From the second half of the 1960s to 1980, the leftist movement in Turkey was able to achieve substantial political mobilization among the working class, youth and women. This era was interrupted by the 1971 coup d’etat and ended with the 1980 military coup that bloodily suppressed the leftist movement, abolished the parliament, declared martial law and enforced a military-led constitution that greatly restricted civil liberties. A period of gross human rights violations was ushered in by the military coup on September 12, 1980, during which mass imprisonment, systematic torture, and disappearances were the main repressive practices of the military junta. According to statistics, approximately 650,000 people were taken into custody, more than 1.5 million were blacklisted by the state, a quarter of a million were put on trial, and 300 lost their lives in various ways. Following September 12, the military junta rewrote the constitution to reinstate a majoritarian electoral system, increase opportunities for the military to shape parliamentary politics on a regular basis, place restrictions on freedom of speech and press, and dismantle the autonomy of universities. The junta successfully reorganized state institutions, manufacturing legitimacy based on a Turkish-Islamic synthesis and depoliticizing a majority of society in such a way that new generations were likely to forget past rights violations. All of this contributed to the inability of victims to generate support as long as the political power of the military remained intact during the 1980s and 1990s. Following the military’s loss of power in politics during successive AKP governments in the 2000s, a window of opportunity emerged to encourage society to confront the brutality of the junta. In September 2010, the government initiated a referendum and was able to gain majority support for constitutional amendments making it possible to prosecute perpetrators of the military coup. Thus judicial proceedings to try surviving members of the Turkish army began in April 2013. However, the proceedings initiated by the prosecutors have provided little opportunity for Turkey to seriously confront the bloody military junta period, despite the fact that hundreds of victims agreed to testify in court. The government-sponsored judicial process created only an illusion of a confrontation with the past, and victims groups have little confidence in the government. Therefore, memorialization projects such as the 12th of September Museum of Shame are crucial for commemorating the victims, helping larger audiences grasp historical truths, and furthering democracy in Turkey.
Scope and Purpose
The museum of shame emerged at the end of a campaign begun by the Federation of Revolutionary 78ers that took 10 years. It was called “Abolishing the 1982 Constitution and Trying the Military Junta.” The opening of the museum took placeon the thirtieth anniversary of the 1980 military coup. The main purposes of this project are establishing the historical truth of the junta period and exposing the true face of militarism in Turkey. The museum contains various materials that either represent the military repression of the 1970s and 1980s or belong to well-known political figures subjected to human rights violations. Examples include Deniz Gezmiş’s coat, Mazlum Doğan’s shirt, the mimeograph machine owned by İbrahim Kaypakkaya and Mahir Çayan’s vest. These objects have symbolic value for the leftist movement in Turkey because they belonged to the leaders of the movement who were killed or executed. The museum exhibits not only materials used by ex-prisoners, but also legal documents: proceedings of the trials of executed revolutionaries prepared by prosecutors between 1980 and 1995, files of victims killed under the junta, and materials documenting censorship imposed by the state and banned publications.
The museum has no permanent home; as a dynamic memorialization effort, the project visits various cities and towns. Moreover, this memorial goes beyond exhibiting relevant objects. Wherever the museum is exhibited, panel discussions are held featuring victims of military rule and scholars who study the period. Academics, journalists, writers, politicians and trade union representatives attend these discussions to discuss the political, judicial, social and cultural impacts of the 1980 military coup. Lastly, documentaries and movies about the military coup are screened during the exhibition. Thus visitors to the museum have the opportunity to develop a more in-depth understanding of militarism in Turkey.
This project was one of the first serious attempts to create a memorialization site to reveal the brutality of the 1980 military coup while struggling to foster the democratization process in Turkey. Those who initiated the project are victims of the indiscriminate violence of the Turkish Armed Forces, mainly in the 1980s. Therefore, struggling against unjust state practices allowed the organizers to experience a degree of healing. The organizers also worked to involve other victims of militarism in the process of designing the museum and asking for contributions to its exhibits from the public. Materials from the junta period that symbolize the collective or personal memory of the victims are welcomed by the Federation of Revolutionary 78ers. Thus, objects exhibited in the museum of shame are not always the same, and new contributions to the museum enrich the content on a yearly basis. Moreover, every year, the theme of the exhibition changes depending on contemporary political issues pertaining to state violence. Thus people remain interested in the museum, since the content and talks are also dynamic. The organizers of the memorialization project believe there is political continuity between the regime established by the 1980 junta and the state administration over the next decades. Therefore, even objects belonging to victims who were subjected to human rights violations in the 2000s are included in the museum. For example, the sweater worn by Uğur Kaymaz, the Kurdish child killed by Turkish police when he was 12, finds a place in the museum. This interpretation, which connects the past with the present and does not disregard political continuity in recent Turkish history, increases the salience of this memorialization project on the one hand and loosing focus on the military coup regime by equating military coup regimes to the elected governments policies on the other hand.
Since the main idea behind creating a museum of shame about the 1980 military coup is to collect memorial objects, any difficulties in this regard constitute challenges for the project. Following the closure of Ulucanlar Prison in Ankara in 2005, the Federation of Revolutionary 78ers asked the state for certain materials that have great symbolic value. The main demand was to add the gallows used to execute the revolutionary leaders of the Turkish left Deniz Gezmis, Yusuf Aslan and Huseyin Inan. However, the state refused to give that objects to the organizers, even though it is not used for any other purpose. Another challenge is related to the form of the memorialization effort. The organizers see the next step as creating a stable memorial site for the museum of shame. Therefore, finding a space that can be turned into a museum seems to be one of the challenges.