Democracy Lab

The Strange Revolution in Bahrain, One Year On

The revolt in little Bahrain is easy to ignore. But it’s actually part of a big global story.

In my career as a journalist I've interviewed lots of people who have been persecuted for political reasons. Usually they're eager to tell you about the causes for which they've suffered.

I've never met another one quite like Ghazi Farhan. Not that long ago he was just another wealthy businessman, part-owner of several posh restaurants and cafes in the wealthy Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain.

But that was before the Arab Spring arrived. On April 12 last year, Farhan had just parked his car in a garage when he was waylaid by a group of men. Knocked to the ground by a flurry of punches and kicks, he was handcuffed, blindfolded, and pushed into a car. 10 hours later, when the blindfold was finally removed, he realized that he was in a police station.

It was a bewildering experience. When the uprising began one year ago, many Bahrainis gravitated to the mushrooming demonstrations against the ruling Al Khalifa monarchy. But not Farhan. "Politics is not my fight," he says. "I just want to have a happy life." If anything, he was pro-government.

He told his interrogators as much. He admitted that he had occasionally come along to watch the demonstrators converging on the famed Pearl Roundabout, the traffic circle that served as the lodestar of the marches. He didn't participate. But he also told his interrogators that he'd tell them that he had if it would help. Whatever they wanted to hear, anything, as long as it would stop the torture. But they didn't stop.

They beat him with lengths of rubber hose. They deprived him of sleep and forced him to stand long hours in stress positions. They threatened him with rape. They threatened to rape his wife or his mother. At times, still blindfolded, he was tortured in the company of other prisoners. Listening to them scream and cry, he says, was just about the worst.

Several other themes figured prominently in his interrogation sessions. One was religion. Farhan, like the majority of Bahrain's 600,000 citizens, belongs to the Shia branch of Islam. The Bahraini royal family, which has ruled this tiny country since the late 18th century, is Sunni.

You aren't a real Muslim, his interrogators told him. You're a traitor; you're a friend of Iran. The allegation confounded him. "What do I have to do with Iran?" he says. "We have nothing in common with them. We are a liberal country. You want to pray, you pray. You want to party, you party."

Money was another big issue for his tormentors. Farhan was proud of his business success. Gucci is one of his favorite brands, and the car he drove was a Cadillac. He worked hard to get where he was. In Bahrain, he explains, Shiites are largely excluded from government jobs, so they have to study well and work hard to earn a good living in the private sector. He thought that he had made it.

One of the first questions his attackers asked him, that day in the car park, was about his salary. The low-level police thugs handling his case earned a pittance by comparison, and they hated him for it.

Many of them were Yemenis, Syrians, even Pakistanis -- but all were Sunnis, recruited by the royal family from the poorest parts of the Muslim world to beef up Bahrain's repressive apparatus. In return, some even receive the bounty of citizenship -- a reward that most expatriates can get only after living in the kingdom for a minimum of 15 years. If anything can be said to worsen the country's sectarian divides, surely this has to be one of them.

No one knows the precise number of people employed by the kingdom's security forces. By some estimates the ratio could be as high as one security operative to every eight citizens.

The real reason for Farhan's arrest soon became apparent: It was his marriage. His wife, Ala'a Shehabi, a British-trained PhD in economics, is the daughter of one of the founders of the Wefaq Party, Bahrain's leading opposition group. She, too, had spent most of her life outside of politics, studying in the United Kingdom. Two years ago she returned to Bahrain, hoping to contribute at least a bit to the betterment of her country.

But she soon ran head-on into the reality of disenfranchisement. Even though Bahrain's standard of living was high, the experience of being patronized by the all-powerful state soon rankled. "At the end of the day you have no avenue for expression," she says. "People here are highly educated, but you have to force the government to acknowledge you and to recognize your existence. I need to have control over my destiny." She joined the protests, but her husband remained aloof. She smiles sadly. "I'm the activist, not him."

Attacking her directly, however, would have posed a tricky political challenge for the government. Shehabi, a dual passport holder, is British as well as Bahraini. So they went after her husband instead.

At least she had the resources to mount an effective campaign for his freedom. After nine and a half months Farhan was finally released. He had missed a lot of time with his son Nasser, born in August 2010. His business partners, pressured by the government, bought him out. So now he has to start over. But the nightmares won't stop.

The government has vowed to prevent things like this from happening again. An independent investigation into last year's turmoil documented 35 deaths in the crackdown on the demonstrators.

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has said that he'll reform the political system to give people more of a voice. So far not much has happened. In an interview published a few days ago, King Hamad denied the existence of political prisoners and suggested that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad should follow the advice of "the Syrian people" -- remarks, according to one journalist I spoke with in the Bahraini capital of Manama, that merely served to enflame the populace.

On February 13, Bahrainis took to the streets again. The Pearl Roundabout has been dismantled, but the demonstrators have tried to find new rallying points. The police rained down tear gas canisters on an estimated 10,000 protestors. An overwhelming security clampdown around the kingdom seems to have largely deterred additional demonstrations on the day of the one-year anniversary.

Bahrain hasn't solved any of its problems. With time, the opposition -- some of whom have moved from calling for constitutional monarchy to throwing Molotov cocktails at the police -- will grow radicalized. Iran has little to gain from getting directly involved, but then it doesn't really have to. The deepening global schism between Sunni and Shia can only be exacerbated by the images from Manama. (Right now, little noticed in the outside world, restive Shiites in the nearby Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia are battling the police once again.)

Like her husband, Ala'a never really thought of herself primarily as a Shiite before. But now she has no choice: "We're worthless. We're treated like second-class citizens." Now the authorities put photos of individual protestors on TV and the internet, urging people to inform on each other. The government, says Farhan, "is promoting the gap between Shia and Sunni."

Bahrain is small, and that makes it easy to ignore. But no one should make the mistake of thinking that that makes it unimportant.

AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

No Joke

Burma's famous comedian-cum-activist explains why he can forgive but refuses to forget.

A few months ago the Burmese government decided to let a prominent dissident out of jail. One of the first things he did when he got out was to demand freedom for one of his jailers.

I met yesterday with Maung Thura, better known by his pseudonym of "Zarganar." Zarganar is often described as a comedian, but he's much more than that. Over the years his combined role as a satirist, movie star, and social activist has made him the most famous opposition figure in Burma after Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate who is now campaigning for a seat in Burma's parliament. (For the record, his business card describes him as an "Art-Flavored Politician." The photo above shows him on October 12, the day of  his release.)

Now 50, he has spent 11 of those years in jail (five of them in solitary confinement). He was imprisoned for the first time in 1988, when the ruling military junta shot thousands of people in its effort to disperse pro-democracy demonstrators. One of the people behind the crackdown was General Khin Nyunt, head of the military intelligence agency. Khin Nyunt eventually rose to the position of prime minister, making him the number three figure in the regime.

"When he was a very powerful man, he sent me to jail two times," Zarganar says. He declines to discuss details, but according to some accounts he spent part of his stint in Insein Prison locked up in a dog kennel. Human rights organizations documented countless examples of abuse in Burmese jails during the period. Among the people who gave the torturers their orders was Khin Nyunt.

Like his high-ranking colleagues, Khin Nyunt amassed vast personal wealth through his privileged access to the country's vast natural resources. And, again like his colleagues, he bore direct responsibility for the myriad brutalities perpetrated by the government against its own population.

He was responsible for the conduct of savage wars conducted against ethnic minority groups. He was responsible for the ruinous policies that helped to reduce Burma from one of Asia's richest countries to one of its poorest. And he was responsible for the vicious suppression of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the non-violent opposition movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi, after its overwhelming victory in a 1990 election called by the generals to mollify popular discontent.

In 2004, Khin Nyunt lost an internal power struggle. His rivals in the military leadership threw him into jail, then moved him to the purgatory of house arrest.

In 2010, after an election deemed by most observers to be rigged, one of Khin Nyunt's former comrades, a general by the name of Thein Sein, laid down his uniform, installed himself at the head of a new civilian government, and declared his intention to lead the country toward democracy. Last October, striving to underline its eagerness for reform, the government released hundreds of political prisoners -- including Zarganar, who was serving a 35-year-sentence imposed in 2008 for the heinous crime of organizing private aid to the victims of a cyclone that had taken 140,000 lives.

As soon as Zarganar emerged he began publicly calling upon the government to show its good faith by releasing the rest of the political prisoners in its custody. But, much more controversially, he also demanded freedom for Khin Nyunt. On January 13, another batch of prisoners was let out -- and so was the general.

"When he was released the general asked to thank me," Zarganar says. Burmese culture prizes respect for one's elders, so it was the younger Zarganar who was expected to come to the general, his senior by 20 years. "So I visited his house and accepted his thank-you."

The house turned out to be a mansion, lavishly furnished. A wall of the room in which the two men met was occupied by a huge flat-screen TV. Zarganar noticed a late-model iPad lying on a table, and counted the boxes from more than a dozen mobile phones stacked in a corner. These luxuries attested to the wealth that Burma's rulers have accumulated from their years of control over the economy. "Whenever his followers entered the room," Zarganar says, "he gave each of them 10 U.S. dollars" -- a nice gift by the standards of the impoverished Burmese. So much for sanctions.

Even if the government moves ahead with its opening of the political system, the generals are likely to keep their hold over many of the economy's choice assets. When I ask Zarganar if the opposition is willing to accept such trade-offs for progress towards democracy, he smiles ruefully. "This is a very critical time," he says. "We have to move forward with negotiations. We cannot make demands like that. This is the time of trust-building. The government is more powerful than us."


He's right, of course. Even if Aung San Suu Kyi wins her bid for a seat in parliament, she and her fellow NLD members will still be vastly outnumbered by other lawmakers who were elected under rules drawn up by the generals. But at least the opposition will finally have a voice. That counts for something.

The meeting between Zarganar and Khin Nyunt lasted 15 minutes. The general offered no refreshments to his guest. "He didn't offer me coffee, or water, or beer," Zarganar says, laughing. The general did, however, thank the comedian for lobbying on his behalf.

But did Khin Nyunt offer any apologies for putting him in jail all those years ago? Zarganar sidesteps the question. Discussions of that kind should remain private, he says. If the general wants to apologize to the Burmese people, that is something that should be done in public.

So far Khin Nyunt has opted to hold his tongue (perhaps under pressure from his former military colleagues). But it could yet come to that. Zarganar says that there will be no way to avoid some sort of reckoning with the past. Putting officials on trial might not be the right approach, he says. There are better ways: "I like and support truth and reconciliation. The people who did criminal things must admit their misdeeds. They must admit their misdeeds and apologize to the people."

His post-prison travels include a stop in Cambodia to examine how that country has dealt with the traumas of its own recent history. He declares himself particular impressed by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which serves as a national repository for information about the 1970s genocide there.

And on the day we spoke, here in Washington, Zarganar had just visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It's all part of a private quest to understand how to help his own country to cope with the traumas of so many years of authoritarian rule. "We can forgive, but we cannot forget."

Memory, indeed, has many uses: "Democracy is not strange for our people. Before 1962 we had many experiences with democracy and democratic government. So we are ready. But we have to make it" -- he searches for the right word -- "sustainable."

That's precisely the challenge. Burma's rulers -- most of them, at least -- understand that the cost of maintaining absolute power can only be extremely high. "They can control the military, they can control the parliament, but they cannot control the public," says Zarganar. But that's not the whole story.

The leaders are also aware of the desire for revenge harbored by many of their own citizens, and that fear compels them to tread cautiously. For all the progress that Burma has made within the past few months, many of the most repressive laws of the old regime remain on the books. "They let me out of prison but my sentence remains in effect," Zarganar says. "I still have 31 years and four months to go. If I'm arrested again, I'll have to serve the rest." Under current law, you can still receive decades of jail time for reading or writing an email deemed to be subversive by the government.

Zarganar prefers to look forward. He wants to see a Burma that respects both the economic interests and cultural identities of the ethnic minorities. He wants to see a country that allows its own people to prepare themselves for active participation in the global community. And though he declines to join a political party for the moment, he does not rule out the possibility of one day running for political office. If all goes well, he says, Burma could achieve the status of a full-fledged democracy by the year 2020.

That seems optimistic. But if this man can summon up optimism, surely the rest of us can.

Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images