Unrest in the Maldives

by Eric Randolph

After a brief taste of democracy, the Maldives has veered back towards authoritarian rule in the past year; by exploiting fundamentalist religious and nationalist forces, the current crop of rulers may have undermined their own positions as well as the country’s vital tourism sector.


Those who have been disappointed by the squandered promise of revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia in recent months might benefit from a close  look  at the Maldives. The archipelago of 1,192 islands in the Indian Ocean has been an unlikely bellwether for the Arab Spring, foreshadowing both the end of dictatorships in the Middle East and the subsequent wilting of democratic aspirations.


Promise squandered

The Maldives conjure images of slanted palm trees and bikini-clad women, every year attracting close to a million visitors who, by and large, do not engage with the stridently Sunni Muslim culture of its locals for whom other forms of religion remain illegal.

By the start of 2008, the islands were still run by Maumoon Gayoom, who, after 30 years in office, was Asia’s longest serving dictator. His endurance can be attributed to a series of elections that featured no opposition candidates. He packed cabinet and top government posts with friends and family, censored the press and jailed opposition.

Facing mounting protests, a turning point seemed to come in January of that year during a visit to the island of Hoarafushi, when an unemployed 20-year-old man leaped out of a crowd and tried to stab Gayoom in the stomach – foiled by a teenage boy scout who wrestled the attacker to the ground. The incident appeared to focus Gayoom’s concerns about rising opposition to his rule and hurry along a much-delayed new constitution, which was finally enacted in August 2008 and allowed for the country’s first direct presidential elections.

To Gayoom’s reported shock, he was defeated in the October poll that followed by Mohamed Nasheed, the man who spearheaded two decades of pro-democracy activism and spent years inside Gayoom’s jails. Nasheed was an immediate favourite of the international community, raising the country’s profile with a climate change campaign that included the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting.[i]

The celebratory mood was brief. Nasheed was unable to win a majority in the parliamentary elections just a few months after his inauguration, thanks in part to an electoral zoning system that favoured Gayoom’s powerful rural network and conservative backers. Nasheed struggled against a deeply obstructive parliament that, at one stage in June 2010, led his entire cabinet to resign in frustration.

Nasheed, a secular-minded reformist, faced an even bigger challenge with the judiciary. Mostly appointed under Gayoom, and tasked with interpreting Sharia law, they were not natural allies. Nasheed also accused them of obstructing corruption cases against allies of the old regime. Their differences finally came to a head on 16 January 2012 when he ordered the military to arrest the chief justice of the criminal court, Abdulla Mohamed, over allegations that he had illegally released an opponent of the government from jail.

Whether or not Nasheed’s allegations against the courts were well founded, the move played into his opponent’s hands. Gayoom and his allies had repeatedly accused Nasheed of trying to subvert the country’s democratic institutions. The arrest of a judge was easy proof of the claim.

What followed remains unclear. Mass protests by Gayoom supporters eventually prompted a partial mutiny among the police and army. On February 7, a retired military officer, Colonel Mohamed Nazim, and a former assistant police commissioner, Abdullah Riyaz, met the president at the headquarters of the Maldives National Defence Forces. They say they were there to mediate. In Nasheed’s version, they threatened him with a bloodbath if he did not step down.

Nasheed resigned but maintains he was the victim of a coup, and many believe the entire episode was orchestrated by Gayoom and a cabal of wealthy businessmen. Nasheed’s erstwhile vice-president, Mohamed Waheed, was elevated to the presidency and did little to dispel such suspicions. Under Waheed, Nazim and Riyaz have been named defence minister and police commissioner, respectively, while Gayoom’s son and daughter have both been given ministerial posts.

If it was a coup, the organisers can take credit for shrouding events with enough fog that it has been hard for international observers to condemn what took place with any degree of confidence. Waheed has repeatedly stated that he would have held elections immediately were it not for constitutional provisions that forced him to wait until September 2013. Nasheed claims this is an excuse to allow Waheed more time to suppress opposition (notably Nasheed himself and his supporters).


Fomenting instability

Although the current rulers have positioned themselves well for the upcoming elections, they have unleashed a number of powerful political and social forces that may yet prove to be their undoing.

In order to rally support against Nasheed, Gayoom and his allies exploited Islamist sentiment in the country, and, according to a report in the Guardian newspaper, paid gangs of youths to intimidate opponents and stir up violence at political rallies. The consequences have been ugly. There has been increased violence in the streets and in October 2012, a moderate Islamist MP named Afrasheen Ali was killed. A number of incidents have shocked the international community. Notable among them have been the destruction of ancient Buddhist artifacts in the national museum during last year’s protests, and the recent sentencing of a 16-year-old girl to 100 lashes for being repeatedly raped by her stepfather (the sentence was stayed after an international outcry).

Islamist leaders will no doubt be glad if such incidents start to take a toll on the country’s boozy tourism industry. But a third of the Maldivian economy is reliant on visitors, and the country has barely started to recover from the debt crisis that followed both the 2004 tsunami and global financial crash of 2008. The fiscal deficit had reached 22% of GDP by 2009, and while Nasheed managed to bring this down to 9% by 2011, it required unpopular measures, such as the removal of the exchange-rate peg in April 2011 that in turn fuelled inflation.

This was obvious grist for Nasheed’s opponents, but their own moves since coming to power have been opportunistic and short-sighted - including renationalising the country’s international airport, seizing control of it from an Indian-based consortium, GMR, in December 2012.

This will certainly have a major impact on the confidence of future investors. It has also alienated a powerful neighbour, India, which had ignored the country’s questionable politics in the past, and was quick to recognise Waheed’s new government last year without any criticism of the semi-coup. The Maldives have long been a crucial strategic partner for India, as part of its maritime security grid, providing a base for Indian coast guard vessels and helicopters which monitor and target piracy in the Indian Ocean.

Meanwhile, the government has sought to put Nasheed on trial for illegally ordering the arrest of the chief justice in January 2012. Nasheed was arrested in October and held for a day, after which he was blocked from leaving the capital. Fearing another arrest in February, the former president fled to the Indian embassy, and only left after a flurry of back-room negotiations by Indian diplomats. Nasheed was then arrested again in early March, sparking protests in Male and clashes with government supporters.

The former president is adamant that the trial is designed to prevent him from taking part in the election, and is pushing for the trial to be postponed until after September. He has the support of many in the international community, with the EU issuing a strongly worded statement in March, saying: “it would be difficult to consider [the elections] credible and inclusive if Mr Nasheed and his party were to be prevented from standing or campaigning.”

Instability in the Maldives’ economy and international relations are as much a worry for the cronies around Gayoom as they are for those worried about the country’s political reputation. There are incentives on all sides to establish greater rule of law and legitimacy. Much will depend not only on the outcome of September’s elections, but how the parties handle the result, and whether they can overcome a long history of authoritarianism that offers few precedents for cross-party cooperation.



[i] URL: http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/10/17/us-maldives-environment-idUSTRE59G0P120091017


About the Author: Eric Randolph is a freelance foreign correspondent. He divides his time between England and South Asia, and his work has appeared in The Guardian, The National, the South China Morning Post, The Economist, and Foreign Affairs, among others. He blogs at Subcontinental.net.


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