#FindMoyameehaa

#FindMoyameeha Campaign Photo: Dhahau

 

I’m wondering just how much
To you I really said
Concerning all the boys that come
Down a road like me
Are they enemies or victims
Of your society?

—-’Ballad of Donald White’, Bob Dylan, From the last post on Rizwan’s Blog

Yesterday night, two weeks ago, was the last time anyone saw Ahmed Rizwan Abdulla, 28-year-old journalist, blogger, human rights advocate and all-round great person. 

A lot—yet nothing—has happened since Rizwan was reported missing to the Maldives Police Service (MPS) on 13 August.

On 15 August Rizwan’s family and friends organised a search of Hulhumale’, the island neighbouring Male’ on which Rizwan lives on his own. Starting with the desolate, deserted areas—-of which there are many—-the search party combed the whole island. It was in vain.

On 16 August Rizwan’s friends and colleagues, who obtained CCTV footage from the Male’-Hulhumale’ ferry terminal from the night he was last seen, identified him on camera buying a ticket and going into the waiting area to board the 1:00 a.m. ferry on 8 August. This footage has since been made public. For the next twenty minutes or so—-the amount of time it takes for the ferry to reach Hulhumale’—-Rizwan was on Twitter. Between 1:02 a.m. he sent out 11 (mostly re-) Tweets, beginning with this one, which said he had just boarded the ferry:

 

His last Tweet was at 1:17 a.m three minutes before the ferry would have reached Hulhumale’.  According to Rizwan’s employer, Minivan News, he sent a Viber message at 1:42 a.m. The newspaper further reports that according to Rizwan’s telephone service provider that his mobile phone was last used at 2:36 a.m. at a location in Male’. Since then, nothing.

There was a shocking development to the story a few days after the search for Rizwan began. On the night he was last seen, two witnesses saw a man being abducted from outside Rizwan’s apartment around 2:00 a.m. Minivan News, which withheld the information until it was made public by other news outlets, published details of the abduction on 18 August. The witnesses heard screaming and saw the captive, held at knife point by a tall thin man, being bundled into a red car which drove away at speed. The witnesses contacted the police immediately. They also recovered a knife from the scene. The police took a statement and confiscated the knife.

And that was that.

It is mind-boggling that there were no searches in Hulhumale’ after eye-witness reports of an abduction, no sealing off of exits to and from the island, no investigation in and around the area of the abduction to at least ascertain who had been bundled into the car. If the police had done any of this, Rizwan’s family would have been aware of his disappearance so much sooner. Two weeks on, the police still don’t seem to have managed to locate the red car—-this on a 700 hectare island with the total number of cars totalling around fifty, if that.

Outrage at police ‘incompetence’ has grown steadily as days turn into weeks without news of Rizwan’s whereabouts. MPS’ reaction to the criticism has been petulant, like an offended prima donna. It issued a long statement demanding that the public stop criticising police given how brilliant they obviously are; and, unbelievably, proceeded to hold a press conference about Rizwan to which all media outlets bar his own Minivan News was invited.

Speculation that MPS does not want Rizwan found is becoming fact as time passes with no leads. How incompetent does a force have to be to remain clueless about how a person was abducted from a small island? How many red cars can be hidden on such a small piece of land, surrounded by the sea? How difficult would it be to locate the individuals caught on CCTV following Rizwan at the ferry terminal in Male’? It is common knowledge that life in Male’ is now governed by an ‘unholy alliance’ of ‘born-again’ fanatically ‘religious’ gangsters and thugs controlled by politicians and fundamentalists.

Whatever the police is driven by—fear, complicity, support—it is certain the government shares its ‘could not care less’ attitude. President Yameen’s callous response on 20 August to news of Rizwan’s disappearance confirmed this: ‘I cannot comment on anything and everything that happens, can I? The police are probably looking into it.’

It is as if the disappearance of a young man, a journalist and well-known human rights advocate—the first incident of its kind in the Maldives—is as routine as a mislaid shopping list. The President, who campaigned as Saviour of the youth population, had not a word to say about the abduction and disappearance a young man of vast potential. Yameen chose, instead, to wax lyrical on his success at begging in China, having procured a 100 million US dollars in aid money for building a bridge between Male’ and Hulhumale’, the island where Rizwan is feared to have been abducted from.

Who wants a bridge to an island that is so unsafe? An island where women are raped in broad daylight and young men disappear without a trace? Where gangsters and violent extremists rule, where the police turn a blind eye to crime and where the streets have no lights?

It is quite extraordinary that a President of a country sees no need to express concern for a citizen whose sudden disappearance has led to statements from international bodies ranging from the UN Human Rights Commissioner to media associations such as Reporters Without Borders, CPJIFJ and South Asia Media Solidarity Network as well as news outlets and human rights advocates in the region and across the world. In some of today’s news coverage, Rizwan’s name is on top of the world’s missing journalists’ list. According to Minivan News, many foreign diplomats based in Colombo have made the time to listen to its concerns about Rizwan’s abduction.

Perhaps prompted by diplomatic concern, over a week after Rizwan’s disappearance became public knowledge, the Maldives Foreign Ministry finally issued a hastily put together statement yesterday, full of factual and other types of mistakes, expressing a perfunctory concern hard to accept as sincere.

While the politicians, the gangsters and the religious fanatics with their support of Jihad, beheadings and other forms of killing trip over each other to ignore, laugh about, cover-up and prevent knowledge of what has happened to Rizwan, friends, family, and admirers of his deep humanity, are unflagging in their hopes and efforts to find him safe and sound.

It is on social media, where he is known as Moyameeha, that Rizwan has made his widest impact. The Maldivian Twitter community is especially bereft without his presence. It is not surprising. The off-line Maldivian society has been largely taken over by gangs, zealots and bigots. There is no safe place for people like Rizwan—with bold ideas, open minds and creativity—to come together in real life. So they gather on Twitter—the most free of modern media platforms—exchange thoughts, discuss politics, make poetry and music, argue, joke, laugh, and cry, become friends and form the kind of free, liberal and tolerant public sphere they cannot have off-line. Rizwan is a shining star of that community, one of its well-liked and giving members. The community wants him back.

Close friends have set-up a website, findmoyameeha.com, where everything that is officially  said and done in relation to Rizwan’s disappearance is gathered in one place. It also counts every passing second since he went missing. Friends have also set up Facebook pages dedicated to finding Rizwan while existing Facebook pages that support him have created a repository of online tributes:

 

Bloggers, who look up to him as one of the first to make an impact in the sphere, have been paying homage, re-finding and sharing some of his most moving posts. Rizwan’s friends discuss his poetry, his love of music (and obsession with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), his enthusiasm for Dhivehi language, folklore and history, and most of all his never-ending good nature and empathy. Even the deeply divided and highly politicised journalistic community appears to be waking from a deep slumber, and putting their differences aside to demand that efforts to find Rizwan be stepped up.

Over the past few years the Maldives Police Service has become highly adept at being ‘incompetent’, at being ‘unable’ to solve the crimes they don’t want solved while putting all their efforts into hunting down bootleggers, cannabis smokers and petty criminals. If they catch any major offenders, the corrupt judiciary lets them go; so why bother? This being police ‘best practice’, a majority of the Maldivian population now choose to ‘forget’ unsolved crimes, stop asking questions, and carry on as nothing happened.

Not this time. Rizwan’s family, friends, supporters and like-minded journalists are not going to stop asking questions and looking for answers. Because if they do, it is the last nail in the coffin of Rizwan’s vision—shared by those looking for him—of a tolerant Maldivian society in which people are free to think, embrace diversity and difference, be creative, live safely and have the right to peace and happiness.

    Maldives: no country for freedom

    Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 10.44.49 PMAhmed Rizwan Abdulla, a Maldivian journalist, blogger and human rights advocate, is missing. The 28-year-old was last seen by his family on 7 August. Unlike most Maldivians of his age, Rizwan does not live with his family but rents an apartment in Hulhumale’, a 20-minute ferry ride from Male’ the capital. Rizwan is a deeply spiritual person, known to enjoy solitude. It is not unheard of for him to take time off from society to indulge in the right to be left alone. His close friends know that. This time, however, is different.

    Nobody knows where Rizwan is. His phone is switched off. His motorbike is still standing near Male’ ferry terminal, covered in dust. He does not appear to have been in his apartment since 7 August. His backpack, which contains his laptop, and which he is rarely without, is nowhere to be seen. He has not been to work at his newspaper, Minivan News, since 7 August. Rizwan’s family filed a missing person’s report with the police on Wednesday. Since news of his disappearance broke, a witness has come forward to say he saw Rizwan on the ferry from Male’ to Hulhumale’ around 1:30 a.m. on 8 August. The witness also confirms that Rizwan did not take the bus, the only form of public transport available at that time, into the dark and desolate Hulhumale’ town. Since then, nothing.

    Maybe Rizwan has gone off to be on his own. His colleagues have cautioned against speculation. But the state of the country makes it impossible for most not to do so. Rizwan’s disappearance resonates with many whose beliefs reflect and echo his own, even if they do not know him personally.

    People in Male’—if, like Rizwan, they support democracy, freedom of thought, free speech, and are against Islamist puritans dominating religion— live in a state of constant fear. Gangsters, religious extremists and heroin dealers have run of the city while the Maldives Police Service (MPS) continues to ‘bungle’ investigations into heinous crimes or ignore them altogether. The corrupt and unqualified judiciary, which continues to fail justice daily, makes a habit of releasing smugglers and dealers, even when they are caught with drugs worth millions. The MPS has failed at solving almost all major murders from the killing of MP Afrasheem Ali in October 2012 till now. If there is any success, it is from a confession. Even then justice is not guaranteed; it is not unknown for confessions to be elicited under duress.

    After a lull during the month of Ramadan, crime—including violent murder—has increased exponentially since Eid. In addition to the gang violence is the fear that hardline Islamists are also resuming their pre-Ramadan actions against freedom of thought and expression. The worst thing is, there is ample room to believe the authorities are complicit in these activities. Last June, ‘concerned citizens’, worried about a perceived increase in non-believers, met with the Islamic Minister as well as the Home Minister, to press them for stronger action against ‘unbelievers’. The same ‘concerned citizens’, as the high level government officials well knew, were involved in high-profile kidnappings and abductions of alleged non-believers around the same time.

    This policy of turning a blind-eye to crimes committed in the name of religion is made most obvious at the macro-level in the government’s refusal to put into place any counter-radicalisation programmes in the Maldives. Supporters of the Islamic State are multiplying in the country at an unbelievably rapid rate. News of Maldivian fighters in Syria only broke in mainstream media in July this year after the death of two. Jihadist ideology, however, has been present and spreading freely for years. Many hundreds of Facebook profiles of Maldivians now proudly carry the IS flag or the black flag of other Jihadi fighters. Some such pages date back to 2010; many were created on or after July this year.

    While support for IS, Jabhat Al Nusra and other such groups is only becoming widely popular now, non-violent fundamentalists have had uncontrolled on- and off-line access to the Maldivian population for over a decade. Salafi scholars, preachers and activists dominate all institutions of education from the Centre for Holy Quran (which, by the way, is to get a new ten storey building) to the Centre for Higher Secondary Education and the Faculty of Law at the Maldives National University—and this is just in Male’. There is no authority overseeing education centres on outer islands. Not a week goes by without Salafi preachers and Sheikhs visiting one island or another to proselytise. There are monthly Da’wa camps, How to Pray camps, How to Sleep camps, How to Live camps and How to Die camps. The Maldives Police Service and the Maldives National Defence Force are often on the receiving end of such teachings. While there are divisions among subscribers to the various ideologies, they are all united in condemning Maldivians who refuse to fall in line with their vision of Maldives as an Islamic State, with strictly applied Sharia as its only legal system.

    Simultaneously with all the frenetic off-line religiosity, a substantial percentage of Maldivians are online using their social media platforms chiefly as a means of displaying their allegiance to violent and non-violent Salafi and other purist ideologies to proscribe them; to preach them; and to spread it among their friends. Like most users of social media everywhere in the world, they Share, Like, Poke, and Follow without question.

    With few exceptions: like Rizwan.

    Rizwan is a prolific user of the Internet, especially social media. He was among the first bloggers in the Maldives, is on Tumblr, and is a highly popular micro-blogger on Twitter, followed by many thousands. His online persona has the name of ‘Moyameeha’. He has vast empathy, and a good sense of humour; his #ferrytales entertain many. He is knowledgeable about how centuries old Maldives’ national and religious identity has been hijacked by fundamentalists within a short span of just over a decade.

    Unlike most people he can, and does, engage with those whose beliefs he does not condone.

    Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 9.44.27 PM

    Rizwan does not believe in hatred in the name of religion. He does not believe in violence. And he is not afraid to say so. Maldivian supporters of IS flew their flag at the surf point in Male’ in July this year. Rizwan Tweeted a picture.

    Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 10.14.18 PM

    When pro-Palestinian Maldivians on Thulusdhoo put up Nazi insignia to the dismay of Israeli tourists on the island, Rizwan—while clearly with the people of Gaza—was first to point out that anti-Semitism is not the same as solidarity with Gaza.

    Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 10.07.03 PM

    He is a vocal critic of the Islamist Adhaalath Party, and often points out the hypocrisy of their scholars/politicians.

    Rilwan’s last Tweet mocked former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s notorious habit of dabbling in astronomy and ‘reading the stars’—often with disastrous results.

    Disappearances were a part of Maldivian life in pre-democracy times. And, with Gayoom’s family and cronies back in positions of power after last November’s elections, intimidation of dissenters and political opposition—using gangs and other violent forces—is also returning.

    For the many thoughts he expressed freely, Rizwan has made many enemies. There have been many warnings that his days are numbered.

    Rizwan

     

    The gangsters were not far behind.

    Fact is, there is no room in the Maldives of today for people driven by a love of humanity. No place here for believers in non-violence. No space for those who refuse to subscribe to the idea of a vengeful God that wants to obliterate all who do not blindly follow His self-appointed avengers. It is the dominance of these people—willing to maim and kill for God or money—untempered by a government that could not care less, and emboldened by law enforcement officials that are complicit, which makes Maldives a dangerous place for those who believe in human rights and the rule of law. That is why Rizwan’s family and friends are fraught with fear for him despite their best intentions not to speculate. Because they know twenty first century Maldives is no country for good people. Good people like Rizwan.


    Regardless of the possibilities of all the awful scenarios Maldives today makes possible, all Rizwan’s friends and family are hoping against hope that he has not fallen victim to any of them. Their fervent wish is that Rizwan would be found safe. Today in Hulhumale’, they are all out searching for him. If you have any information regarding Rizwan that you think may help, please contact the police hotline at 332 2111, or Serious and Organised Crime Department at 9911099. And, anyone wishing to add to the ongoing search in Hulhumale’, please contact organisers via #findmoyameehaa hashtag, or on 775 4566 or 977 3250.

    Update at 16:44 GMT: Latest report from Minivan News, staff of whom were heavily involved in today’s search, says Rizwan was not on the 1:30 a.m. ferry as claimed by witness. Members of the search part thoroughly reviewed CCTV footage from the ferry terminal in Male’ and confirm that Rizwan did not get on the ferry at 1:30 a.m. on 8 August or any time between 0:00 and 03:00 that day.

      The scramble for Maldives

      Maldives for sale online, www.dutchdocklands.com

      by Mushfique Mohamed

      The political changes that marked Maldives’ transition to democracy have not translated into equal distribution of wealth or access to basic public services such as clean water, health care, electricity, waste-management and sewage systems, throughout the country. The rapid political changes and crises experienced in the past decade has done little to confound the popularized image of the Maldives as a hedonistic paradise for tourists, despite being considered ‘one of the most miserable countries in the world’ for its own citizens. Continuing this story of two Maldives: the real and the represented, the Yameen government has submitted the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) Bill to the People’s Majlis. In doing so, the government is attempting to sell the illusory tale that liberalisation of trade by autocrats – granting incentives to multinational corporations (MNCs) – trickles wealth down to ordinary citizens.

      President Abdullah Yameen Abdul Gayoom, brother of former strongman Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, announced plans to develop SEZs in April 2014 at an investor forum held by the Maldivian government in Marina Bay Sands, Singapore. Notable investors such as US company Blackstone (which acquired a controlling interest in Maldivian Air Taxi “MAT” and Trans Maldivian Airways “TMA” in February 2013), Singapore-based HPL Hotels and Resorts, China Machinery Engineering Corporation (CMEC), the Carlson Group of Companies, Pan Pacific Hotels and Resorts, United Bunkering and Trading Group, and Singapore Enterprise were present at the forum.

      The SEZs bill entails demarcation of specific geographic areas into zones where special customs regime and laws apply for investors and developers. Developers’ Business Profit Taxes (BPT) can be exempted, and Goods and Services Taxes (GST) are exempted initially for ten years, and can be withheld or exempted for additional years if the SEZs board allows. Shareholders are exempt from paying BPT on their dividends, and tax relief can be afforded to developers through special procedures by the SEZs board. The SEZs board can also lease land in the Maldives to foreign companies for up to ninety-nine years and Maldivian companies are exempt from tax when acquiring ownership of land.

      The SEZs defined under the bill include the following: Industrial Estate, Export Processing Zone, Free-Trade Zone, Enterprise Zone, Free Port, Single Factory Export Processing Zone, Offshore Banking Unit, Offshore Financing Service Centre, and a High Technology Park (Articles 9-18). Government officials have echoed Singapore, Hong Kong, Oman, Qatar and Dubai as examples of SEZs stimulating foreign direct investment. China and India have been touted by the World Bank as proof of economic growth through introduction of liberal economic policies and legislations such as SEZs. Gradually, China and India began to structurally transform its economies in the 1980s and 1990s respectively, with its GDP growing at an annual average rate of 10% and 6% over the past two decades. In the case of China and India, although SEZs are associated with trade liberalization, studies have shown that it does not always result in human development, economic growth or liberalization of domestic markets (Leong 2013).

      Speaking to the media in June 2014, the Minister of Economic Development Mohamed Saeed likened existing tourist resorts to SEZs, possibly to suggest how potentially profitable these policies could be. Contrastingly, the recently published second Maldives’ Human Development Index report by the United Nations Development Project affirms that despite being lucrative and effective at enabling economic growth, the luxury tourism industry has not alleviated socio-economic inequalities, but rather contributed to it. Speaking to local news website Minivan News, Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb defended the bill claiming that it is in line with decentralization, and that it will shift the focus away from the densely populated capital Malé.

      However, a Facebook Community named The Maldivian Economist a forum where economic and financial policies are discussed – has published a detailed refutation of the notions put forth by the government regarding the SEZs bill. The Maldivian Economist notes that the bill takes power away from the people – local government and elected officials, concentrating wealth under a “centralized autocratic government.” Although the bill purportedly aims to limit Maldives’ reliance on tourism income, it provides additional import duty, tax and foreign labor concessions specifically for hotel, tourism-related, and real estate businesses.

      Primarily, the Bill aims to run nine types of SEZs. But the 17-member SEZs board called ‘the Board of Investments’ – made up of unelected government officials, including two presidential appointees – decides how many zones, and of which types would be set up across the Maldives (Article 22). The bill affords the SEZs board the discretion to extend incentives, such as tax relief or increase the allocation of expatriates and migrant workers upon request. If the bill is enacted, it will prevail over existing laws (according to Article 80(b), 14 existing legislations to be exact) and regulations made prior to it. Only special SEZ ‘facilitating’ regulations made by relevant governmental authorities, decisions and regulations made by the SEZs board, obligations cited under the developer’s permit, and terms and conditions stipulated under the investment agreement or concession agreement would be applicable within any SEZ (Article 33(b), Article 70).

      Although the bill states that discussions shall be made between councilors, and that the Chairperson of the SEZs board and the Minister of Economic Development shall be answerable to the parliament, it does not afford government oversight any decision-making powers. All the decision-making powers with regard to which investors attain development projects and which areas are designated SEZs is vested with the SEZs board and the President. The SEZs board also decides which existing tourism related businesses could be relocated into an SEZ. (Article 74(c)). Under an authoritarian government, the SEZs board would end up assuming overwhelming wealth through developers, and in the absence of competition laws invisibilize local fishermen and entrepreneurs who call these SEZs home.

      Once the President demarks an area as an SEZ, even if it currently belongs under the authority of a local council, its authority is transferred to the Ministry of Economic Development, as per Article 33(a) of the Bill. The Maldivian Economist states that this allows “all the revenue to bypass local councils and go into the state budget.” Article 37(b) of the bill states that if a development project aims to relocate island communities to the area being developed, the SEZs board has the discretion to grant the developer additional incentives.

      The concession agreement with GMR Malaysia Airport Holdings consortium and the Nasheed administration signed in June 2010 to develop and run Malé international airport, was the largest foreign direct investment in the Maldives. The coup regime of Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, which included members of the current government expelled India’s GMR citing ‘void ab initio’, but used religious rhetoric and an ultranationalist anti-India campaign to drive home the now debunked legal argument. Due to the xenophobic GMR fiasco, it seems as if an entirely different government has submitted the SEZs bill, ready to embrace the globalized world economy.

      The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party has dubbed the bill, “the Artur Brothers bill”, invoking top government officials’ links to famous Armenian gangsters, and possibility of increased money laundering due to offshore financing.1 Resonating sentiments of SEZs critics, Salma Fikry, one of Maldives’ foremost experts on decentralisation and development, told Minivan News last week that, “it [SEZs bill] is not sustainable nor empowering for the Maldivian population.”

      Canadian author Naomi Klein’s book “the Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” is a literary indictment of the radically liberal free-market policies introduced by economists trained at the Chicago School of Economics. In her view, policies espoused by Milton Friedman and his protégés world-over have historically exploited crises: “wars, terror attacks, coups d’état and natural disasters” in the developing world.

      Post-tsunami opportunism during Gayoom’s dictatorship is also mentioned in Klein’s well-researched hypothesis. Following the 2004 Tsunami, with funding from the World Bank and other international bodies, the Maldivian government announced the Safe Island Program in order to relocate island communities. Klein argues that the regime was merely “freeing up more land for tourism.” This argument is convincing as she notes, “in December 2005, one year after the tsunami, the Gayoom government announced that thirty-five new islands were available to be leased to resorts for up to fifty years.”

      To a certain degree, the SEZs bill is similar to the Safe Island Program; it glorifies “the blank”, a country with special privileges and policies for MNCs and foreigners, void of its inhabitants. As the Maldivian Economist has noted, in the Maldivian context of escalating socio-economic disparities, and corruption within the judiciary, government and parliament, this bill will not enable the human development it envisions. Instead, it solely empowers the government and corporations associated with it. These policies will do more harm than good to a small economy such as the Maldives, which does not have any existing legal barriers to foreign direct investment.