Zülfikar Doğan
Nov 21 2018

Turkish military under spotlight as food poisoning and accidental deaths increase

ANKARA: When the Turkish government issued a series of decrees reshaping the country’s institutions in the aftermath of the July 2016 coup attempt, none of the bodies it set its eye on were more significant than the Turkish Armed Forces.

The radical changes implemented in the military came under the spotlight last week when 21 commando trainees in the western province of Manisa were hospitalised with food poisoning. This followed mass outbreaks of food poisoning in May and June last year, again in training facilities in Manisa, where more than 1,000 soldiers became ill and one died.

Similar cases of mass food poisoning took place in other barracks across the country around the same time. Several government-linked catering companies have already lost their contracts, and the defence minister at the time, Nurettin Canikli, resolved to review catering tenders and introduce a new procurement procedure.

Now, spurred by this month’s poisonings, Özgür Özel, a member of parliament for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), directed a series of questions in the assembly to Defence Minister Hulusi Akar.

He asked whether the new procurement system described by Canikli last year had been put in place, and for information on the food supply at the Manisa barracks and on the companies involved in catering. He also demanded answers on the last date of inspection at the barracks and on the truth of claims that detachments tasked with checking food had been shut down.

But the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) rejected opposition proposals to create a special investigation commission and convene the Committee on National Defence in response to the cases of food poisoning.

Aside from the incidents of food poisoning, a series of tragedies have struck the military in the last few weeks, resulting in soldiers killed outside of combat. On Oct. 27, two soldiers in the eastern province of Tunceli froze to death, while eight soldiers died in two accidental explosions, which also left 29 soldiers wounded.

It’s time to wonder, what is happening to the Turkish Armed Forces?

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan initially called one of the explosions, in the southeastern district of Şemdinli, a terrorist attack. But Akar later contradicted the president and announced that the general staff and prosecutor’s office had launched an investigation into the explosion and the loss of life.

These incidents have thrown a spotlight on the decrees that have radically transformed the military training and healthcare systems and command echelons since the July 2016 coup attempt, raising questions on whether this restructuring has improved or weakened the army.

Mass arrests and trials of active officers continue, with alleged links to the Gülen religious movement, which is accused of carrying out the coup attempt. At the same time, the army’s troop supply has fallen, as the number of Turks applying for the 15,000 lira ($2,800) exemption from compulsory military service exceeded a million.

The decrees written during the two-year state of emergency that followed the coup attempt closed all military schools and academies, replacing them with a National Defence University that the government said would produce officers faithful to democracy.

One of the decrees turned over 33 fully-fledged military hospitals, eight military dispensaries, and several rehabilitation centres and infirmaries to the Ministry of Health.

Around 6,000 military doctors, surgeons, psychiatrists, nurses, laboratory workers, and other health specialists were sent to the Health Ministry’s hospitals, and many of the military hospitals were opened for civilian use.

The Ministry of Defence justified the decrees and purges by saying that 95 percent of the personnel in military educational and health institutions, including all personnel from military academies to army music schools, were connected to the Gülen organisation.

This claim was firmly rejected by İlker Başbuğ, a former chief of staff, who said the decrees threatened 200 years of history and traditions built up by the military schools and hospitals, and accused the government of “slashing the Turkish Army’s arteries”.

After the cases of food poisoning, the Turkish Medical Association released a statement drawing attention to the vacuum left when the military medical institutions were turned over to the Ministry of Health. The association called for these institutions to be reopened and returned to the Turkish Armed Forces.

The Turkish Retired Non-Commissioned Officers Association gave its own statement on the matter, stressing that military doctors were soldiers as well as doctors and that the decrees had made the Turkish Armed Forces the only military in the world that did not have dedicated hospitals and doctors. The association also demanded to know whether private companies would be responsible for catering to Turkey’s troops in wartime.

The points Başbuğ and these associations raise are well illustrated by the response to the cases of mass food poisoning in May and June of last year. Since there was not adequate space in Health Ministry facilities to treat the thousands of poisoned troops, hundreds were forced to receive treatment on stretchers outside hospitals.

Similar scenes were replayed after the food poisoning this month. Handing military decision making to the civilian bureaucracy and dissolving military education and medical institutions has resulted in increased casualties.

These cases of food poisoning, as well as the two soldiers who froze to death in Tunceli and those who died or were injured in the explosions, has even drawn criticism from far-right Nationalist Movement Party leader Devlet Bahçeli, usually a supporter of the ruling party.

CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu went further, condemning the disrespect shown to the fallen soldiers of Tunceli, whose families were searched as they entered the cemetery for the funeral. These families, he said, had not even been contacted by anyone from the Turkish Armed Forces after losing their sons.

The massive changes to the Turkish military since being turned over to the civil authorities, including the devastation of its medical and educational institutions, has emerged as a crucial issue. Let’s hope the recent tragedies borne by Turkish soldiers and their families will ensure that, in the months ahead, these problem areas get the close scrutiny they deserve.


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.