Volume 22 Issue 6, June 2018

The Maldives, made up of 26 coral atolls and 1,192 islands that look from above like a floating wreath in the Indian Ocean, is better known as a “beach paradise” for tourists. But political tumult has currently disturbed its tranquility.

The trouble arose after President Abdulla Yameen, besides ignoring growing international concern and pressure, defied a Supreme Court ruling to reinstall opposition MPs and release political prisoners. He declared a state of emergency and ordered the arrest the chief justice.

The Maldivian Supreme Court had ordered the immediate release of former president Mohamed Nasheed and other opposition leaders. The Court had also ordered the government to restore the seats of 12 legislators sacked for defecting from Mr. Yameen's party, giving the opposition the majority in the assembly which would mean that they could potentially impeach the president.

In a TV address, Yameen insisted that it was business as usual and urged the Maldivians to remain calm. He claimed the Supreme Court had acted "hastily" and argued that his actions were designed to prevent a coup.
Later, Yameen said in a statement that the Supreme Court had decided to reverse the ruling that precipitated the crisis and nine political prisoners would not be released.

Immediately after Emergency was declared in the Maldives, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) advised Indian nationals to defer all non-essential travel to Male and other atolls until further notice. It also urged Indian expatriates in the Maldives to exercise due caution in public and avoid public gatherings. China and the United States also issued travel advisories for the Maldives.

However, the government assured safety of tourists and Maldivians, proclaiming that "Safety of foreigners living in and visiting the Maldives will be ensured.

Meanwhile, soon after the Emergency declaration, security forces stormed into the Supreme Court building and arrested Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and Justice Ali Hamid. Later, Yameen’s administration arrested a Supreme Court administrator on charges of trying to overthrow the government. All four were charged under terrorism laws. They all rejected the charges.

A day before the Chief Justice's arrest, the Maldives police had arrested President Yameen's estranged half-brother and former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was president for 30 years until the country's first democratic elections in 2008, because, Gayoom had sided with the main opposition and was assisting them in their campaign against the Yameen government. As the crisis escalated, the United States National Security Council said in a tweet, "America stands with the people of the Maldives and the Maldivian government and military must respect the rule of law, freedom of expression and democratic institutions. The world is watching." If the world is watching it is all well and good. The situation needs it.

Ever since President Yameen came to power in 2013, in a disputed election that opponents say was rigged, he has been governing like a dictator, jailing almost all the political opposition. In 2015, Mohamed Nasheed, who became the country's first democratically elected President in 2009 and achieved worldwide renown for highlighting the effect of global warming on the archipelago, was convicted and sentenced to 13 years in jail on terrorism charges that his supporters say were spurious. He was later allowed to go to Britain for medical treatment in January 2016 and has lived in exile ever since. Currently he is living in Sri Lanka. However, the country has been witnessing political unrest and street protests ever since President Nasheed was jailed.

In 2016, the Maldives withdrew from the British Commonwealth after the association threatened to suspend it for chipping away at democratic institutions. Yameen reacted by courting investment from China and Saudi Arabia.

The Supreme Court’s verdict brought the simmering political crisis to a head, because it not only ordered the release of nine dissidents and the reinstatement of legislators who had been fired for abandoning Yameen's party, but also ordered the release of Nasheed, who poses a serious challenge to Yameen in the next elections.

Taken aback, Yameen responded by dispatching the military to the Supreme Court in the capital. Security forces blockaded and locked the Supreme Court building from outside. And Yameen initially imposed Emergency.

President Abdulla Yameen lifted the state of emergency which had outlawed protests during a surge in political turmoil after 45 days, saying he wanted things to return to normal.

But incalculable damage has been done. The foundation of democracy has been given a fatal blow. The country’s supreme judiciary, the guardian of its constitution, has been vandalized. The judges have been demoralized. They have lost their self-assurance. The three remaining judges on the bench in the Supreme Court, after the arrest of the Chief Justice and another judge, have already gone on to reverse their decision to quash the convictions of the opposition leaders that had roiled the President and ignited all the trouble.

No judge in his right mind would dare issue a rule against the government, howsoever unlawful its action might be, for fear of being arrested and charged on grounds of terrorism. This means that fundamental rights could no more be safeguarded or the judiciary have trust in the Maldives under the dictatorial rule of President Yameen.

That is why nobody has confidence in the lifting of emergency. Yameen may impose it again at his own sweet will. The opposition parties say lifting the state of emergency would make no practical difference as Yameen no longer abides by laws or the constitution.

“He has also rushed remand hearings for a number of key of state of emergency detainees to ensure their continued detention past the state of emergency,” the parties have said in a joint statement.

There is nothing else the world can do but wait and watch as India, the closest neighbour is doing. It will act only if the trouble spills over and threatens its security. It is for the people of the Maldives to stem the rot and arrest the drift to absolute rule under Abdullah Yameen.

The writer is a senior political analyst and former editor of SouthAsia.

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