The Mal­dives Rough Road

Democ­racy in the Mal­dives was sac­ri­ficed at the al­tar of good gov­er­nance – and at a high cost.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Sa’adia Reza

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.

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