Menderes thesis: still around today

Monday, April 16, 2012 

Back before I began lurking in the shadows of the Russian-Turkic borderlands, I was an MA student at Princeton's department of Near Eastern Studies. And though I've tried my hardest to repress those years, they continue to come back to me on occasion, blasting my hard drive with the occasional memory or sensation.

Speaking of hard drives getting blasted, that is exactly what happened to me one evening back in Azerbaijan in 2004. On my computer that night were a number of files--including my Princeton MA Thesis--which were never completely recovered, despite the best efforts of the crack team of computer forensics experts I assembled over there.

Fast-forward to a snowy morning in Bozeman, Montana not too long ago. The hard copy of my thesis is unearthed from storage while I'm looking for something else. It sits around on the bed in my guest bedroom for a few weeks before I decide to take it into the office, where I scanned it onto a pdf file. 

The thesis is about the political rehabilitation of Adnan Menderes in the 1980s. Menderes had been Prime Minister of Turkey from 1950 to 1960, before he was removed in a coup on May 27th, 1960. He was executed a year later, following a brief imprisonment and trial on İmralı Island, in the Marmara Sea.

In my thesis, which is called "Memory and Political Symbolism of Post-September 12 Turkey: A History of the May 27th Debate", I look at changing attitudes about the coup from the 1970s to the late 1990s. Mainly, I'm interested in the question of what these changes can tell us about larger shifts taking place in Turkey with regard to the role of the military in politics.
In recent years Menderes has continued to be employed as a symbol in debates centering on the 'democratization' issue in Turkey. In 2010, for example, when Turkey's AKP government (successfully) pushed a referendum allowing the AKP to pack the country's Constitutional Court, a sweetener was added to help the medicine go down: give us our extra judges and we'll try the (previously exempt from prosecution) coup-leaders from 1980

That's all the convincing people needed: the referendum passed by a wide margin.

Now Kenan Evren--the 1980 coup leader who went on to make himself Turkey's President for seven years--is standing trial. Even many people who despite the AKP government support this move. Too many people had their lives crushed by the coup, and the following years of military rule, to not feel that some sort of account needs to be made of these events in a court of law.

But one thing that people often forget re Turkey is that the military represents only one source of authoritarian rule. Honoring Menderes as a victim of an authoritarian military is one thing--ignoring Menderes' development as an increasingly authoritarian political figure is something else. 

The same story holds true today: yes, military intervention into politics is bad. But replacing military authoritarianism with the authoritarianism of a civilian political party is not necessarily an improvement.

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