Bahrain, little Syria
ANNO BUNNIKThe Shiite population of Bahrain recently “celebrated” the first anniversary of the start of their revolution. On Feb. 14 last year, thousands of demonstrators gathered at the Pearl Roundabout demanding an end to discrimination and exclusion by the Sunni rulers. In the weeks that followed the security forces of the king cracked down on the Pearl Roundabout with force.
According to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, 72 demonstrators have died in the last year. Most were shot by security forces, while others died due to inhaling tear gas or because of torture. Injured protesters, upon arrival at the hospital, where taken by the secret service and doctors and nurses who treated the wounded have been prosecuted for “anti-state crimes.”
One month after the start of this revolution, dozens of Saudi tanks crossed the bridge to the capital of Bahrain to clear Pearl Roundabout. The call for more rights for the poor Shiite majority was thereby crushed by the king and his allies from the Gulf.
Since then, the king has desperately tried to cleanse his image at home and abroad. He spent millions of petrodollars on Western PR companies to create a favorable image of him and also talked about implementing reform. The proposed reform consisted of the creation of a commission of national dialogue, which suggests that the Shiite are now finally included in the political process.
But this is mere illusion. The absolute power over decision-making is still in the hands of the king instead of a democratically elected Parliament and the Shiite population has little or no influence on politics despite their numerical majority. The reforms of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa seem suspiciously like the proposed reforms of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Both rulers insist that the only solution to their domestic conflict is through dialogue with the opposition.
The atrocities of the corrupt Syrian regime has dominated our news pages for months, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support for al-Assad has strongly been condemned. And rightly so. But why do we hear so little about the crackdown on protesters in Bahrain?
First, it has to do with the scale of things. Bahrain only has about half a million inhabitants and covers an area about 15 percent the size of Istanbul. Moreover, the riots in Bahrain, unlike those in Syria, have successfully been beaten down by the ruling regime, with the help of the Saudi army and the approval of the United States.
The fact that the protesters in Bahrain do not face daily shelling such as the protesters in Homs does not change the fact that the discrimination and exclusion of the Shiite population is endemic. Hundreds of prisoners are still imprisoned based on their political conviction and this week saw the use of excessive force against the opposition again. The wounded have undoubtedly avoided going to hospitals yesterday out of fear of falling into the hands of the secret service.
The question is what other states can do about it. It is impossible for the international community to invade every country that suppresses its citizens. Yet it is important to take the situation in Bahrain into account when we talk about Syria. Bahrain indeed is little Syria. In both countries the majority is oppressed by the minority and its rulers are eager to use force to crack down on pro-democracy protests.
Another similarity is that both countries are supported by world powers out of narrow-minded self-interest. Syria is a strategic partner for Russia and Bahrain for the U.S. The Syrian port of Tartus harbors part of the Russian fleet while the American Fifth Fleet is stationed in Manama.
If the international community criticizes Russia for supplying arms to the regime in Damascus then it must also criticize Western countries for supplying arms to Bahrain. If not, we face the risking of siding with the Sunni protesters in the region only and push the Bahraini protesters into the hands of Iran.
Anno Bunnik is a political analyst from the Netherlands working as freelancer for several institutes based in The Hague.