Volume 21 Issue 9 September 2017


The ill wind of dictatorship again sweeps through the Maldives. After a brief, four-year tryst with democracy between 2008 and 2012 that promised to restore power to the people, the country is again hurtling towards a state of affairs deeply reminiscent of the three decades of tyranny that preceded it. In late July, the police warned the opposition parties to stay clear of the capital city Male as any “unlawful gatherings” would spur officers to disperse them by force. The warning came after four lawmakers, part of an opposition plan to vote out the Speaker of Parliament Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed via a no-confidence motion, were summarily stripped of their seats.

The Maldives’ Supreme Court, notoriously partisan toward the status quo, ruled that the lawmakers fell foul of a new “anti-defection” directive after the four crossed the aisle to bring down Maseeh. Anticipating a large protestor turnout following the court ruling, the Maldives Broadcasting Commission immediately issued a blanket ban on media coverage of the “unlawful gatherings,” threatening rebel media houses with hefty fines. Though the constitution guarantees citizens the right to assemble without seeking permission from the state, the 2013 Freedom of Assembly Act passed by current President Abdulla Yameen restricts them to areas sanctioned by the home ministry. The ministry in turn declared all areas surrounding government buildings as no-go unless the police granted approval.

This crackdown on opposition activities is the result of Yameen’s fears the impeachment of his ally the speaker will trigger a domino effect that could eventually reach his doorstep. Indeed, parliamentary business has ground to a halt since opposition lawmakers submitted the no-confidence motion against Maseeh with 45 signatures in early July. Backed by some 10 PPM loyalists who changed camps, this motion made clear that some in Yameen’s administration did not dispute the systemic corruption charges leveled against the government and wanted to rid parliament of the bad apples. Specifically, opposition lawmakers mobilized to impeach Maseeh after he refused to summon officials charged with corruption.

On July 24, the day parliament was primed to vote on the no-confidence motion, the police needlessly tear-gassed and pepper sprayed opposition lawmakers under the pretext of maintaining public order and consequently kiboshed the session. Later, Eva Abdullah, a prominent opposition leader, told Reuters “After Yameen (lost his) parliament majority, he is trying to use both military and police to suppress the opposition.” For ordinary Maldivians, the Yameen government’s heavy-handed approach to silencing opposition voices is depressingly familiar. For three decades prior to 2012, they lived through the repressive, soft authoritarianism of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who, though a civilian, displayed alarming shades of dictatorship.

Former president Gayoom ruled the Maldives for 30 years using a toxic mix of Islamic nationalism, isolationism and psychological repression. A money savvy despot, Gayoom turned the Maldives’ pristine beaches into a world-class paradise for western tourists whose hard currency kept the country’s economy afloat and thus dissuaded the lowest strata of society from mounting mass protests. The social contradictions only grew sharper though. Tourists were discouraged from mingling with the locals and whereas westerners could skinny-dip in the crystal clear waters while enjoying piña coladas, alcohol was strictly banned for Maldivians.

The PPM government banned all religions except Islam and adultery was punishable by 100 lashes and exile. Moreover, Gayoom put into practice one of the oldest plays in the Machiavellian manual of governance: pitting the forces of race and religion against one another. Since his political opponents generally adhered to liberal and progressive values, Gayoom covertly backed radical Islamists to counter them. He dismissed the emergence of homegrown extremism, the imminent byproduct of this strategy, as a necessary risk to staying in power. Not surprisingly then, the Maldives, per capita, has sent more jihadist fighters to Syria since 2014 than any other country in the world.

Consequently, in 2005, when the fever of change first gripped the Maldives, citizens hoped for the best but were prepared for the worst. The island nation’s ragtag opposition forces then rallied around charismatic ex-journalist and political prisoner Mohamed Nasheed and his fledgling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). Instead of petering out in fear of retribution, however, public presence at anti-Gayoom rallies snowballed and the world realized it was witnessing the Titanic-meets-iceberg moment of Asia’s oldest dictatorship. Gayoom by 2008 had run out of political tricks and ruefully called elections.
Nasheed and his MDP easily won the national vote after promising to usher in an era of governance by the people, for the people, a country free of corruption, nepotism and tyranny. These proved to be pie-in-the-sky promises. A political system built on kickbacks and cronyism over many decades was not simply going to roll over and let the upstart Nasheed wreck its gravy train. And once the MDP leader began auditing shady deals in earnest, the very institutions that were the cornerstone democracy began hankering for a Gayoom-style dictatorship and plotted Nasheed’s downfall. This included his deputy, then Vice President Mohamed Waheed Hassan.

Things came to a head in 2012 when a frustrated Nasheed had the chief justice of Maldives’ criminal courts, Abdulla Mohamed, sent to jail for abusing his position. This gave the country’s tainted judiciary the perfect excuse to push Nasheed out of power. A fake opposition funded by public monies was immediately cobbled together, helmed by the ambitious Waheed who presented himself as a sanguine peacemaker between the warring factions — MDP and Gayoom loyalists — to the international community. Loath to inspire bloodshed, Nasheed backed off and agreed to fresh polls despite knowing that corrupt election commission officers on the payroll of the regime loyalists would rig them.

Sure enough, the run-up to the polls turned contentious and was rife with electoral conspiracies. From the rubble in 2013 rose new President Abdulla Yameen, half-brother of Gayoom - a politician also inclined to oppression as a tool of statecraft. Many opposition figures were either thrown in jail on false charges or forced to flee abroad to retain their freedom. A procession of allies quickly received and then lost his favour in distinct Trumpian fashion. Nasheed himself faced languishing in prison for 13 years on contrived terrorism charges before concerted international pressure forced Yameen to let him travel to the UK on medical grounds.

Most alarmingly, a few years into Yameen’s tenure, a rash of new laws targeting the opposition and press have surfaced. Among them, anti-terror legislation has been used to silence critics or to simply make them disappear from the public stage. Similarly, the draconian Defamation and Freedom of Speech Act severely penalizes dissent with jail time and weighty fines. Yameen’s eagerness to consolidate power has not even spared relatives.

Also in July, police booked Faris Maumoon, the president’s nephew, on bogus bribery charges after he repeatedly criticized his uncle for playing tyrant and jumped ship to join opposition parties in their campaign against parliamentary speaker Maseeh. Moreover, the Maldives looks set to tear up a six-decade old moratorium on the death penalty that would put it “on the wrong side of history,” says South Asia director at Amnesty International, Biraj Patnaik.

Though the UN has over the years applied rhetorical pressure on Yameen to change tack, its reluctance to impose financial sanctions has simply emboldened the president to continue expanding his personal powers in the guise of national interest. Where does the Maldives go from here? History suggests further down the rabbit hole of dictatorship.

The writer is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist.

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