The Maldives Rough Road
Democracy in the Maldives was sacrificed at the altar of good governance – and at a high cost.
On the world map, the Maldives stand aloof, keeping their distance from their other South Asian brethren. Yet, the islands draw tourists like a magnet with their ethereal natural beauty. The islands have evoked many a vivid imagination, their scenic views lending a sense of serenity that – given their current social and political scenario – seems almost deceptive. For the Maldives today, a simmering pot of political upheavals, conspiracy theories and undemocratic and dictatorial rule, are a fact.
With a history of autocratic governments, the Maldives’ tryst with democracy was as short as it was dramatic. Despite gaining independence in 1965, the country saw its first democratically elected president in 2008 when Mohammad Nasheed, the dissident journalist-turned-politician, ousted Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who had ruled the Maldives for 30 years. But the honeymoon period tragically ended when the then opposition began protesting against perceived unlawful arrest of the chief judge of the Criminal Court ordered by Nasheed. Subsequently, the former president stepped down and handed over the reins to Vice President Mohamed Hassan Waheed in February 2012. Nasheed, however alleged that he was forced to resign “on gunpoint” by police and army officers. The tale reached its climax when the former president was sentenced to 13 years in prison on charges of terrorism in April this year under what is widely regarded as an unfair trial.
The outcry that ensued postjudgment was expected and the manner in which the present government is handling the criticism has raised quite a few eyebrows. But the real question that needs immediate attention is whether the Maldives, which had finally dragged democracy into the corridors of power, ever see rule of the people again? What will it take for the order to be restored, if at all? This is not the first time the issue has come under the spotlight; political analysts have been wondering about the fate of the nation every since Abdullah Yameen, Gayoom’s half-brother, took office in 2013 through elections which are often claimed to be “rigged.”
Unfortunately, few people are optimistic of democracy’s return to the Maldives very soon and find little evidence that would suggest otherwise. In an online interview in March this year, the executive director of Transparency Maldives, Maryiam Shiuna,, went so far as to say that the present-day Maldives has returned to the pre-2008 era ”where political opposition was met with persecution.” Shiuna further claims that the current administration has a strong hold over all branches of government and recent controversial steps, including the sudden removal of the Auditor General and two Supreme Court Justice, simply fortifies apprehensions that the Maldives is fast sliding back into the
autocratic mode. Hundreds of protestors demanding Nasheed’s release have also been arrested and jailed, including representatives of the former president’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).
Other subsequent events following Nasheed’s arrest also give a fair indication of the direction the country’s politics is heading towards. The 11-year imprisonment of Colonel Mohammad Nazim, Nasheed’s former defence minister, the recent arrest warrant for Qasim Ibrahim – the leader of Jamhooree - an opposition party, tells the tale quite graphically. Similarly, other political associates of the former president are reportedly facing charges while supporting journalists are no less in danger. The manner in which the media has been handled in the past couple of years, manifests the severe clamp on freedom of expression and speech. In September last year, Yameen’s government imposed restrictions on the publication of literature. Prior approval was required for all writing, poetry, verses, jingles and ringtones by the censorship bureau before it could be disseminated to the masses in any form. A fiery uproar in social networking websites forced the government to exclude social media from the list, although blogs are still regulated.
Another dangerous development rearing its head and becoming a threat to democracy is the increasing presence of religious extremism in the country. With the Sharia law imposed last year, radical Islam is finding the Maldives a fertile ground to prosper. According to a recent report in The Japan Times, the law has attracted Islamic State recruiters and quoted that anywhere from 30 to 500 Maldivians (from a total population of 345,000) are already fighting for the jihadist group.
Given such indications, the prospect of democracy finding its feet again in the Maldives seems quite remote. Political analysts firmly link such revival with the return of Nasheed, which is why it is important to exert global pressure on Yameen to release Nasheed. The Maldivian law gives the president leverage to commute the sentence of someone convicted under criminal charges for humanitarian reasons and, according to a NDTV website report, the jail sentence has been altered to house arrest. But beyond that, chances of anything happening seem bleak, since the present government is not open to any foreign intervention in the country’s domestic political affairs. For example, the relationship between India and the Maldives which was quite harmonious during the MDP’s rule is now become rather strained. This was further aggravated after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled his visit to Male in wake of Nasheed’s arrest. In the meanwhile, China has been steadily strengthening economic ties with the Maldives.
Just recently, President Yameen lashed out at what he regarded as interference of the western world which has been criticizing the government for convicting Nasheed. At the 50th anniversary of the Maldives’ independence, the president accused the developed countries of forcing their respective legal and moral standards on the archipelago. According to the translation of his speech which his office released, he has vowed to “resist threats from outside which were far more dangerous than those from within.” The President has already asked the Parliament if the Maldives should leave the Commonwealth as well.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that global pressure seems to be the only option that may put democracy back on track in the Maldives. The world’s reducing tourism ties is an option that can be well-exercised since the country heavily relies economically on its tourism industry which has already suffered after Nasheed’s arrest. Critics also point out that the former president is likely to gain popularity during imprisonment and that will work in his favour. The archipelago that had just set itself on the path of democracy and had to backtrack only a few years down the road, faces a rough road before it can reach the goal of real democracy. The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi. She writes on topics related to human interest and civic issues.