Bahrainis, especially majority Shiites, came out in an unprecedented peaceful demonstration demanding constitutional reforms seeking political freedom and justice. However the autocratic minority Sunni regime responded with violent crackdown raining death and destruction.
As a result the people who once asked for political reforms now demand the removal of the king and his regime to pave the way for a government run by an elected parliament.
Bahrain, with a chain of 30 islands and a territory of 717 sq kilometers, has a population of around 800,000 of which around three quarters are Shiites. They accuse the regime of shutting them out of housing, healthcare and government jobs. They also complain of unemployment and poverty and accuse the government of employing expatriates - according to 2010 UN figures there were 235,108 expats.
Some of the Shiite villages lack even basic needs in contrast to the mansions of the elite in exclusive areas. The island is ruled by Khalifah family, Sunni Muslims, which captured power in 1783 after expelling the Persians who still view Bahrain as a renegade province exacerbating sectarian tensions.
The two sides do not trust each and the suspicion has been deep rooted and historic.
Bahrain, a British protectorate under the 1861 Treaty with UK, became independent on 15 August 1971. In February 2002 the country became a hereditary monarchy with a toothless and cosmetic bicameral legislature and a powerless consultative Council.
The political system is a medieval style autocratic tribal rule as in the case of rest of the Gulf countries. Sunnis dominated by the ruling Khalifa family remain a privileged lot with all the powers and perks. They control the armed forces, the government, government machinery, business, wealth, land, exclusive beaches and almost everything other than the air which the Khalifas cannot prevent the Shiites from breathing.,
As in the case of all pro western countries Bahrain too is westernized and corrupt. Liquor flows freely and some areas known for prostitution involving Muslim women from poverty stricken North Africa , Central Asia and several other countries including Iraq where women who once lived a decent life but driven to poverty following the US invasion. Friday is usually a Holy Day for Muslims worldwide. However here in Bahrain it is a day of fun, wining, dining and sinning starting from Thursday onward. Saudis and others from the region flock to the island for their weekend fun and sin.
People in general resist this shameful state of affair. However they are helpless as speaking about this means asking for trouble .Thus they suffer in silence with deep frustration.
Though a tiny island Bahrain has huge regional and international political dimensions and implications. For example Iran has been sympathetic towards the Shiites. This causes serious concern in Saudi Arabia which has a sizable suppressed Shiite population in its eastern region known for its oil wealth which is controlled by the Saudi ruling family. To ward off any potential Iranian threat Saudi Arabia built multibillion dollar causeway linking Bahrain with Saudi mainland.
Bahrain is also the home for US Navy’s Fifth Fleet which is a shield for American forces against many countries “especially Iran, spy on Iran and controls the Strait of Hormoz. Thus it would do everything to ensure that the regime remains in power.
It was under such circumstance that the Bahrainis, encouraged by political developments in Tunisia, Egypt, Jdan,.Yemen and Alegria, came out on peaceful demonstrations on 14 Monday 2011 to draw attention to their longstanding grievances. They called for a new constitution that would move the country toward democracy as well as limited state control for the monarchy over top government posts and all critical decisions.
The regime responded with force using clubs, tear gas and live ammunition killing a peaceful demonstrator and injuring many enraging all alike.
The ruler King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah apologized.
The death prompted the opposition to call for massive participation. When the people gathered for the funeral the regime, once again, unleashed violence killing more peaceful demonstrators. In a single pre-dawn assault on Thursday by riot police on protesters sleeping in the Pearl Square four people were killed, 231 wounded and 60 others were missing,. The attack has been strongly condemned by members of the international community, including the United Nations.
One columnist said “The king Hamad has blood on his hands after his mercenary security forces - Pakistani, Indian, Syrian and Jordanian - with no previous warning, attacked sleeping, peaceful protesters at 3 am on Thursday at the Pearl roundabout. Altogether seven peaceful demonstrators were killed, hundreds injured and scores disappeared-some believe killed. In the midst eighteen members of the Bahrain parliament resigned from their posts to protest against the violent crackdown.
Shiite cleric Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Kassim who described the killing as massacre warned that Bahrain’s Shia uprising has just begun and if Manama fails to satisfy the people's legitimate demands for change quickly, it will pay a heavy price. He urged Bahraini authorities to release innocent prisoners and to fight the widespread corruption .He also criticized Manama for not trying to prevent the spread of atheism in the country, warning that if the government does not change its policy, in the near future, atheism will prevail.
In this volatile and tense environment King Hamad praised the troops for what he described as their “bravery”. This was not only provocative but also insult to peaceful demonstrators. The inevitable result was the people who for political reforms now demand the removal of the king himself and his government Shiites dug in at Pearl roundabout, Bahraini version of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, stating they will not leave until their demands are met. .
The US, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf rulers will not allow the fall of King Hamad and his regime. Change of regime means a nightmare scenario for US and the Gulf States as it would tantamount to handing over power to a pro Irani Bahrain.
In Bahrain it is Iran vs. US, Britain, Israel and the Gulf sheikhdoms which were brought under US security umbrella during the past two decades. Perhaps it is time for serious and meaningful reforms meeting some of Shiites’ demands? Ends
Latheef Farook is a Senior Sri Lankan journalist who, after working for Ceylon Daily News and Ceylon Observer for almost a decade, led a team to Dubai in February 1979 where he re launched Gulf News. After almost a quarter century in the Gulf he is now based in Colombo.