OBITUARY: Kenan Evren, former president of Turkey, died on May 9, aged 97

By bne IntelliNews May 18, 2015

Suna Erdem in London -


Kenan Evren, former president of Turkey, died on May 9, aged 97.

There was no pomp at the funeral of former Turkish president Kenan Evren, who died on May 9, aged 97. No politicians stood at the graveside, praying for his soul. No public outpouring of grief. Two protesters were arrested for heckling.

From Bulent Ersoy, the usually colourful transsexual Turkish classical singer, there was only dark bitterness: “I shall never forgive him,” she said on Turkish television. “He persecuted me…What have I ever done to anybody?”

What Ersoy, a popular singer and musical actor, had done was to try and change sex while hanging onto his career at the time when the Turkish military, led by General Evren, staged a coup at 4:00am on September 12, 1980. Ersoy, who is now one of the best-known figures in Turkish music, was barred from the stage, attempted suicide and was eventually forced into exile for several years.

Many Turks publicly hailed the coup – Turkey’s third since 1961 – for the bloodless way the military took over the reins from squabbling, ineffectual politicians, and ended years of anarchy and street fighting between revolutionary Marxists and ultra-nationalist “Grey Wolves” that had claimed around 5,000 lives. It was called the “Coup with Velvet Boots.”

But if blood wasn’t shed that night, it flowed freely afterwards. Half a million Turks were arrested, many of them artists and intellectuals, from both ends of the political spectrum. Around 300 people died in jail, many of them from torture, which became widespread, as did extrajudicial killings. Fifty people, including a 17-year-old were hanged. “Why should we not hang them?” Evren famously said. “Should we continue to feed them in jail?”

The military junta, led by Evren, began to refashion the country. Tens of thousands of people were removed from their jobs and as many fled the country. Parliament was dissolved, political parties were shut, newspapers closed, journalists arrested and unions banned. Transvestite and transsexuals, such as Ersoy, were banned from publicly performing. 

The rights of the Kurdish minority were also repressed, giving rise to a decades-long separatist war between Kurdish guerrillas and the army, which is only just reaching political resolution.

One of the foreign policy acts of the military leadership was to declare Turkish Cyprus an independent state, angering the international community and bequeathing a major headache to future governments. While the Greek-populated southern part has joined the EU and continues to hamper Turkey’s ambitions to join the bloc, the self-declared Turkish north is recognised as no one bar Turkey. 

But the deepest legacy left by Evren is the constitution that the junta presented to the public in 1982. The constitution restricted the rights of the individual, narrowed freedoms and formalised the military's role in politics, enabling generals to hold sway long after a return to civilian rule. Under constant pressure, the public voted to accept the document by more than 91% in a referendum. The vote also served to make Evren president. 

Although the military was strongly secularist, in honour of Turkey’s founding father, soldier-turned-president Kemal Ataturk, Evren’s rule contributed strongly to the rise of Islamism, by opening religious schools and championing Islamist activists as a way to contain the left-wing and the often leftist-Kurds.

Post presidency

When Evren decided to allow democratic elections once more, in 1983, he was thwarted by the public, who overwhelmingly supported the liberal Turgut Ozal instead of a former general backed by the president. After leaving the presidency in 1989, Evren retired to the seaside resort of Bodrum, where he began to paint, reportedly after looking at Picasso’s paintings and saying: “Well, I can do that.” He managed to live quietly for most of the time, surfacing occasionally with some unwelcome political comments or newspaper reports on his latest paintings, which include a nude of glamorous Turkish actress Hande Ataizi.

All that began to change five years ago. The public voted in a 2010 referendum to amend the constitution and allow the trial of former coup leaders. The latter had been almost unthinkable in Turkey, where despite the misery of the post-coup period, the military was for a long time still seen as the most stable, reliable institution the country had. To little protest, the military was allowed to push out an Islamist-led government in 1998 – called a “postmodern coup” and is believed to have made plans to take over during the rule of the current Justice and Development Party (AK), led until last year by former political Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But once the constitution referendum was over, people started petitioning for Evren to go on trial. He was found guilty last year of crimes against the state and demoted to the position of private. Sentenced to a lifetime in jail, he spent his final months in a military hospital. He is survived by three daughters.

OBITUARY: Kenan Evren, former president of Turkey, died on May 9, aged 97

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