Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Growing Signs of Unrest in the Maldives

Drafted By: Dr. Sudha Ramachandran

The Maldivian government's use of excessive force in mid-August to quell demonstrations by opposition activists demanding democratic reforms indicates that its commitment to establishing multi-party democracy in the country remains weak. There is a danger that its foot dragging on democratic reform and the suppression of its secular-moderate opponents could clear the way for assertion of hard-line Islamists in the country.

The Anti-Government Protests

Anti-government demonstrations calling for Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's resignation and fresh elections turned violent when police used tear gas, electric batons and water cannons to disperse the protestors. Dozens of members of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (M.D.P.) were taken into custody.

What has further fueled anger against the government is that the arrest of M.D.P. activists preceded the riots. M.D.P. chairman Mohamed Nasheed, a vocal critic of Gayoom, was arrested even before the protests turned violent. According to Maldivian media sources, on August 12 "Nasheed and three other M.D.P. members were seated all by themselves in the Republican Square when the riot squad came and dragged them away. There were no other M.D.P. protesters participating in the event."

The current crackdown has dashed hopes raised in June 2005 when the government took some tentative steps towards the setting up of a multi-party democracy. The government promised to have in place before the end of 2005 a full-fledged democratic system. It lifted the ban on political parties.

Background of Current Unrest

Better known for its emerald green waters and white sandy beaches, the Maldives -- an archipelago of 1,192 tiny coral islands scattered around 850 kilometers (528 miles) across the equator to the southwest of India -- has appeared in international news more in relation to climate and environmental issues rather than political ones. This seemingly serene archipelago now appears to be slipping toward political turmoil. Violent confrontation between authorities and the public is growing in frequency.

Unprecedented anti-government riots rocked the Maldives capital, Male, in September 2003. The violent protests were a spontaneous response to a prison riot in which at least three inmates were shot dead by jail authorities. It emerged that the prison riot was triggered by the death of an inmate following torture by the police.

In August 2004, pro-democracy demonstrations shook Male once again. The government responded with an iron hand. Almost a hundred people were jailed and a state of emergency was declared in the country.

Torture and government repression is not new to the Maldives. Scores of opponents of the government are said to be languishing in jails. The Maldives' police force, the National Security Service (N.S.S.), is known to intimidate opponents of the regime. As Amnesty International observed following the violent events of 2003, "The killing of at least three prisoners by the N.S.S. and the injury of a dozen more in Maafushi Prison is only the latest chapter in a catalogue of human rights violations in the country by N.S.S. personnel who function under the president's command."

What is new to the Maldives, however, is the public and violent articulation of anti-government anger. The violent protests witnessed on the streets of Male in 2003 and 2004 were unprecedented.

The recent periodic eruptions of violent anti-government protests are a reflection of a deeper malaise in Maldivian society. There is little political choice and no scope for articulation of dissent. Gayoom, who has been the Maldives' president since 1978, dominates the archipelago's political scene. He is currently in his sixth five-year term; each of these terms has been endorsed by the Maldivian people in a yes-no referendum. And while Gayoom has averaged a 90 percent endorsement in these referendums, in effect, the electorate had little choice. They were presented with a single candidate chosen by the Majlis, or parliament. While political activity was allowed, political parties were banned until June 2005.

Under Gayoom's rule, the Maldives has witnessed remarkable economic growth -- with a per capita income of US$2400, it has become South Asia's most prosperous country -- and relative political stability. But this, his opponents would argue, has been achieved at a very heavy price -- at the cost of individual freedoms. Suppression of dissent and public protest, crackdown on political opponents, muzzling of the local media and blocking of all reformist websites has ensured that challenge to Gayoom is quickly contained.

While the government has been successful in crushing dissent locally, it has not been able to control the sprouting of political opposition to Gayoom's rule overseas. Until recently, the opposition M.D.P. functioned from abroad. The government has been able to do little to silence articulation of dissent on the Internet.

For many Maldivians, the biggest obstacle to democratic reforms is Gayoom himself. They are not all supporters of the M.D.P. However, many see the M.D.P. as the only viable party that can oust Gayoom.

That organized political opposition to Gayoom is growing was reflected in the recent parliamentary election, where "independent" candidates backed by the M.D.P. did well. Of the 36 candidates that the M.D.P. openly endorsed for the 42 contested seats, 18 were elected -- a considerable achievement for a party that was banned at that time.

In June 2004, Gayoom signaled interest in enacting a broad package of constitutional reform. He announced plans to amend the constitution to allow for a multi-party, pluralistic democracy, direct presidential elections, changes in the separation of powers, the creation of a Supreme Court, elimination of the appointment by the president of members of the Majlis, in addition to other changes. Events that followed this announcement last year -- the crackdown on opponents of the government and the heavy-handed response to public protests -- signaled the government was not sincere about the reforms.

The Islamist Factor
The Gayoom government has sought to silence international criticism of its crackdown on reformists by suggesting that Islamists, disguised as democrats, are trying to overthrow the government, and that they will use an opening up of the political system and an introduction of a multi-party system to overthrow the government and impose a narrow version of Islam imported from abroad.

Indeed, there are Islamists among those protesting against the Gayoom regime. In fact, in a bid to counter government propaganda that they are backed by Christian missionaries (the pro-democracy movement has considerable support among expatriates in the West, Amnesty International and some British parliamentarians but there is no evidence that the M.D.P. is backed by Christian missionaries), secular opponents of the Gayoom regime have involved Islamists in their anti-Gayoom campaign. In the process, an anti-Gayoom coalition of convenience between secular and Islamist activists is gathering strength.

Maldivians are Sunni Muslims, and adherence to Islam -- the state religion since the 12th century -- is required for citizenship. Historically, Islam has played an important role in the daily lives of the people. Yet, its practice here has been rather liberal as people have followed a tolerant version of Islam. Women never covered their heads, interaction between men and women was allowed and arranged marriages, practiced in most Islamic societies, have never been the norm.

This has changed in recent years. There has been a perceptible slide towards conservatism in Maldives and the influence of Islamist extremists has grown slowly but steadily.

Part of the reason for the growth of Islamist extremism lies with Gayoom. Some of his policies appear to have contributed not only to the assertion of Islamists but also to the importing of more radical Islamic values from abroad.

Outward signs of a more conservative version of Islam, such as wearing the full hijab or a long beard, are increasingly visible in the Maldives today. It appears that intimidation of women has resulted in more women wearing the hijab today.

So how serious is the threat posed by hard-line Islamists?

Hard-line Islamists have formed the Adhaalaath Party. While it has some backing in the outer atolls, its support in Male remains limited. Maldivians believe that extremists are a minority in their society and that their society is far too liberal to conform to extremist diktats. Mass support for hard-line Islamists might be limited at this juncture but they have politically organized themselves. Weakening the M.D.P. will clear the opposition space for the hardliners to occupy.

India's Role
India, which after Sri Lanka is the Maldives' closest neighbor and is Gayoom's biggest backer (in 1988 India sent its troops to counter a coup against Gayoom), is "not yet alarmed about developments in the archipelago but is closely watching the situation."

While India does not seem overly concerned with Maldivian Islamist extremists -- Indian officials say that they are by and large free from pan-Islamist ideas of jihad, at least so far -- there is a sense that political instability in the Maldives could make it a "safe nest" for jihadis from other countries, especially Pakistan.

Gayoom has managed to convince India, the Chinese and the Americans that he is the bulwark against Islamist extremism in the Maldives. Sections in the Indian establishment accept this claim. India's dilemma in dealing with the situation in the Maldives stems from the fact that while Gayoom has been a good friend of India, it recognizes the need for more democratization in the Maldives if bloody confrontation is to be avoided. But putting pressure on Gayoom could result in him turning to the Chinese or Pakistanis. His ties with China seem to be improving and India is wary of a Chinese presence at its southern doorstep. It is likely, therefore, that while backing Gayoom, India will nudge him towards reform.


If the government stonewalls on the issue of reforms or persists with responding harshly to dissent, anti-government protests could turn militant in demand and methods. By blocking democratic channels of protest and articulation of dissent, the government is in danger of legitimizing the use of violence to express demands and address grievances.

Following the violent August confrontations, the government insisted that it remains committed to reform. In an apparent conciliatory gesture, it appointed "key dissident" Gasim Ibrahim as its new finance minister. Ibrahim, a former member of the M.D.P., was among those arrested after last year's riots. But few Maldivians are convinced by such gestures. They point out that Gasim Ibrahim was fostered by Gayoom's wife's family and that he was hardly a dissident.

It will be important to note how Gayoom proceeds. One option is to address the crisis by opening democratic channels for dissent, a development Gayoom believes could weaken his power. On the other hand, if Gayoom drags his feet on reform, crushes the secular moderates, possibly empowering Islamists in the process, it may create a situation that could explode into violence.


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