'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bahrain Crackdown 

UPDATE 3: Nicholas Kristof provides an American exceptionalist perspective about the violence in Bahrain:

As a reporter, you sometimes become numbed to sadness. But it is heartbreaking to be in modern, moderate Bahrain right now and watch as a critical American ally uses tanks, troops, guns and clubs to crush a peaceful democracy movement and then lie about it.

This kind of brutal repression is normally confined to remote and backward nations, but this is Bahrain. An international banking center. The home of an important American naval base, the Fifth Fleet. A wealthy and well-educated nation with a large middle class and cosmopolitan values.

Where to begin? Is he really that ignorant of Jeanne Kirkpatrick and her advocacy on behalf of dictatorial US allies?

UPDATE 2: According to the New York Times, the army has taken control of the streets in Manama except for the area near the main hospital. And, curiously, the Al Jazeeza live blog has scrubbed the 2:10am report that I posted in Update 1.

UPDATE 1: Reports from Bahrain suggest a Tianamen scenario, or perhaps, a Taiwanese 2-28 massacre:

Troops and tanks have locked down the Bahraini capital of Manama on Thursday after riot police swinging clubs and firing tear gas smashed into demonstrators in a pre-dawn assault, killing at least four people.

Hours after the attack on Manama's main Pearl Roundabout, the military announced a ban on gatherings, saying on state TV that it had key parts of the capital under its control.

Khalid Al Khalifa, Bahrain's foreign minister, justified the crackdown as necessary because the demonstrators were polarising the country and pushing it to the brink of the sectarian abyss.

Speaking to reporters after meeting with his Gulf counterparts, he also said the violence was regrettable. Two people had died in police firing on the protesters prior to Thursday's deadly police raid.

An Al Jazeera correspondent, who cannot be named for security reasons, said that clashes were no longer limited to one place...they are now spread out in different parts of the city. He said that the hospitals are full of injured people after last night's police raid on the pro-reform demonstrators.

Some of them are severely injured with gunshots. Patients include doctors and emergency personnel who were overrun by the police while trying to attend to the wounded.

Another Al Jazeera online producer said that booms could be heard from different parts of the city, suggesting that tear-gas is being used to disperse the protesters in several neighbourhoods.

The protesters may be having more success in resisting the crackdown than that this article indicates, after all, the military statement that key parts of Manama are under control could be construed as indicating that much of the city is not. Interestingly, the report on the Al Jazeera live blog has a different emphasis:

2.10am Al Jazeera correspondents report that clashes in the capital are no longer confined to one place, but have spread to multiple locations across the city.

Doesn't sound like the capital has been locked down as described in the first sentence of the article, does it?

INITIAL POST: Ugly scenes in the early morning hours from Manama, the capital of Bahrain, where protesters, predominately from the repressed Shia majority, were brutally attacked:

Without warning, hundreds of heavily armed riot police officers rushed into Pearl Square here early Thursday, firing tear gas and concussion grenades at the thousands of demonstrators who were sleeping there as part of a widening protest against the nation’s absolute monarchy.

Men, women and young children ran screaming, choking and collapsing.

The square was filled with the crack of tear gas canisters and the wail of ambulances rushing people to the hospital. Teams of plainclothes police officers carrying shotguns swarmed through the area, but it was unclear if they used the weapons to subdue the crowd.

There was a fog of war, said Mohammed Ibrahim as he took refuge in a nearby gas station. He was barefoot, had lost his wallet and had marks on his leg where he said he had been beaten. There were children, forgive them.

Live updates from the Guardian reported that armoured vehicles, including tanks, in the streets of Manama and that the security forces are turned away ambulances sent for over a thousand injured victims who remained in the square.

Now, the military is asserting control over the streets:

The Bahrain military, backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers, took control of most of this capital on Thursday hours after hundreds of heavily armed riot police officers fired shotguns, tear gas and concussion grenades to break up a pro-democracy camp inspired by the tumult swirling across the Middle East.

Soldiers took up positions on foot, controlled traffic and told demonstrators that any further protests would be banned. The intervention came after police, without warning, rushed into Pearl Square in the early hours of the morning, in a crackdown on demonstrators who were sleeping there as part of a widening protest against the nation’s absolute monarchy.

At least five people died, some of them reportedly killed in their sleep with scores of shotgun pellets to the face and chest, according to a witness and three doctors who received the dead and at least 200 wounded at a hospital here. The witness and the physicians spoke in return for anonymity for fear of official reprisals.

And, the number of deaths is likely to rise:

17:02pm Al Jazeera's correspondent says that three more bodies are being kept in the morgue of Salmaniya hospital. There are also reports of another victim - a young girl. Two more patients are fighting for their lives in the hospital. There are also a lot of missing people. A medical source told our correspondent that the army may have taken away bodies in a refrigerated truck.

By way of background, admittedly courtesy of wikipedia, Bahrain is an archipelago in the Persian Gulf in which a Sunni minority rules over a Shia majority. It has a long rich history as a trading center dating back to ancient times, with the people of the island being among the first to embrace Islam. The Sunni Al-Khalifa family cemented its rule over the archipelago in the 19th Century, with the British playing a prominent role in the country's governance behind the scenes. With the emergence of the oil industry in the 20th Century, the monarchy, with British assistance, suppressed leftist labor movements agitating for political reforms in the 1950s.

More recently, in the 1990s, there was an uprising involving leftists, liberals and Islamicists against the monarchy. It was considered the first such coalition of such groups centered around issues of democratic reform. In Bahrain, they demanded the restoration of the Parliament dissolved in the mid-1970s as well as the restoration of the constitution that was suspended during this same period. With the passage of mild political reforms in 2001, the violence of the uprising abated, but has not fully disappeared, as one can readily find accounts of Shia boycotts of elections as well as riots and protests persisting to the present day. A brief persual of the Amnesty International library of reports reveals numerous episodes of illegal detentions and suppression of political activity.

Indeed, the most striking thing that one discovers about Bahrain is that the country has been experiencing ongoing political turmoil for decades. So, it is not suprising to discover that the implementation of the most recent reforms does not appear to have altered the essential autocratic structure of the society. Prior to the attack on the square, protesters demanded the release of political prisoners, more jobs and housing, the creation of a more representative and empowered parliament, a new constitution written by the people and a new a new cabinet that does not include Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa, who has been in office for 40 years. Shias assert that they are discriminated against in terms of access to education, government employment and political participation in the government, but while the current protests have a significant sectarian dimension, they have, as have past protest movements, drown support from many Sunnis as well, which, in their current manifestation, may reflect the extent to which neoliberal policies are impoverishing many Bahranis, regardless of religious background.

And how does a monarchy maintain the illusion of order in such a society? By recruiting foreigners to serve in the security forces and instigating sectarian conflict by actively seeking to diminish the influence of the suppressed majority:

Bahrain's security forces are the backbone of the Al Khalifa regime, now facing unprecedented unrest after overnight shootings. But large numbers of their personnel are recruited from other countries, including Jordan, Pakistan and Yemen.

Tanks and troops from Saudi Arabia were also reported to have been deployed in support of Bahraini forces. Precise numbers are a closely guarded secret, but in recent years the Manama government has made a concerted effort to recruit non-native Sunni Muslims as part of an attempt to swing the demographic balance against the Shia majority – who make up around 65% of the population of 1 million.

Bahrainis often complain that the riot police and special forces do not speak the local dialect, or in the case of Baluchis from Pakistan, do not speak Arabic at all and are reviled as mercenaries. Officers are typically Bahrainis, Syrians or Jordanians. Iraqi Ba'athists who served in Saddam Hussein's security forces were recruited after the US-led invasion in 2003. Only the police employs Bahraini Shias.

The secret police – the Bahrain national security agency, known in Arabic as the Mukhabarat – has undergone a process of Bahrainisationin recent years after being dominated by the British until long after independence in 1971. Ian Henderson, who retired as its director in 1998, is still remembered as the Butcher of Bahrain because of his alleged use of torture. A Jordanian official is currently described as the organisation's master torturer.

Meanwhile, where is the US in all this? Predictably, the New York Times provides the pragmatic perspective:

Though much smaller than Egypt, Bahrain is another pillar of the American security architecture in the Middle East. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, a Sunni Muslim, is a staunch ally of Washington in its showdown with Iran’s Shiite theocracy. In diplomatic cables made public by wikileaks, he urged administration officials to take military action to disable Iran’s nuclear program.Bahrain’s situation is also more complicated than Egypt’s because the uprising there is not purely a case of economically thwarted young people rebelling against a hidebound regime. It has a majority Shiite population that is expressing long-simmering resentments against the Sunni minority that rules with a tight grip.

Bahrain is considered a valued ally in the so-called war on terror as well.

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