As a two-day conference on the conflict wrapped up, Kurds on Sunday called on the government, which wants to take Turkey into the European Union, to make Kurdish an official language.

Nilufer Akbal, a popular Kurdish singer, pleaded for an end to prejudices against her language, which linger even though singing in Kurdish has been allowed in Turkey since the early 1990s.

"I have always been 'the other', the one who is different" from Turks, said Akbal, who has a wide fan base in mainly Kurdish southeastern Turkey.

"When I tell people that I am involved in Kurdish music, they look at me in a strange way, as if I am a terrorist," the official jargon for the outlawed separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting the Ankara government since 1984, Akbal said.

Like other Kurdish artists, she also complained of police oppression.

"The police keep tabs on Kurdish artists. Whenever we are to give a concert, we are required to get official documents from the prosecutor's office to prove that we do not have a criminal record," Akbal said.

Language status

Turkey, which began membership talks with the European Union in October, allowed Kurdish to be taught in private language courses and spoken in state television and radio broadcasts in 2003 as part of a major refom drive to ease its entry into the bloc.

PKK fighters have take up arms
for self-rule in the south-east

But Turkey's Kurdish community, estimated at about 12 million in a population of some 70 million, say the reforms were not enough and are calling on the government to give their language an official status.

Turkey's constitution recognises Turkish as the sole official language of the country and bans any other language from being used in state institutions and official affairs.

Last week, Turkey's main pro-Kurdish party, the Democratic Society Party (DTP), urged the government to make Kurdish an official language, a demand that has fallen on deaf ears.

Ahmet Turk, DTP deputy chairman and former Kurdish lawmaker, told the conference: "We insist that the Kurdish language be taught in schools and be given an official status."

Reform

Several private centres teaching Kurdish opened across southeastern provinces after Ankara introduced the EU-driven language reform, but all have since closed down due to a lack of interest and financial problems.

"The Kurdish language does not have any social prestige. People know that they cannot use it (Kurdish) in state institutions and in commerce but only at home, and thus do not send their children to private courses teaching the language"

Salih Akin
Kurdish academic

Salih Akin, a Kurdish academic from Rouen University in France, said: "The Kurdish language does not have any social prestige."

Akin has done research on the Kurdish language.

"People know that they cannot use it (Kurdish) in state institutions and in commerce but only at home, and thus do not send their children to private courses teaching the language," he said.

Akin said the Turkish government should amend the constitution in order to make Kurdish the "second official language" of Turkey.

Armed struggle

But observers say such a move is unlikely while the PKK, blacklisted by Turkey, the US and the European Union, does not abandon its armed struggle.

About 37,000 people have been killed since the PKK took up arms for self-rule in the country's southeast.

A period of relative calm in the region was shattered in June 2004 when the rebels called off a five-year unilateral ceasefire with the army.

Since then, Kurdish fighters have also carried out deadly bombings targeting civilians in western Turkey.