DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) - With its booming economy, secular democracy and growing clout, Turkey is often cited as a role model for Middle East nations gripped by popular revolt. But Hulya Yildiz, a mother of three in the impoverished Kurdish southeast, tells a darker story.
The use of Kurdish, the mother tongue for up 15 million Kurds in Turkey, is banned at her children's school. Scores of Kurdish activists and mayors have been arrested in recent security crackdowns. Army operations and Kurdish guerrilla attacks make even a family picnic in the woods too dangerous.
"I would like to live in a city where we could take our kids to picnics on weekends. We don't have that freedom because we don't know if a bomb will explode or if there will be clashes," said Yildiz, a civil servant in the Kurdish city of Tunceli.
She was speaking days before Turkey launched air and ground assaults on Kurdish militants in Iraq in retaliation for the killing on Wednesday of 24 Turkish soldiers in one of the deadliest Kurdish attacks in decades.
"If a family is afraid to take their kids to picnics you can't talk about democracy," she said. "The prime minister (Tayyip Erdogan) has travelled to all problematic countries during this year, but he should come here and listen to his people's demands. Why can't we have a 'spring' like the Arabs?"
The so-called Turkish model has fascinated reformists from Rabat to Sanaa to Riyadh at a time of popular revolts against repressive autocrats known as the "Arab Spring".
With its blend of economic liberalism and social conservatism, Muslim Turkey has become one of world's fastest-growing economies and has carved out a new and more assertive identity on the global stage.
But while Erdogan has become a hero for millions of Muslims abroad by urging Arab leaders to embrace freedom and democracy and by championing Palestinian rights, Turkey's Kurds say Erdogan should first focus on problems at home.
A three-decade-old Kurdish separatist conflict has claimed the lives of more than 40,000 people and drained hundreds of billions of dollars from the European Union candidate country.
"The Kurdish problem is a serious handicap for the Turkish model and an obstacle to regional stability," said Sinan Ulgen, from the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies thinktank.
"Despite its economic development and its modernization Turkey has been unable to solve the Kurdish issue. As time goes by the problem will only become harder to solve."
An International Crisis Group report last month said that with instability in neighboring Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad has unleashed his military on protesters, and a planned pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq, Ankara must take courageous steps to resolve its "most urgent and dangerous problem".
After a sound victory in a June election, Erdogan raised hopes of an end to conflict when he vowed to press ahead with cultural and political reforms for Kurds, reversing harsh state policies aimed at assimilation that bred Kurdish resentment.
But pessimism soon set in as violence escalated once again.
Following a surge of attacks by Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) rebels, Turkey's military has over the last three months launched air and artillery operations.
In a nationwide sweep last month, Turkish police arrested more than 140 pro-Kurdish political activists, including a number of elected mayors, for alleged links to Kurdish militants. The activists joined 3,000 others who have been locked up, many on flimsy evidence under Turkey's harsh anti-terrorism legislation.
"We are even afraid to go to the teahouses," Huseyin Kara, 60, a Kurdish farmer and father of five children, said at a teahouse. "There's no way of guessing when and where you could get killed.
"Seeing how much importance the government is placing on Syrians and Palestinians, it's surprising to see that they are doing nothing for the Kurdish problem. The Kurdish problem is more important than the Arab Spring. We live in an era of rapid solutions, except for the Kurdish issue."
For years, the political establishment in Ankara and in Istanbul ignored the plight of the Kurds, who comprise a fifth of Turkey's population. Turkey's state nationalism refused to recognize the Kurds' existence, and Kurdish language and culture were banned, while the army waged all-out war against the PKK.
Erdogan, whose AK Party took office in 2002 with a reformist agenda, pushed through limited cultural and linguistic reforms to improve the rights of Kurds under changes designed to win Turkey's EU accession.
But Kurdish politicians say more fundamental political reforms are necessary. Some say frustration at the pace of reform has led to larger numbers of Kurdish youths joining the PKK.
Emin Aktar, head of the Bar Association in Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish city in the southeast, said it was time to break the cycle of violence on both sides and engage in dialogue.
"We underline once again as lawyers from Diyarbakir that the road to a solution passes through dialogue and not arms."
Government plans to rework Turkey's constitution, which was written under military tutelage after a 1980 coup, offer the chance of a new start, Ulgen said.
The issue of greater rights for Kurds is likely to dominate the debate on a new charter, which Erdogan has said he wants to be completed by mid 2012.
The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the largest pro-Kurdish party in parliament, wants school education in Kurdish and a new formulation of Turkish citizenship to include ethnic Kurds. But such concessions might spark a nationalist backlash.
"It's nice to see Erdogan working for peace in the Middle East, but there is bloodshed here in this region," said Mehmet Emin Yak, 45, a civil servant. "A man who has devoted himself to peace should take a step toward peace in Turkey."
Editing by Mark Heinrich and Sonya Hepinstall