ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey on Tuesday announced plans to introduce elective Kurdish language instruction in schools, a step aimed at easing tension that Kurdish minority activists argued didn't go far enough.
Kurdish politicians and activists have been aggressively promoting official use of Kurdish in recent years as part of their growing demands for regional autonomy — a goal shared by rebels whose fight has killed tens of thousands of people so far.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has long realized that it can't end the conflict through military measures alone, and has already allowed for Kurdish-language institutes and private Kurdish courses, as well as Kurdish language television broadcasts.
Erdogan on Tuesday said his government would allow elective Kurdish-language lessons in lower-level education along with some other languages and dialects.
"For example, if enough students come together, Kurdish can be taken as an elective lesson, it will be taught and it will be learned," Erdogan told his lawmakers in Parliament. "This is a historic step."
But, activists and Kurdish politicians insisted on full Kurdish education in schools. Pinar Dalkus, a 26-year-old lawyer with the independent Human Rights Association in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, said introducing elective Kurdish lessons would not meet their needs.
"We all had problems in school and I don't think elective lessons can solve it," Dalkus said by telephone. "We think education in Kurdish would be more useful."
Dalkus said some school children were even having difficulty in telling that they need to go to bathroom when they start school.
"Some families teach Turkish to their children at home to prepare them for school," she said. "But some others insist they learn their mother tongue first."
Kurds make up roughly 20 percent of Turkey's 75 million population. Most of them live in the southeast, though many have migrated to Istanbul and other western cities to escape war and poverty in past decades.
Gulten Kisanak, deputy chairman of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, told a meeting of her party in Parliament that allowing only elective language lessons for people whose "mother tongue is Kurdish amounts to oppression."
Turkey says the country was indivisible and that no attempt at challenging the official Turkish language will be accepted. Turkey's constitution says the official language is Turkish and prosecutors are opening investigations into direct challenges to the law.
The EU, which Turkey is striving to join, has pushed the Turkish government to grant more rights to the Kurds. But EU countries also have urged Kurdish lawmakers to distance themselves from the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition party, has sought national consensus to try to end the fighting. Erdogan said his party was open to dialogue with all parties, including the pro-Kurdish party, for a solution.
Devlet Bahceli, leader of a nationalist opposition party, however, said Tuesday that his party would not negotiate any concessions to the rebel group, which is branded as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.
Kurdish rebels killed two Turkish soldiers in separate clashes along the Iraqi border in the latest reported violence on Tuesday, the state-run Anadolu Agency said.