypt and neighbouring countries and are alarmed at the islamic manifesto and the prospect of having to live under Sharia law. Most Turks today understand that fundamentally Islam is anti-democratic. Sharia law cannot coexist with the rights of minorities and respect for all that Democracy exercises and respects at it’s fundamental level. Nor can the right of Assembly and peaceable demonstration, be tolerated by Islam’s vanguard, as is evidenced now through the excessive use of force by the islamic riot police in Istanbul, Ankara and a dozen more cities.  The State Terror that was unleashed by Mr Erdogan has no doubt escalated tensions way further — since two innocent people have been killed by police forces and thousands more  have been injured and arrested.
Turkey’s violent clashes have pushed the country to the edge of chaos and the usual camaraderie seen in Istanbul has now been dissolved fully. The main Turkish Exchange and the stock market have both crashed and the Turkish National Debt is seen as worthless — this much collateral damage seven long days after the plan to cut down the trees was instituted.

Keep in mind that bloodshed never solved any political problem for long. Adolph and his cohorts found this out rather quickly. Justice always comes even if she takes the long way home. And so justice will arrive for the Armenians and the Tiananmen students alike.

We know power corrupts and these days Erdogan is feeling rather powerful, same as the CPC.  But might never makes right. Especially when you use your power for doing evil…

And even if it’s two people killed by police as it happened in Istanbul over the last few days, or a few thousand freedom loving students in Tiananmen, or even a few million Turkish Armenian people, the major crime against humanity is the violence that leads to loss of life for political expediency.



Let’s hope that Taksim Square does not become the Tiananmen square of Turkey because this is where things are pointing to..

This outcome must surely be avoided at any cost because a Democratic Turkey — even if despotic, is an asset to the world and must be preserved as such. I sincerely hope Mr Erdogan hears these words as they are coming from many sources, and maybe a belated wisdom and calmness descends upon him, that will allow him to do the right thing. Liberalize instead of restricting. Democratize instead of oppressing. Westernize instead of islamize… because often times listening to the voices of the people is the best policy out there. Crowdsourced solutions and the wisdom of the many in a Democracy ought to be respected.

Europe and the US must also show their strength to the Turkish regime to remind them of their debt to Democracy and their need to continue down that path, even when the call to Authoritarian rule is the easiest to be heeded…
And to remind the Prime Minister of his mistakes of the past causing the current woes — it was the Gezipark that was the centre of the bloodshed against the Turkish Armenian citizens of Istanbul. A historical fact Mr Erdogan vociferously denies… History tells us clearly that the Armenian people’s of Turkey extermination was the first major Genocide the world had ever seen in the beginning of the last century.  An ethnic cleanisng of unimaginable proportions and it was perpetuated  in another fit of islamization, when the last Ottoman regime was replaced with Kemal Ataturk and his young Turks who uprooted all the Armenians of Turkey, and massacred their population to the extent that more than 2 Million people lost their lives for the simple crime of having been born Armenian Christians. And when the Armenians of Turkey were exterminated, their Cathedral was razed too and their cemetery dug up and this was in Gezi park. And all this nastiness was started in 1915 with Enver and Talaat and Kemal Ataturk with serious help from their German allies, and went on to 1939, when the vastly more efficient German genocide of the jewish people begun in earnest. But this first Genocide in the world’s modern history, going unpunished — opened the door for many more. Other foolish and criminal Dictators followed this stupid form of uniting their countries under the flag of Ethnic cleansing.  Genocides and crimes against humanity, followed by Hitler who famously said: ‘Who remembers the Armenians now’ when he was cautioned against his human extermination practices. And this degree of callousness has been seen in practice to be followed by Hitler, Stalin and Milocevic, in the years since, simply because they believed it can go on unpunished, as in Turkey. That is the bloody innovation of modern Turkey’s founders and their lasting legacy that Mr Erdogan supports. What a poor excuse for a leading man this is. Forget leadership lessons if you are distorting history because it doesn’t serve you. Closing your eyes to evil is clearly a crime as big as perpetuating the crime. So forget the mantle of leadership because as you will no doubt and in due course recognize, Mr Erdogan, you are a very poor specimen of humanity.  Because even back then in the early 20th century, when the Armenians were killed wholesale and their churches burned, often with the Armenian people locked inside, the barbaric hordes after practicing genocide in a scale the world had not seen before, they demolished the churches and the cemeteries, yet somehow they left the trees alone. They didn’t cut them down and left them standing…

Perhaps some perverse wish of the criminal mind, to allow the trees to remain as silent witnesses to what they had seen of what once had been. The last memory of the thriving community of the Armenians of Istanbul, are these trees that cause so much trouble.

Never thought of the trees as troublemakers, but there you have it. And the place where that transpired, became known as Gezi park next to Taksim Square.

Today the errant PM wants to uproot the trees and plant a modern Islamic shopping mall with a Mosque, in it’s place, and suddenly all hell breaks loose.  Seems to me the chicken have finally come home to roost. It’s telling that Mr Erdogan disputes the genocide of Armenians although the historical record and evidence are beyond doubt. Something akin to the Neonazis disputing Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka, Mathauzen,  and thousand other centres of human extermination. As if the Nazis and their crimes never existed. Today’s Turkey and it’s PM, not only have not apologized for this major crime against humanity — the genocide of all it’s Armenian citizens represents — but actively threaten and harrass those countries that recognize this reality and honour the Armenian memorial anniversary.

It’s time to correct this long standing wrong. And when Justice blossoms in this respect, many other good things will follow surely. But until this redress of a past sin has been admitted, no modern Turkish politician can be called Democratic. Because the funny thing about Democracy is that although You govern with the plebiscite and the will of the majority, in reality you govern for the minorities. A wise and simple Democratic leader, always observes this dictum of original Democratic principle. You govern for the minorities, because society is made up of the rich mosaic all the various minority people represent. You need to exercise power for the interests of the many people that need greater respect and protection, from the majority, in order to allow for the healthy diversity in the ecosystem of a successful and prosperous Society.  Borrowing this lesson from  Nature, I can safely say, that Monocultures rarely work for long… before they succumb to disease and destruction. I say this not only because these trees at Gezi park are diverse in terms of species and sizes, as they were planted over the years by people remembering their loved ones, but also because it is the only Armenian legacy still standing in the city of Istanbul.

An ancient city built by the Great Justinian as a bridge from East to West deserves a memorial to all it’s citizens, no matter how they perished. And especially because of their violent end, this can be a great monument to the Future for people to avoid this type of Foolishness and to go on live in harmony with others in this great city that should be remembered as a city of tolerance and acceptance for all. Recent events of course show the opposite direction, and therefore, am not holding my breath, because now, this once great city — is fast becoming an intolerant Islamic backwater.

But am still counting on the indomitable human Spirit to turn back the tides of inhumanity and cruelty with the eternal powers of love and compassion:

And as luck would have it, right there in Gezi park where the main Armenian Christian church of Istanbul used to stand tall people today play their own music. The Armenian cathedral, and the main Armenian cemetery were located in Gezi park, until it was razed to the ground and the masonry along with that of the cemetery was looted of it’s stones and marble slabs and were then used to construct Taksim square itself. The marble grave slabs of the Armenian graves still serve as steps to the Taksim square where all current Freedom & Democracy demonstrations hail from. What a legacy these stones carry. Talk about double duty too…

Still the green park place with the 600 trees that remained after the destruction and desecration of the tombs, reminded all of a poignant past, so much so, that it irked Mr Erdogan and his cohorts who prefers to have no memory of the past and appear to hold no respect for History, Democracy and Freedom.  So the trees are the only reminder of the Armenian Genocide in the city of Istanbul, and the cemetery slabs serving as steps to Taksim square. And their only live connection today is the thicket of 600 trees that were nourished by so many Armenian bodies …  smack in the middle of a very busy city indeed.

And the fact that these little trees sparked such a great movement coupled with the indomitable human spirit is the reason I firmly believe in Humanity’s infinite capacity for compassion and kindness leading to doing GOOD.

Amazing what a bunch of trees can do to change the Air in the city…

Protesters stand in front of makeshift fires in Ankara early on 3 June 2013.
Protesters gather in front of Dolmabache mosque, Istanbul, on 2 June.

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