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Turkey's mining disaster exposes deeper rifts

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Riot police use water cannons and teargas to disperse people who were protesting the Soma mine disaster that killed 301 miners, in Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday, March 22, 2014. A protester was seriously injured during clashes.

EMRAH GUREL / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge Image

Riot police use water cannons and teargas to disperse people who were protesting the Soma mine disaster that killed 301 miners, in Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday, March 22, 2014. A protester was seriously injured during clashes.

Athens -- Turkey's mining disaster grows daily in scope and significance; more than 300 dead in the worst mining disaster in the country's history. But the story seems destined to not end with the dead. Already, serious questions are being asked that threaten to upset the presidential aspirations of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Soma mines are very dangerous. This was already known to the government before the disaster. A story in the respected Guardian Weekly reports there were 4,500 workplace accidents recorded at the site in 2013 alone. But two weeks before the disaster, Erdogan's AKP government rejected a parliamentary motion that would have seen an inquiry into why so many accidents have occurred in the mines around Soma.

Since the disaster, some disturbing information has come out concerning the mine's operations and safety precautions.

The mine owners of course claim they are blameless for the deaths. But critics point out the mine was not equipped with the kind of safety precautions, such as escape rooms, that proved so effective in the case a few years ago when trapped Chilean miners were watched on television relaxing comfortably, awaiting rescue by millions of people around the world. Critics claim safety at the mine has suffered since it came under private control a few years ago. Questions are also being raised about the manufacturer of the power generator that caused the initial explosion.

Following the disaster, the government declared three days of mourning, standard practice of all governments. But its more specific responses have been wooden, to say the least. On a visit to Soma, Erdogan insensitively recounted a list of other mining disasters around the world going back to 1862, and said such events were to be expected; like the mine owners, the government was not to blame -- bad things just happen. Kismet.

The response of Turkish workers has been much less fatalistic. Protests began almost immediately, not only in Soma, but also in the country's main cities. In a scene oft repeated in the past year, large crowds have filled Istanbul's Taksim square to register their anger with the government. And Turkey's major labour union declared a one-day general strike.

In turn, the government at first responded to public anger with a show of armed force. Clashes between police and protesters occurred in several cities. In Soma, water cannons were used on angry mine workers. In apparent solidarity with the police, an aide to Erdogan was photographed repeatedly kicking a protester while two officers held the man on the ground. Public relations is not the government's strong suit.

When this response failed to quell public unrest, the government joined its supporters in seeking out people to blame. Charges have been laid against several company officials and public regulators, some perhaps justified; show trials to follow.

Before the mine disaster, Erdogan hoped to ride smoothly into the presidency in elections scheduled for late August. His popular support is considerable, despite being widely distrusted by the county's secularists who fear he is slowly turning Turkey into an Islamic state, while assailed by Islamists who believe he is not moving fast enough in that direction; and despite, too, a whiff of corruption that hangs over his government.

But Soma is a wild card that speaks to broader concerns shared by many Turkish people that the country's rapid economic development has been achieved at too great of a cost to the country's social and political institutions; the Soma disaster is only one of many workplace tragedies that occur all too frequently in Turkey, most associated with mining, construction and other industrial activities. (Turkey is one of a handful of countries not to have ratified a 1995 International Labour Organization agreement that would have enshrined greater workplace health and safety protections for workers, especially for miners.)

It is too soon to know the long-term implications of Soma. But history teaches us such disasters often take on a wider symbolic and political meaning that can alter the political trajectory of individuals and nations. Think the earthquake that devastated Nicaragua in 1972, the handling of which highlighted the corruption of the Somoza regime and paved the way for revolution; the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that put a capstone on the myth of Soviet efficiency; or the impact of hurricane Katrina in bringing home to the American people the gross incompetence of the Bush administration.

Will Soma take on a similar importance? Time will tell.

 

Trevor Harrison is a political sociologist at the University of Lethbridge and director of Parkland Institute. He was in Turkey as the Soma disaster unfolded.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2014 A9

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