From a World to Win News Service:

Turkey: A Mining Massacre Sets Off Righteous Fury

May 22, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


May 19, 2014. A World to Win News Service. The explosion that killed at least 301 coal miners in the Turkish city of Soma continues to reverberate throughout the country, not only because of the magnitude of the tragedy, but also because of the callousness and brutality of the response from the government of RecepTayyip Erdogan.

The Prime Minister's immediate reaction was to deny that the government or the mine owners could be accused of the slightest responsibility. When 30 men were killed in a mine disaster in Zunguldak in 2010, instead of calling for safety measures, Erdogan simply declared,"Unfortunately, this industry has this in its destiny." Now, in the face of yet another explosion, he said, "This is what happens in coal mining." Citing figures for 19th century coal mine accidents in Britain, he concluded, "So these things happen. We do have something called work accidents."

Miners risked their lives to go into the mine and rescue their comrades after the explosion and fire that killed many and trapped hundreds underground in Soma, in western Turkey, May 13, 2014. Photo: AP

Echoing this sentiment, officials issued a statement indicating that if anyone was at fault, it was the miners themselves and perhaps their immediate supervisors underground. The local chief prosecutor told reporters that there was no question of bringing charges against anyone because those responsible were already dead.

Yet miners, their relatives and increasing numbers of other people knew this wasn't true. For weeks miners in this town almost 500 kilometers southwest of Istanbul had complained that coal being hauled out was hot, a sign that fires were burning somewhere in the coal seams. When the explosion came on May 13, 787 men were in the mine—the incoming and outgoing shifts overlapped, a safety violation meant to speed up work. A wave of heat and deadly carbon dioxide gas swept through two kilometers of tunnels, setting off fires and knocking out the elevator.

How much gas accumulated before the explosion is not known, because the mine's carbon dioxide detectors were not in operation. According to interviews with miners reported in Today's Zaman, management had turned them off to avoid disturbing production if the gages indicated potentially dangerous conditions. The methane gas detectors were operational, but some miners believe that management simply ignored the instrument readings. The heat and gas build-up over time should have been a signal to get miners out.

The miners were also deprived of measures to deal with the aftermath of an explosion. The roofing was made of wooden planks, not steel, increasing the risk that fires would cause tunnels to cave in. The mine was not equipped with chambers where miners could take refuge in an emergency. Survivors later pointed out that such shelters had kept miners alive after the famous 2010 gold mine collapse in Chile.

Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only countries that do not require owners to install such safety features. Although government officials discounted their importance, saying that no one could have survived the gas anyway, this may be just an excuse. At any rate it is a sign that the mine owners' and government's only plan for coping with a potential disaster was to skip safety investments and trust in God.

Worst of all, while some miners had been given gas masks with filters that automatically protect against carbon dioxide, they had been deliberately disabled, again, apparently, to prevent production delays. However, most of the masks issued were just cloth, designed to prevent inhalation of particles, with no anti-gas filters at all. It was not the explosion but gas that is said to have killed most of the miners whose bodies have been recovered. Adequate gas masks are expensive, but in German mines, for instance, it has been unthinkable to do without them.

There are "absolutely no loopholes in the country's mining safety regulations," said a spokesman for Erdogan's AK Party. It was pointed out that the mine had had 11 inspections over the past five years. This simply underlined government complicity with Soma Holding, the company that runs the mine. Miners said that safety inspections were always signalled in advance, to allow management to prepare, and that the government inspectors just looked at the main shafts, not side corridors and never the depths of mines.

When Erdogan went to Soma the day after the explosion, he was met by mourning family members shouting "Murderer!" and "Thief" and chanting, "Government resign!" To escape the crowd he and his entourage retreated to a supermarket entrance, where Erdogan himself slapped a miner's relative for booing him. This was captured on video, although not the sequel, when his bodyguards proceeded to beat the man. In another incident, a close Erdogan aide was filmed kicking a man being held down on the ground by two Special Forces police.

After the videos went viral, Erdogan and his henchman blamed the men they beat. The mourners who heckled the prime minister were "gang members," he said. The aide refused to apologize, because, he said, he was fed up after suffering "provocations, attacks and insults" all day.

President Abdullah Gul managed to avoid creating as much of a scene as Erdogan had, but he, too, was booed when he showed up in Soma.

Several thousand people demonstrated in Soma May 16, some carrying signs that said, "It was no accident, it was murder." They were attacked with water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas. The next day protesters came in coaches from all over country. Security forces set up roadblocks to stop them. Among the 30 people detained were lawyers who had come to provide legal assistance for families. They were beaten and handcuffed. District authorities said they would no longer allow demonstrations.

In the city of Izmir, about a hundred kilometers to the west of Soma, thousands of demonstrators clashed with police, building barricades and fighting back with stones and fire bombs. Hundreds of people in Ankara marched from the technical university to the mine company headquarters and then the ministry of mining.

In Istanbul, police broke up a candlelight vigil. Residents banged pots and pans from windows in solidarity with the miners and demonstrators, a tactic first seen last June, when middle class neighborhoods protested the repression against the massive demonstrations in Taksim Square. At Istanbul Technical University, students took over the mining faculty to protest links between the university and Soma Holding.

This company is owned by a family linked to Erdogan's AKP. It is one of several big private companies that have flourished by leasing state-owned mines since the coal industry was privatized in 2004. During this time, the company reduced the cost of extracting coal from 130 dollars per metric ton in 2005 to less than 24 dollars per metric ton in 2012. The government buys all the coal produced. 

Turkey's coal industry has a fatality rate that is five times the death rate in China, and 361 times more than the U.S. There were 1,308 fatalities due to accidents in coal mines since 2000, and 13,000 mine accidents overall in 2013. Turkey is one of the most dangerous places in the world to work in almost any industry.

Some of the families who lost loved ones in Soma had moved there in search of work from Zonguldak, near the Black Sea, after a 1992 disaster that killed 263 miners, or after the 2010 explosion there, or other closed mines. Many are former peasants driven by poverty into the arms of the many layers of subcontractors who prey on them, known as tasheron or dayibashi, village authorities, and deliver them to the mines. The Islamist AKP's development of modern capitalism is able to draw on this traditional religious, patriarchal and feudalistic system of authority.

Cheap coal—blood coal—plays a basic role in Turkey's economy, not only because of the economic importance of coal mining itself, but also because so much of Turkey's other industries depend directly or indirectly on coal, and the price of Turkish coal is a factor in their competitiveness on the world market. The AKP has made coal its symbol, through the jobs the thriving industry provides, and even by giving out coal and macaroni noodles to win supporters.

This mine disaster carries the potential for exposure not only of the basically anti-people attitude that underlies its populist stance, its repressive "dark side," but also of its "bright side," the nature and cost of the economic growth it brags about. They are two sides of the same coin. The Soma mine was supposed to be a symbol of Turkey's economic growth. During the Gezi Park and Taksim Square protests, the AKP bullied and bribed miners to come don their yellow safety helmets and board buses to attend demonstrations against the youth and in support of the government.

Although Erdogan cynically argues that the death of workers on a massive scale is the price England had to pay to become rich, implying that such deaths will lay the basis for Turkey to "catch up," the truth is that the wealth of the European countries and the U.S. comes not primarily from domestic production but from the ability of monopoly capital to extract profit from countries all over the world. The plight of Turkey's miners, like the country's ills in general, come from Turkey's subordinate place in the world imperialist system, including the super-exploitation in the mines. 

One reason, perhaps, why the Erdogan regime reacted so angrily to the protests after the mine disaster, afraid to show anything less than an iron hand even when that might be politically costly in a region whose workers have been a source of support for the AKP, is the way the miners' cry of grief has interacted with other strands of dissent in Turkish society and the complex splits in the Turkish ruling class that have become more evident in the way that Erdogan's rivals are trying to use this incident for their own ends. The U.S. State Department issued a criticism of Erdogan for striking the protester, a sign of trouble between the Turkish regime and the U.S., which once sought every occasion to praise it.

"Now is not the time to look for a scapegoat," said government officials shortly after the explosion. By the next week, the government was so desperate for scapegoats that it detained several dozen mine company officials and arrested several on as yet unspecified charges.

After the rescue operations were called off, the mine entrances have been sealed with concrete, as if to close the whole affair. Some people believe that more corpses are still underground. Soma remains under lock-down, with checkpoints at entering streets and security forces on constant patrols, the kind of state of emergency measures more commonly seen in Kurdistan.


A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.

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