Bahrain Protesters Demand Political Changes

In Bahrain, the funeral of another protester could lead to more trouble for the government. Protesters say the Sunni leadership denies the Shiite majority decent housing, health care and government jobs.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Let's get up to date now on the political turmoil in the Middle East. In the small island nation of Bahrain today, thousands of protesters marched in the funeral of a demonstrator who'd been killed. The protesters say the country's Sunni Muslim leadership denies the Shiite majority decent housing, health care and government jobs. So this is a demonstration about sectarian differences, as well as political differences. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in the capital city of Manama, and he's on the line now.

Peter, where are you?

PETER KENYON: Steve, I am in Pearl Square, as it's come to be known, actually a very large traffic circle n central Manama. And I'm just surrounded by demonstrators relaxing after the afternoon prayers. Many tents have gone up here. I'm being congratulated just for being here as a member of the foreign press. People are giving me tea and oranges and sandwiches.

It's quite a festive atmosphere, as you can imagine. In the early days of this sort of breakthrough moment when they were able to take and occupy this square and get their demands heard in a part of Manama, in a part of Bahrain that really in some ways didn't know they existed or didn't want to know. So it's a big deal here to them.

INSKEEP: Well, it's interesting to hear of the relaxed mood, because, of course, this latest uprising was triggered when there were some demonstrations. Two demonstrators were killed and now people are out in the streets. Are police present where you are?

KENYON: I can't see any police right now. And it's been since yesterday morning when the second demonstrator was killed during a funeral procession for the first slain protestor.

At that point, the government seemed to have made a clear decision to change their tactics. They realized that the more clashes there were the more risk of people being killed, the more galvanized the protestors are becoming and the more determined. So they have been redeployed and they are not stood down completely. They are still deployed around the city, but they have not moved in and there's been no further clashes since yesterday more.

INSKEEP: NPR's Peter Kenyon is in the capital city of Bahrain. And, Peter, do the protestors want reforms only or do they want a regime change here?

KENYON: You have been hearing calls for down Khalifa, down Khalifa, for example. That's the name of the Sunni royal family that runs this majority Shiite country.

But the organizers of the protest are very clear that their demands remain the same, and that is political reform, not necessarily having the king step down. It's something that the government has promised for some time. And according to the Shiite majority here, according to these protestors, they have not delivered sufficiently on it.

Ultimately what these people would like is to turn Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy. In other words, devolve a lot of power away from the king and make it something along the lines of say Britain's constitutional monarchy.

INSKEEP: Sounds like it's getting a little noisier there, Peter. What's happening now?

KENYON: It's always in flux here. You never know what's going to happen. There's helicopters going overhead. That is the only security presence here. They're monitoring the activity, trying to keep track of how many people are where.

INSKEEP: Of course, the United States is also monitoring the situation. Although I notice, Peter Kenyon, that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, although she spoke out against the crackdown on demonstrators in Iran in recent days has not said as much about Bahrain.

KENYON: Well, now that has been very much noticed here, Steve. I can't tell you how many people have come up to me and spoken quite excitedly about the Obama administration's - what they call here, you know, them cheering on the protestors in Tehran but not saying a word about the protestors here. That's how it looks to them anyway.

But here in Bahrain you have a slightly different security situation. There's U.S. interests. The king of Bahrain is a reliable ally in counterterrorist activities, they host the 5th Fleet for the Navy here. And he's also a bulwark for Saudi Arabia, which is just a 15 minute drive away over a causeway here. They are very concerned about Shiite uprisings possibly fomented by Iran. And so they're very happy to see this small island run by a Sunni royal family.

INSKEEP: NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Bahrain.

Peter, thanks very much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Steve.

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