Teachers take to the barricades

Observations on Northern Cyprus

When the president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus wants to get a message across, he doesn't waste time speaking in parliament; he addresses a meeting of teachers. On 13 January, the day before a huge anti-government demonstration took place in Nicosia, Rauf Denktash spoke to the Turkish Cypriot Teachers Group about tensions with the labour unions. This was a tacit admission of their influence in the political sphere, and proof Denktash has learnt some difficult lessons.

The following day, the demonstration drew crowds of 55,000, more than a quarter of the population, and media attention from across the globe. The intention was to call for an end to the division of the island, and to signal support for a UN plan to broker a power-sharing deal with the Greek Cypriots. The protest, co-ordinated by the teachers' union, also signalled the death knell for Denktash's 30-year monopoly of Turkish Cypriot politics. Sick and tired of his continual stalling of the peace process, the protesters called for his resignation.

Ironically, it was the president who first pushed the teaching profession into pre-eminence. In the 1980s, with its tiny economy dependent on Turkey, it was decided that Northern Cyprus could attract more foreign investment through an extensive and ambitious programme of higher educational development. Today, there are at least six universities in Northern Cyprus, attended by 17,000 students.

Most Turkish Cypriot graduates from these universities go into teaching themselves, creating a new political class. Thanks to the internet, teachers have encouraged Cypriot schoolchildren from both communities to look beyond the nationalist propaganda found in textbooks, and even to meet in the UN-controlled buffer zone. For its part, the government has responded by blocking school trips abroad to conflict-resolution workshops, and by making life difficult for those teachers who are critical of the status quo.

Ahmet Barcin, the head of the Union of Secondary School Teachers, had his car targeted in a bomb blast the day before the march. "Please tell the world that Northern Cyprus is an open prison," he told one newspaper. "Our only key to freedom is a quick peace settlement - and entry to the European Union."

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