Turkish military dissenters raise voice for better rights

June 07, 2012, Thursday/ 11:03:00

These are unsettled times for the Turkish military, once the nation's arbiter. The civilian government gutted its political power, hundreds of retired and active-duty officers are in jail on coup plot charges - and now military dissenters are lobbying on Facebook and Twitter for better pay and benefits.

The campaign on social media provides a rare glimpse of dissatisfaction within the armed forces of NATO's biggest Muslim member, which battles the terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and has troops in Afghanistan. Turkey has talked about setting up a buffer zone along the border with violence-torn Syria if border security deteriorates, and the military would be key.

Yet the concerns of hundreds of former and current noncommissioned officers, or NCOs, are closer to home. They want better compensation and an end to alleged discrimination by their superiors. It is the first such public protest since a group of noncommissioned officers marched with their spouses in the 1970s.

"NCOs who say enough is enough," is their slogan on Facebook, where the group has 219,000 followers. Some 17,000 follow their Twitter campaign. Several people in the group declined to comment when contacted by The Associated Press, citing military rules in a sign that they are not prepared to break ranks entirely.

In a separate Facebook campaign, another group of soldiers made similar demands, saying they "want to become humans."

The military was already shaken by arrests of dozens of generals on charges of plotting to topple a government that they allegedly deemed to have an Islamist agenda. Dozens of more active-duty and retired generals have been jailed in a separate case over their alleged role in the 1990s ousting of an Islamist prime minister. A botched airstrike in December, aimed at Kurdish rebels, instead killed 34 civilians and further besmirched the military's reputation.

The noncommissioned officers are apparently emboldened by a visible "meltdown in the military's chain of command," said Nihat Ali Ozcan, a political analyst at the Economic Research Foundation of Turkey in Ankara.

"The rising voice of noncommissioned officers is proof that age-old values of absolute obedience are becoming eroded," he said recently.

Noncommissioned officers rise through enlisted ranks and handle daily routines, including conscript training and the maintenance of weapons systems. Their highest-ranking is below a reserve officer, a civilian on obligatory military service. There are nearly 95,000 noncommissioned officers in Turkey's 718,000-strong military.

The government responded to the campaign on social media by passing a law in Parliament last month that improves the salary scale for noncommissioned officers and shortens their obligatory service time within the military from 15 years to 10 years.

Ahmet Keser, president of Turkey's Retired Noncommissioned Officers' Association, said the amendment was "purely symbolic" because the salaries would only rise by a small amount. He said he was aware of a proposal by the military to increase noncommissioned officer salaries by 13 percent, but claimed that also falls short of needs.

"We feel betrayed," Keser said. The servicemen grouped on Facebook and Twitter because they sought an end to discrimination and were not able to "raise their voices" through the chain of command, he said.

The military, which has no Facebook page or Twitter feed, has denied allegations of discrimination against the noncommissioned officers in a statement. It accused some NCOs of trying "to provoke active-duty personnel," and assured that steps to improve their salaries and working conditions were on the way.  

Apart from low pay, complaints include refusal to appoint noncommissioned officers who graduated from law schools as military prosecutors or judges, exclusion from military guesthouses as well as lodging in separate wards from regular officers. 

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