Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Turkey and the Soma Mining Disaster: How Not to Deal with a National Tragedy

by Nomad

The downside to a photo-op is, of course, that something unexpected or embarrassing might happen. That's unfortunately exactly what occurred when the Turkish Prime Minister traveled to Soma, the site of the nation's worst mining disaster.

In the aftermath of the historic mining disaster in Soma, Turkey, the Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan promptly journeyed to the area, supposedly to give comfort to the grieving relatives of the over 300 victims.

In what could be considered phenomenally poor judgement, the Prime Minister delivered a speech to the crowds in which he told the crowds that mining disasters happen all the time. Even, in more developed countries, he said, such unfortunate things occur. It was, he implied, simply a risk that miners take.
He then cited examples to support his contention.. from 100 years ago. In fact, critics pointed out- nearly instantaneously- that Turkey's record for mining disasters outranks other nations.

Naturally those remarks did not sit well with families who were still waiting for information from rescue teams, or with families who were burying their dead husbands, brothers and sons.

The visit quickly went downhill from there, with mobs- some of them angry- surrounding the official entourage. The Prime Minister and his aides reportedly had to make a detour to a nearby shopping mall.
There, it was widely reported but unconfirmed, there was some kind of scuffle between a widow and the Prime Minister himself. (It is not clear what exactly happened but video shows the entourage being pushed by the crowds and forced to make a U-turn at the door of the shopping area.)

Following the visit, the protesters- most of them from the small village- grew so numerous had to be dispersed with tear gas and a water cannons. The entire area was sealed off from the prying eyes of the international media (or any agile provocateurs, according to the government) by military checkpoints along the highways. According to one national newspaper:
Security forces deployed in the surroundings of Soma were reinforced by commando troops dispatched from garrisons in Istanbul, Ankara, İzmir and Denizli.

Only officials, rescuers, some journalists and relatives of miners are allowed to pass through the checkpoints set up 30 kilometers from the disaster-struck mine. Buses and private cars have all been halted and checked.
Protests, marches and demonstrations were banned after tension rose due to anger against the authorities following the disaster. The Manisa Governor’s Office has claimed that most of the protesters came from outside Soma and described the protests as “provocative.”
All to no avail. Within days, there were demonstrations in various cities and towns throughout the country, such as Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. It was all reminiscent of those nationwide protests seen during last summer's Gezi park protests. (For a minute by minute account of the Soma events, try here.)

The Erdogan administration didn't do much to improve its credibility. For example, within hours of the events in Soma, government officials began claiming that the mining company could and should not be held responsible for the accident. The government, it pointed out, regularly inspected the mine and found nothing amiss.
Nevertheless Erdogan and his Energy Minister promised a full investigation and vowed to punish the guilty.
Many were unimpressed.
However, somewhat surprisingly, arrests have already been made following miners' claims that officials at the mine were negligent. How justice will proceed, of course, is anybody's guess.

As far as the sympathy visit, the whole event was a spectacular public relations calamity for Erdogan who is reportedly seeking to hold on to power by running for the presidential post later this year.

If that were not damaging enough for the Prime Minister, it got much worse.

One of his prime ministerial advisers, Yusuf Yerkel, was photographed kicking a protester who was being held down by security forces. 

The aide initially refused to apologize. Unfortunately for him, the photos went viral and became the focus of international media. 
According to Anadolu Agency, Yerkel finally made this half-hearted apology: 
“I have been deeply saddened by the incident that occurred in Soma on May 14. I am sorry for being unable to keep calm despite all of the provocations, insults and attacks I faced on that day.
The Prime Minister made no comment but his staff quickly closed ranks and defended their colleague. 
Erdoğan’s chief adviser, Yalçın Akdoğan wrote in a letter to a national newspaper:
“The way Yerkel tried to defend himself against those who were kicking the cars [escorting Erdoğan] has been represented in a very different manner than the reality. It is not possible to understand what happened there with just one photograph."
Somebody should have perhaps reminded the advisors why exactly they had come to Soma in the first place.

Incidentally, like a professional football player. the aide has been put on sick leave with a knee injury