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Democratic decline in the Maldives: will the world wake up?

When Gayoom the elder was president, the government sought to facilitate the entrance of Islamist groups into the Maldives. The resumption of this now may be another opportunity for proponents of genuine democracy to sharpen the concern of international observers. 

Located about 500 miles south east of Sri Lanka, the Maldives is a nation of twenty-six major islands or atolls, known mostly for their tropical setting, white sandy beaches, and warm crystal clear waters. Every year, tourists from around the world come to the Maldives to bask in this idyllic setting. Most of these visitors don’t know that there are more than 340,000 people living on surrounding islands. But before taking a private charter to their selected resort, outsiders land at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport on an atoll across from the island capital city of Malé. Roughly two and a half (2.5) square kilometers and home to one-third of the nation’s population, this dense agglomeration of buildings, docks, boats, streets, motorbikes, and milling people rises out of the sea like a colorful cruise ship, with its bright facades in sharp contrast to the deep cool blue of the sky and sea.

The ship metaphor is also useful for understanding the society as a whole. Dominated by an autocratic network of property-owning elites, unsettled by the encroachment of Muslim fundamentalists (a relatively new factor), and losing an ever increasing percentage of its land to sea level rise, the majority of Maldivians, traditionally secular, progressive, and outward looking, are quite literally struggling to remain afloat. Despite more than 30 years of political struggle, most Maldivians still yearn to establish firmly not only a democratically elected government but also a fundamental overhaul of the rickety, unresponsive institutions that have been keeping the nation from reaching its full potential.

Protesters urging fresh elections in Malé in 2013. Mohamed Muha/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Civil resistance has been one means by which many Maldivians have waged a struggle to establish and defend basic political, civic, and human rights. In 2008 a mass movement culminating in free and fair elections successfully ended the authoritarian presidency of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who prior to his ouster had stayed in office for 30 years, long enough to become South Asia’s longest standing dictator. But this new period of democratic leadership was short-lived. In 2012 democratically elected president Mohamed Nasheed, was ousted in a coup so swift and bloodless that the international community could scarcely figure out what happened much less develop an appropriate response. Following the coup, lingering old regime influence over the nation’s judiciary allowed the dregs of the dictatorship to ‘legally’ affirm the transfer of power, and later to ensure that its presidential candidate, the former dictator’s younger brother Abdulla Yameen Gayoom, achieved victory in an irregular sequence of balloting that took place in November of last year.

The old/new regime’s raison d'être has been to ensure that a generous share of the hundreds of millions of dollars generated annually through tourism revenues are diverted to the pockets of the elite. This was almost surely the driving force behind the putsch against Nasheed in 2012, and is likely behind several new disturbing developments that have occurred since the second coming of the Gayoom group. To apply those resources to the needs of the people is the chief rallying cry of democratic forces, which continue to adhere to nonviolent action to challenge the stunting of justice and promote a more transparent government.

Diplomacy and sanctions

One of the new developments was represented by the September 16 visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who along with 200 representatives of China’s top corporations, met with Maldivian officials to discuss infrastructure projects. Topping the list was a proposed plan to build a much needed bridge connecting the island capital city of Malé to the airport. It seems that for the moment China wants a strategic partnership with the Maldives before moving forward with its ‘New Silk Road’ trade initiative. This would support include new shipping lanes connecting China to Africa’s East Coast which pass through waters just south of the Maldives. The current regime welcomes Chinese investment but most of all desires secure access to more tourism dollars.

Modi meets Maldives President Abdulla Yameen Gayoom in May, 2014 Narendra Modi meets Maldives President Abdulla Yameen Gayoom in May, 2014. Amit Kumar/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Those who have campaigned for genuine democracy understand that getting the outside world to impose sanctions (such as travel restrictions) on the Maldives would impose immense economic costs for the regime. In 2012 a spokesperson for Nasheed’s MDP (Maldivian Democratic Party), the chief opposition party in the country, said that, “this is the most effective form of nonviolent pressure.” But acknowledging the wider economic effects on the public, he also noted: “This is a sign that the MDP has gotten very serious. This is the last resort.”

However there are degrees to which this strategy could be used. Following the 2012 putsch the Maldivian Ministry of Tourism said that ‘political turmoil’ had scared off an estimated 40,000 tourists that year. This means that despite the coup, the resort owners lost substantial revenue and had to spend the equivalent of 4.5 million US dollars on an international public relations campaign, designed to offset the losses generated by the alarming news.

Political turmoil

‘Political turmoil’, in the form of protests, strikes, boycotts, and sit-ins that have been organized in the past against various regime abuses, are more likely to scare off western tourists, particularly those coming from Europe and the British Commonwealth. This seems not to be the case with the Chinese. During his September 16 visit, President Xi noted that “China has been the largest source of tourists for the Maldives for four years running. To the Chinese, especially the young people, the Maldives is an ideal holiday destination and a romantic retreat.” Indeed Chinese tourists now represent one third of the total number of tourists annually, which would rise in the wake of Silk Road deal. But more immediately, China represents a robust and reliable source of tourism dollars that would not be discouraged by the potential of protests or their repression. 

The second development has to do with the increasing erosion of freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the Maldives. The most recent and jarring manifestation of this was the disappearance of the prominent journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla two months ago. There has been strong evidence that he was abducted. Several eyewitnesses report seeing Rilwan forced into a car at knifepoint outside his apartment at roughly 2 a.m. on August 8 after getting off a ferry to Hulhumalé atoll. Also CCTV footage from the ferry showed him being followed by suspicious persons just an hour before his disappearance. Police have also found the knife that the several eyewitnesses say was used to force him into a car. 

Rilwan’s disappearance is the first of its kind in recent years though there are records of dozens of people who disappeared during Gayoom’s 30-year dictatorship. Despite the evidence, Maldivian police and security forces were slow to investigate. In the weeks following his disappearance, a part of the public has now grown increasingly angry with the government’s response.

Boycott

As a consequence, the MDP planned to boycott the national census. The tactic will have a primarily symbolic effect that may nevertheless serve to raise awareness both domestically and internationally. The vice president of the MDP stated, “I do want to note the importance of a census. But when we do not know what happens to Maldivians, when citizens have been disappeared, I do not believe we should proceed with a census.”  

Rilwan’s family and friends have petitioned the government with 5,000 signatures demanding justice for the missing journalist. These and other actions have cascaded into a world-wide social media campaign, a website set up by Rilwan’s colleagues to help document developments in the case, an online petition on Avaaz rallies led by Rilwan’s family and friends in Male, and the Maldives Exodus Caravan show currently in New York where the former editor of Minivan News spoke of Rilwan’s disappearance.

Journalists receive death threats

These efforts were successful in getting the attention of the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights who, in an August 18 statement, mentioned that the disappearance was particularly worrying, "given that 15 journalists have reported receiving death threats through anonymous text messages just in the first week of August." The International Federation of Journalists also issued a statement urging a more thorough government investigation, as well as concerns over the possibility that Rilwan’s disappearance could be related to his work as a journalist. 

New legislation has also made it harder for journalists to do their jobs. On December 25, 2012, the new government passed a bill that outlaws the act of public protest as well as the act of documenting such protests. Under this new law, all journalists, both foreign and domestic, must be licensed by a government-appointed committee before they can cover a public protest. This is on top of the fact that international journalists already have to go through the arduous process of obtaining a special visa just to come to the Maldives.

Most recently, on September 9, 2014, the government gazetted new regulations on the publication of literature, mandating prior approval of all writing, poetry, verses, jingles and ringtones by the Censorship Bureau before publication and distribution in any form including the internet. A major uproar occurred on social media, with Twitter and Facebook exploding with verses ridiculing the regulation, prompting the government to make an announcement the next day excluding “social media”. Blogs are still covered.

Efforts to publicize these impositions and injustices have been effective in spurring a limited degree of international attention to these new threats to an open society. Since the coup the Maldives has fallen sharply in the Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index, especially in 2013. The Maldives is now ranked 103 out of 179 countries, which marks a return to pre-2008 levels. The country’s ranking had improved from 144th in 2006 and 127th in 2007 to 51st and 52nd in the years following the first multi-party elections in 2008. The rapid decrease was explained this way: “The events that led to the resignation of President Mohamed Nasheed in February 2012 led to violence and threats against journalists in state television and private media outlets regarded as pro-Nasheed by the coup leaders.” They also noted that “attacks on press freedom have increased since then. Many journalists have been arrested, assaulted and threatened during anti-government protests.”

International observers

The attention of international observers underscores the particular importance of foreign support in this conflict, especially given the special geographic, economic, and demographic conditions in the Maldives. In 2008 the democratic movement’s ability to cultivate foreign support for democratic elections, along with support for local civil society groups, was perhaps the key factor that helped usher in the short-lived period of democratic governance under Nasheed. This is why the democratic opposition now takes so seriously initiatives to protect freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

When the world’s attention turned away, elements within and behind the former regime seized the opportunity and effectively retook power. Now they look to foreign support, in the form of their accustomed slice of tourism revenue, new infrastructure deals with the Chinese, and also funding from autocratic Gulf states. When Gayoom was president, the government sought to facilitate the entrance of Islamist groups into the Maldives, not because the regime is particularly religious, but because such forces are often not bothered when freedom of speech and of the press are interdicted. The resumption of this now may be another opportunity for proponents of genuine democracy to sharpen the concern of international observers and democratic governments elsewhere.

Pointedly, former president Nasheed, in an interview with The Independent, argued that some of the consequences stemming from the government’s close relationship with Islamist elements might explain Rilwan’s disappearance -- and that an estimated 200 Maldivians have recently joined the ranks of ISIS. “President Yameen feels he can deal with the Islamist threat later,” Nasheed said, “but first he wants to consolidate power.” He seemed to suggest that the US State Department, which had returned to its default mode of paying no attention to the state of governance in the Maldives, should take note of the consequences for Maldivian democracy of rising Chinese and Islamist influence.

The Maldives should be seen as a microcosm of many aspects of struggles taking place throughout the world: long-standing elites exert a retrograde influence on rights, democracy and social freedoms, and by doing so they help themselves to profit from corruption, cronyism, and the enervation or breakdown of democratic institutions. Accordingly, civil resistance becomes the necessary mechanism for people to try to save democratic practices and individual rights.

This same dynamic played out in South Africa during the long struggle against apartheid, in the Philippines in the 1980s, and during the Arab Spring. Within all these struggles, the concern and action of other governments, especially those in the democratic world, had a serious impact. Here the stakes are just as large, albeit in a remote island nation. The international community has the opportunity to defend a set of democratic ideals to which it has long paid lip service, at a very low cost, and by doing so affect the lives and fortunes of a nation’s people.

The question right now is simple:  Will international actors who believe in genuine democracy be consistent in defending it, regardless of the stakes and the context?

About the author

Matt Mulberry is Program Advisor for Editorial & Media Initiatives for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. He holds an M.A. degree in International Relations from Central European University.

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