Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Oh no, here we go again:(

On Sunday morning we awoke to news of more unrest in Bahrain.

A month after protests began, it seems that negotiations between the opposition parties and Government have stalled, in part because the six opposition parties (ranging between soft and hard line reformists) are at odds with each other. After some dialogue, an agreement has not been reached and protesters demands have not been met, so civil disobedience has been amped up a notch... or two, or three.

Last week US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates visited Bahrain and he advised that baby steps towards reform were not enough to stave off unrest in Bahrain. Clearly, this has turned out to be the case.
Earlier this week, anti-government protesters managed to shut down Bahrain's financial sector. Using their own make-shift blockades (eg, couches, metal railings, bricks and sand dunes) protesters caused chaos on the major freeway and significant disruption to morning traffic. Ten minutes after M dropped H off at school on Sunday morning (Sunday being the start of the working week in Bahrain) we received the following text message from the school:

"The situation has escalated - major traffic jams, teargas and police activity in Manama. Please collect your child ASAP. School is closing."

Needless to say, M rushed back to collect her and bring her back home.

Later that morning, we heard news that the protesters blockades had been challenged by police as rubber bullets and teargas were fired. And then last night rumors of the Saudi army being called in by the rulers were confirmed when a convoy of tanks entering Bahrain were shown on all the news channels. Images of the "Peninsula Shield" coalition force soldiers with big grins, holding rifles and signing victory with their fingers were shown on the Bahrain news channel - an attempt by the State to instill confidence, perhaps? In most people, those images seemed to have struck a chord of fear as all sorts of ridiculous and not so ridiculous rumors have surfaced.

Yesterday a friend of ours sent us a message saying that she had heard that martial law was to be imposed and that the British Embassy had sent out an alert. A quick check on the British Embassy official Facebook page revealed that this was a hoax. According to them, things are not so dire.

Aside from the unpredictability of it all, the most annoying thing about being here is that most of our news is hearsay. There's a lot of information floating around and we have to decide what is reliable. BBC and Al Jazeera are understandably focusing on Japan at the moment and the Bahrain news channel is too one sided to be reliable - refer to para above about scenes of happy soldiers.

I have a lot more to say, but my mind is a little scattered at the moment. We are deciding on a game plan in case things get worse but trying to stay calm. Alert but not alarmed:). It's sad to see this nation coming undone. It's  been our home for almost three years and in our experience, Bahrainis are down to earth, lovely people.

Excerpted below are a couple of paragraphs from an email my friend J sent out yesterday to her friends in Bahrain and abroad. It's good to read her perspective and with her permission, I am sharing it with you:

There is talk on the TV of an introduction of martial law - again no idea if this is accurate as the TV news has been wildly lopsided and inaccurate - and that made me think of why now and why at all - I guess it means you can start to see and treat some of your civilians as a threat to the nation's security and bring in your allies to support a crack down.  There is no doubt that things need to be brought back to order but it seems like a very tough line to take after a month of very little attempt to return things to order.  There has been dialogue but the opposition is not united - and those who want to overthrow the royal family have no interest in a discussion - and so I guess there was a timeframe in mind - it has been almost exactly a month.  I am sure that the terrible news coverage last month left the authorities not knowing how to bring order without attracting similar coverage - it was shocking how one-sided the coverage was and how irresponsible much of it was - and how flat footed the authorities seemed in the face of a tech savvy population communicating amongst themselves.

The strange thing about the last month is that things went back to normal quickly, people accommodated the protests - although it has been a nightmare for local businesses - hotels, restaurants, factories, small newly set up consultancies - and the Pearl roundabout took on the air of a music festival on its third day - people really settled in, a bit jaded but happy - little stalls selling water, shisha tents, paintings, haircuts, protest traffic control in the morning, kids there all day - people really enjoying the camp atmosphere.  A couple of days ago there was an extension - they moved across the freeway and started to block (four tents) the financial harbor and there were some violent clashes and bad tempered exchanges and then yesterday it got very serious, very quickly as you have all seen. 

I am very sad that there will be more violence and at the moment the poorly paid expats from Pakistan and Bangladesh/Bengal seem to be targets for local thugs - and that is really tragic.  The tradition here for people to be welcomed and to work their socks off for very little money, sometimes in terrible working conditions in order to support their families back home has enabled Bahrain to be built - for people to resent this now, to see these poor people as somehow taking jobs they don't want away from them is tragic and is as inhuman as the exploitation was to start with.  I know exploitation and resentment happens all over the world, including the UK - but it is so stark and visible here - and I know a lot of these guys personally and really respect how they work and am in awe of their capacity to earn so little and to be able to support others as a matter of course.

I am also very sad for my Bahraini friends - they are rightly known for being friendly, down to earth, enterprising and are fiercely proud of Bahrain - I understand that family members have really fallen out across sectarian lines and many friendships will take a long time to heal - hearts have hardened and that is always sad.  This is not a sectarian fight but is one of equality of opportunity - and reforming from the position of privilege must be possible - and I am optimistic (possibly naive) that the Crown Prince wants to do this - as he can't fulfill his purpose without doing this - but I am not sure he will get the support to do this quickly enough.

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