The making of the Great Ocean of China

by Thilmeeza Hussain

The political impasse in the smallest country in the Indian Ocean is drawing global attention to India’s power in the region and its leadership role in the world.

If India does not act swiftly to ensure that the Maldivian people’s rights are protected and democracy is restored in the country, China, which has sided with the current Maldivian ruler Abdulla Yameen, is going to consolidate power in the region around India.

The Maldives has been on a downhill slope since the coup d’état in 2012, when former president Mohamed Nasheed was forced to resign under duress; the country’s situation has deteriorated steadily since Yameen took office in a highly contested election. Soon after taking office, he has prosecuted every opposition leader and they are either in jail or exile.

For many Maldivians like me, the coup d’état still feels surreal. We watched parliamentarians getting beaten on the streets and peaceful protesters being met with batons and pepper spray. The death of Maldivian democracy stood in stark contrast to our euphoria after the hard-earned end of a 30-year dictatorship. Yameen’s older half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who lost the first multi-party election in 2008, was the only president many of us had known our entire lives.

For four years, we tasted freedom and rule of law.

Today, voices demanding freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, or calling to uphold the rule of law are thrown behind bars. The door to jail cells is a revolving one, and there is a continuous flow of political prisoners.

Not even members of Yameen’s own political party are safe if they are seen as a threat to his power. Not too long ago, we saw a member of Parliament (MP) stabbed to death with a machete on the stairwell of his home. When an investigative journalist, Ahmed Rilwan, started reporting on the murder, he was abducted from his home and hasn’t been seen since. Shortly after, Rilwan’s friend and political blogger Yameen Rasheed, who sought the truth of his friend’s disappearance, was stabbed in the neck and chest multiple times in the stairwell of his apartment building. State-sponsored attacks on citizens and a culture of impunity have taken over our country. Despite being under constant threat, harassment and fear, Maldivians are still fighting for their rights every day.

It’s clear that the current pressure from the international community, including our closest ally and neighbour India, has not stopped Yameen’s blatant disregard for the rule of law so far. For example, the international community condemned the current administration’s refusal to release former president Nasheed, eight other political prisoners and reinstate 12 members of Parliament. Instead of abiding by our Supreme Court ruling, Yameen’s government declared a state of emergency, arresting and jailing two Supreme Court justices, three MPs, his half-brother, former president Gayoom, and anyone whom he saw as a danger to his rule.

We Maldivians share strong ethnic, linguistic, cultural and commercial ties with India but if our human rights abuses are not enough to compel India into taking more concrete steps to stop Yameen, their own security should be reason enough.

The rapid deterioration of the situation in the Maldives since 2012 has extended far beyond the shores of our islands because of our location, and it has brought India’s significance in the region into question. The worth of this vast ocean to India cannot be exaggerated.

The Maldives lies next to crucial shipping lanes, one of the major choke points for the world maritime transit of oil which provides continuous energy supplies from the West to the Far East through the Indian Ocean (equivalent to just under half of the world’s total oil supply). Also, according to India’s ministry of shipping, about 95% of the country’s trade by volume and 70% by value comes via the Indian Ocean. As China swiftly grows its military presence in the Indian Ocean  in the garb of anti-piracy operations, India must come up with a more coherent plan; at the end of last year, it was forced to carry out a threat assessment due to the presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean.

The Maldives, since its independence in 1965, has had an “India first” policy and leaders of both countries have held high-level exchanges on regional issues. But since Yameen took office, he has aligned with China, which has defended his authoritarian rule. The Maldives now owes about 80% of its foreign debt to China, which has been spreading its wings rapidly in South Asia and has been eyeing the atoll nation for its strategic location. China has already cosied up to Nepal by helping the latter reduce its significant trade deficit; it has invested heavily in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. China is strategically encircling India under the fancy name of the “Silk Road Project”. A part of the road will also pass through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and may eventually help Pakistan take over Kashmir.

Is India losing its grip in the region and becoming a non-actor in the mighty Indian Ocean? Are we witnessing the making of the Great Ocean of China? If India loses its dominant power in Asia, it will not be able to safeguard its security or protect its interests.

Although ours may be the smallest country in the region, our economic and political value cannot be overlooked. Let’s hope it’s not too late by the time India recognizes this.

Thilmeeza Hussain is a former deputy ambassador of the Maldives to the UN and a 2018 Aspen Institute New Voices fellow

This article was originally published by LiveMint, on 20 February 2018 

    The road to justice is paved with answers to Rilwan’s abduction


    by Azra Naseem

    In the early hours of the morning on 8 August 2014, journalist and blogger Ahmed Rilwan (28), was captured on CCTV boarding a ferry from Male’ to Hulhumale’. It is the last known and verifiable movements of Rilwan who, it has been widely reported, was abducted later that morning from his apartment in Hulhumale’.

    It is three years to the day since Rilwan’s disappearance. Three years without any answers.

    Who took Rilwan? Why? What did they do to him? Did they kill him? How? Or, is he alive? Why were the authorities so unconcerned at such a disappearance? Why did the police not investigate the crime? Why did the parliament refuse to accept a petition signed by over 5000 people asking it to look into why the crime was being ignored? Why did the police release all suspects in the case they eventually arrested?

    Why the impunity?

    In the early hours of the morning on 23 April 2017, writer and blogger Yameen Rasheed (29), returned home from work after staying late to finish a project. At least two men were waiting for him inside his apartment block. They attacked him viciously, stabbing him over thirty times all over his body. The police arrived at the scene about half an hour later. It was another 11 minutes before the police, instead of calling an ambulance, bundled Yameen into a police car and drove him to the hospital. Yameen died shortly after.

    The police, meanwhile, set to work on the crime scene; not to process it, but to clean it up. Not only was the blood and other evidence washed away, the blood splattered walls were freshly painted.

    Three months have passed since without any answers.

    Why was Yameen killed? Why is the investigation a secret? Is there an investigation? Are the suspects in custody the ones who carried out the killing? Was it personal, or was it a contract killing? If so, who took out the contract? Was it violent extremists? Did they kill him for his anti-dictatorship satire? Did they kill him for being tolerant of other religions and minorities? Why have the police been so rude to his family? Why are they not giving any answers?

    Why the impunity?

    In the early hours of the evening on 31 July 2017, about ten masked men on five motorcycles whizzed past the heavy crowds on Male’s main street, Majeedhee Magu, at high speed. All of them were carrying sharp implements—machetes, knives—in plain sight. The headlights on their bikes were switched off. As they turned into a small laneway off Majeedhee Magu just past the Olympus Theatre, people stood frozen to the spot, afraid to say or do anything in case the men lashed out with their weapons.

    Only a few short moments later the men were back on the laneway, this time riding towards Majeedhee Magu. They had just killed Ahmed Anas (25), a boat captain from the island of Raa Atoll Meedhoo.

    As they rode at high speed they yelled at the public, in the filthiest language possible, to get out of their way. Child, woman or elderly, they did not care as they waved their weapons and threatened anyone that did not hasten to clear the way for them.

    “The moment was full of fear. The men’s cruelty and their shouted warnings haunted the atmosphere”, reported local newspaper Addu Live*.

    A week later, the police put 12 people in custody in connection with the murder. But no questions have been answered.

    Why was Anas killed? Was it a case of mistaken identity as President Yameen—not the police, but the President—has informed the public? Or was it a contract killing? Was Anas killed by the jealous gangster ex-husband of his wife-to-be, as the family alleges? Why did the President move so fast to give the murder a particular flavour? Will the suspects be released, like they were in Rilwan’s case? Are those in custody merely the people who carried out the killing on a contract basis, like they are in the case of Yameen? If so, will the person who took out the contract be brought to justice, or will they be allowed to get away with it, like in the case of Yameen and that of Dr Afrasheem Ali before him?

    Will the family get justice? Or will the devastated parents of Anas join those of Rilwan and Yameen on the streets, forced to turn their beloved sons into placards and hashtags and names on petitions that call out for justice in vain?

    In the three years since the abduction of Rilwan the (non)actions of the Maldives Police Service (MPS), and the authorities that command it, have created and nourished a culture of impunity for criminals that has made Male’, the capital of Maldives, one of the most dangerous cities in the world to live. This year alone there have already been three murders on the two square mile island that over 150,000 people call home.

    Residents of Male’ live in fear, hemmed in from all sides with no escape as the government closes all open spaces in the name of ‘development’. The Raalhugan’du area to the east where people used to go for runs, walks, chats, to surf, or just to breathe, is closed off to house Chinese labourers who are building an unnecessary bridge to an island just 10 minutes away by boat. The Sultan Park, once a lush green oasis in the centre of Male’ has been cordoned off for months on end, its ancient trees cut down to make way for an incomprehensible winter wonderland. Cafes, restaurants, streets, ferry terminals and all other public spaces have all been used for violent gangland attacks that have gone unpunished. Police are quick to cordon off any area they feel like, mostly when political dissidents—and/or those seeking justice—use them to gather peacefully to express their objections to the status quo of impunity.

    With nowhere to go, residents of this island prison are forced indoors, both adults and children trapped inside small apartments, unable to enjoy life, unable to live life. Afraid for their lives.

    Male’ City, or Male’ Shitty as many have come to call it, is a living hell for most of its residents.

    And it is all because of the culture of impunity that Maldives Police Service has created, and allowed to flourish, in the three years since the abduction of Ahmed Rilwan.

    To begin the end of this culture of impunity, the public must first be told what happened to Rilwan.

    *The description of what happened on the night Anas was murdered is a translation of the account reported in Addu Live

    The illustration is by Ahmed Fauzan


      An examined life: Yameen Rasheed


      By Azra Naseem

      Hey, you there?

      Very sad to say this but they’ve stabbed Yamin to death.

      The Twitter DM arrived in my inbox at 3:48 in the morning on Sunday the 23rd of April. I was in Europe, five hours behind Male’ time. It was another three hours before I switched my phone on and looked at my messages.

      “What? Really? OMG,” I replied.

      My brain was still half asleep, not at its sharpest. What kind of chaos will the Maldives have to face now that the President has been assassinated, I wondered. What sort of a madman would have done such a thing? Life was bad enough for people as it was. Nothing good will come of killing the President.

      Even as I grappled with thoughts of inevitable violence, riots and protests that would surely follow in the wake of the assassination, one persistent thought kept trying to muscle its way in… “He doesn’t mean the President, he doesn’t mean the President…”

      “Oh no. I thought YAG. NO NO”.

      I fired away another message, as if my friend, thousands of miles away in Male’, had been privy to the battle raging inside my mind. When his reply came, somehow, I knew what it would be.

      “Yameen Rasheed”.

      I lay unmoving in bed for what seemed like hours, trying to come to terms with the news. A hundred days later, I, like many others, still haven’t succeeded in wholly accepting the reality that Yameen is gone.

      There are many reasons for this difficulty. Chief among them is the enormity of the loss his death has brought at a variety of different levels: family, partner, friends, colleagues, society at large.


      In the hundred days that just crawled by agonisingly slowly, it has become clear just how deeply Yameen’s family feels his absence. In the immediate aftermath of the killing, his devastated mother spoke of how central Yameen was to the family’s existence. Through tears she described how he always listened to her, how bas-ahaa a child he was. Yameen took so much pride in being a disobedient writer, but he was an obedient son. A mother’s pride and joy.

      Both Yameen’s sisters mourn his absence daily. It was not often that Yameen shared his private life on social media, but he shared his excitement in becoming an uncle. Later, after he was killed, his sister shared material that showed how devoted an uncle he remained in the years that followed.

      I remember Yameen joining Instagram about a year ago, a surprisingly latecomer to the platform for someone so often on social media—the first picture he shared was one with his younger sister, celebrating her birthday. Today, most of her life appears dedicated to remembering him.

      Like the love of his mother and siblings, the love and pride Yameen’s father feels for his son has become writ large in the public domain in the last 100 days. Hussain Rasheed has bravely fought the authorities’ attempts to silence him in his struggle to get justice for his son. He has travelled near and far, from the media in India to embassies and NGOs in other neighbouring countries to the heart of the world’s fight for human rights at the UN offices in Geneva, appealing to anyone who would listen to please help get justice for his son. 


      He was all the way head over heels. Seems like they took him when he was absolutely on top of the world.

      A mutual friend said in a DM a few days after Yameen’s killing. Just how right this friend was became evident in the last 100 days as the woman whose love had put Yameen on top of the world, Celine Peroni, shared with us the beauty of their new love and the devastation of it being so brutally nipped in the bud.

      As any of us who have been lucky enough to feel it know, there is nothing quite as heady as the emotions we experience when we find The One true love of our lives. Celine and Yameen seemed to have been in the throes of that ecstasy when they took his life away. Even in the virtual, impersonal space of social media, Celine’s pain is palpable.

      I, and no doubt many like me who appreciated Yameen, grieve with her for the un-lived potential of their love, the travel plans that will remain unrealised, the daughter they imagined who will now never be conceived. The killing of Yameen is so difficult to come to terms with because it symbolises the death of potential.


      Anyone who saw Yameen’s relentless efforts to find out what happened to his friend Ahmed Rilwan, abducted on 8 August 2014 and missing since, cannot doubt Yameen’s commitment to his friendships. In the last 100 days this aspect of Yameen’s character became more clear as friends from around the world mourned their loss in writing, and celebrated how his friendship had enhanced their lives in a myriad different ways.

      There were friends he shared his love of reading with, friends he shared his programming skills with, writers with whom he shared writing tips, friends he enjoyed being silly with—all of them spoke or wrote of how he encouraged them to pursue their dreams, to live life to the full. None of them have been able to forget, all of them are in pain, and all of them are as deeply committed to getting justice for Yameen as Yameen had been committed to finding the truth about his friend Rilwan.


      When Yameen was not on Twitter highlighting the difficulties (and the absurdities) of living under a dictatorship, he was coding. His employer, Maldives Stock Exchange, mourned the ‘warm hearted and dearly loved’ colleague and ‘outstanding employee’, and shut their doors for a day as a mark of respect.

      Only a short while before he was killed, Yameen was in London with his friend, Mohammed Shuraih, to pitch Blood Drive, at the at the Sandoz Healthcare HaCK. Blood Drive, an app to help the many Maldivian children suffering from thalassemia, was one of three winners in the global competition to receive €20,000 and ongoing support from experts. The latest issue of Wired UK wrote it was devastated to learn of Yameen’s death. 

      Several fellow writers both at home and abroad, too, spoke of their friendships with Yameen, and how they had loved working with him. JJ Robinson, former editor of the Maldives Independent, and author of Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy, described Yameen as the Jon Stewart of Maldives. The Indian Express framed Yameen’s editorial in the paper, and gifted it to his proud family. Other media outlets, NGOs, diplomats and human rights defenders whose paths crossed Yameen’s all expressed sadness at the loss of such a person.

      The killing of Yameen is so difficult to come to terms with because he had done so much in such a short space of time. And he was on the cusp of a great career, quite possibly with worldwide impact.


      With the killing of Yameen, the troubled Maldives society was robbed of one of its rarest type of inhabitants: a thinking person, an individual who thought of the collective, who fought for the underdog and whose words were based on principles he lived by.

      Yameen was empathetic. His start-up project was focused on doing social good. He bought meals for the starving as his zakaath. He volunteered with the Red Crescent in Maldives. He was there, helping out when Male’ suffered a water crisis. He cared for the environment — to minimise his carbon emissions, he walked everywhere. He was true to his stated beliefs.

      Yameen, who grew up in diverse multicultural India, was tolerant of everyone except the fool, the hypocrite, and the sanctimonious. He had no mercy for the prejudiced and the bigoted. He refused to hate in the name of God, stood up against homophobia, had no room for anti-Semites, and fought the idea that people of only one religion should have the right to practice their faith in the Maldives. He was ferocious in his criticism of those who used religion for political and personal gain. He had no time for the hate-filled faux-religious ideology used to recruit so many young Maldivians as soldiers in the wars of Al-Qaeda and the ISIS in the Middle East. He spoke out against how the ideology was changing Maldivian society into one driven by hatred of, and conflict with, the Other. He was critical of the government which allowed the rot to spread for political reasons.

      And they killed him for that. They killed him for his tolerance. One thing today’s Maldivian society will not tolerate is tolerance. It will not allow freedom of thought. It will not allow difference. It demands conformity, uniformity. Silence or captivity, silence or death.

      Yameen chose to think, and he paid with his life.

      It is hard to come to terms with Yameen’s death because, examined closely, his life was one so worth living.