Section: Guest Contributors

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, www.livemint.com on 20 February 2018

http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/vr9GnxjjCJLIYYElZkL1gK/The-making-of-the-Great-Ocean-of-China.html 

Death by popular demand

deathpenalty

by Mushfique Mohamed

The death penalty breeds injustice. It is most often imposed on  the persecuted or the underprivileged. As the civilised majority increases its commitments to abolish it, some countries have spiked up executions. This includes states that have resumed the death penalty after discontinuing long-standing moratoriums.  Apart from far-reaching authoritarianism, there doesn’t seem to be a common thread linking these countries together.

What are the factors propelling a minority of the world’s countries to resume capital punishment and proliferate executions? Is the motivation behind implementation of the death penalty really a matter of public safety? Or is it motivated by the religious duty of leaders, as it is zealously claimed by politicians in Islamic countries?

In 2015 half of all death sentences were carried out in Asia. Excluding China, almost all executions were carried out in Muslim-majority countries — Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. On the other side of the death penalty discourse, 145 countries—74% of the world—joined the list of countries that are either abolitionist in practice or law. Despite the repeated fact: ‘there is no cogent evidence to show that the death penalty is a more effective detriment to crime than long-term imprisonment’, people from various backgrounds casually support it. The only difference is that most people in the developed world would not say it out loud at the risk of not being taken seriously.

Arguments that favour the death penalty wouldn’t stand in any informed discussion on the subject. The possibilities of wrongful convictions, botched executions, severe mental illnesses of defendants, or mitigating factors that could disprove guilt after sentencing are plausible enough to fully reject the idea of State sanctioned death as a punishment.

Religious vigilantism has killed yet another open-minded and humorous pioneer of blogging and political satire in the Maldives, Yameen Rasheed was brutally stabbed 34 times in the stairwell of his home. The Government’s narrative has not been one of condemning all forms of violence and hate. The official party line is: ‘be careful of your words, it could get you killed’,  while the list of unsolved political violence continues to guarantee impunity for the usual suspects.

Populism on the rise

The Islamist death penalty rhetoric that was at the tip of Maldives’ president Abdullah Yameen’s tongue at the beginning of his presidency fizzled out late last year. It didn’t even take 24 hours for the Government to capitalise on the slain blogger’s shocking death. At a time when Rasheed’s family and friends were forced to feel a horrific sense of déjà vu over his friend Ahmed Rilwan’s forced disappearance in August 2014, President Yameen callously justified the death penalty through the murder of one of its most vocal critics. Stating in no uncertain terms that the President would issue death warrants within “two-to-three months”.

At home he’s the Trump-esque, triumphantly chauvinistic president who ‘has guts’. According to President Yameen, he is ready to start executions, not because he ‘wants to’, but for the ‘betterment of Maldivian society’. We, as Maldivians, are to feel grateful that we have a president who is incongruous with the times. It’s his assertion that executions are to resume in the Maldives because he is in touch with what the people want. In terms of public support for capital punishment, he may not be far off the mark.

But, to what extent is this thirst for blood manufactured? Is the call for the death penalty really following judicial precedents, or is it a sign of a justice system that revolves around the whims of political leaders?

In 2013 Pakistan reversed its moratorium on the death penalty for convicted terrorists. The following year the Maldivian government did the same for murder convicts. In many Muslim-majority countries, violent groups are already taking the law into their own hands. Whether it’s vigilante groups in Bangladesh hacking secularists to death, or radicalised gangs in the Maldives policing religiosity.  In these South Asian countries there is a huge conflation of ‘secularism’ with not just atheism, but antitheism too. Why are these countries increasingly re-interpreting Islam in a way that promotes medieval practices over positivist Islamic jurisprudence?

In Urdu, Dhivehi, Bengali and other South Asian languages, Islamists explain—online or through religious literature, radio and television—how harsh punishments are endorsed under religious discourse. Most of its members are not your average Muslims but usually tend to be ‘born-again Muslims’ or the newly converted. There are websites solely dedicated to naming and shaming those that actively counter Salafi-Jihadism. The dirty work is then left to radicalised violent criminals who seek repentance for their delinquent past through violence against those that enervate their ‘holy’ death-cult ideology.

Although Maldives’ moratorium on the death penalty was only lifted for murder, the penal code prescribes death for blasphemy. Fundamentalist ‘Islamic scholars’ are already calling for the beheading of Maldivian secularists. By resuming public torture as a punishment, South Asian governments like Yameen’s are either attempting to get a handle on these religiously extreme violent groups, or doing their very best to boost their Islamist credentials. Given the moderate, culturally synchretic, and state-controlled Maldivian Islam in the past, majority of Maldivians today are convinced that Salafist Islam is the “true” version of Islam. Therefore the religious nationalism in these countries are becoming equally intolerant and insular. What are the global forces that promote regressive punishments over rehabilitation or life imprisonment?

The resumption of the death penalty in the Maldives coincides with increasing cultural, religious, economic and military ties with Saudi Arabia. While Pakistan has Iran to offset over-reliance on Saudi Arabia, it is a different story in the Maldives where the change from democratic transition to authoritarian reversal is in full swing. It might be convenient to point out that money from the oil-rich Arabian Peninsular is circulating all over the world. However, the hegemonic effects it can have on a small developing country differ greatly.

Manufacturing support

Soaring crime rates have created a public that’s willing to accept anything as the ‘right’ solution. Feeding off a panicked public, the currently embattled Maldivian president is ready to implement the death penalty for the first time since 1953. Ineffective governments use the death penalty to give the public the appearance of justice being served, although our judiciary ‘regularly dispenses injustice’.

Increase in violent crime is a result of sudden frenetic development that has interrupted the slow-paced and unpretentious island life but failed to meaningfully mobilise the youth with opportunities. In Maldives, it’s also a sign of increasing links between criminal gangs, politicians, and police that protect them. This new reality of life in urbanized islands was effectively used to convince the public that killing to stop killing is the only solution.

The idea that the ‘authentic’ version of Islam is strict and vengeful has been implanted in young minds through the education system. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs and its tacit support to those religious scholars that either call to or incite violence against liberals formalize these ideas. The old non-violent Maldivian way of life has been buried – violence is our culture now, and it’s suggested that we need more violence to revive our peaceful way of life.

Old habits

The death penalty exposes historic flaws in our justice systems. Politicised police forces in South Asia rely heavily on forced confessions to prevent public disillusionment of policing. Reports of a confession can also give the impression there’s very little debate over guilt of suspects.

There was virtually no violent crime in the Maldives until the 1990s, before urbanisation stunned Malé and facilitated the emergence of criminal gangs. Things couldn’t be more different today. We know that even for a small country our judicial system is plagued with a backlog of cases and in completely unfamiliar territory. It is easy to bend rules and eliminate rivals through rushed trials. For instance, Pakistan regularly abuses anti-terror laws and uses kangaroo courts to suspend fundamental rights and convict defendants. Our laws are designed to be open-ended and vague – the bigger the fishing net, the bigger the catch. These flimsy legal definitions and forever-morphing parameters of the law can be further widened through abuse of judicial discretion. Our justice systems refuse to abide by human rights and values of democracy.

Such populist South Asian leaders can count on contrived investigations to secure themselves and their allies. Any lines of inquiry that incriminates politicians or business tycoons go cold.  An accomplice, usually a young offender belonging to a gang, is sacrificed to appease the public’s call for justice. The big kahunas that fund or plan such atrocities are never implicated during investigations or criminal proceedings. As long as a delinquent takes the fall, politicians or leaders of criminal syndicates evade due course of the law.

Before the Salafi-Jihadist propaganda that followed the Indian Ocean tsunami, religious radicalism and fundamentalism were at the fringes of Maldivian society. Now, it’s mainstream to the point where those who don’t adopt Salafist views are seen as lesser Muslims co-opted by Western influence. These new threats create new forms of desperation. While stepping up sharia rhetoric, the government is ignoring how this will affect Maldivians in the long-term. And why not, when it’s an efficient cover for the executive’s incompetence? It diverts the public’s attention to narratives of ‘lack of faith’ equal to ‘deteriorating social fabric’ while more pressing issues like grand corruption, climate change, and political violence become incoherent background noise.

Not in our name

In reality, Islamic countries implementing the death penalty don’t seek justice. Instead they use quick fixes that pull the wool over the public’s collective eyes. State sanctioned killing is a dramatic diversion from an ineffective criminal justice system; it provides a spectacle—medieval, yes—but satisfying to Islamist publics of today. It is also  a useful tool for regressive regimes seeking to hide deeply embedded incompetency in policing and administering justice. In most South Asian countries, it is a misguided coping mechanism for asphyxiated criminal justice systems.

What about open democracies that execute convicts? The US is the only G7 country that still carries out executions. In 1982, Texas became the first jurisdiction to use lethal injection for its executions.  This is supposedly the humane way for a state to kill convicts. Everyone knows that violent crime still takes place in Texas, and the prospect of a lethal injection doesn’t deter most violent criminals. Such perpetrators are often mentally ill and seek publicity for their crimes. In recent years many American anti-death penalty campaigners have observed ‘an all-time low’ in death sentences and executions. Despite this, many in the developing world point to the  US in response to accusations of death penalty being anti-democratic by nature. We still glorify capital punishment for our superficial and selfish satisfaction even though judiciaries are ridden with disrepute. We believe that seeing the government essentially kill killers, makes us safer in our homes, in our communities.

The death penalty satisfies some sort of voyeuristic revenge complex we might have as humans, but it has very little to do with the murder victims’ family and friends, or the need to establish justice for their lost loved ones. Murder cases can drag on for years, exacerbating the victims’ families’ trauma. At times, calls for death cloud their calls for reprieve. It is unusual that we as the public seek retaliation for crimes from which we haven’t suffered as a consequence.

It doesn’t make us empathetic to appropriate the feelings of the victim’s family and endorse our corrupt governments to kill criminals, when our views are mostly based on incipient media reports; or conjecture arising from it. It makes us a society that is starved for justice to the point where we ignore systematic judicial corruption, and are willing to be satisfied with even the false veneer of justice. A killing spree is a killing spree, whether it’s state-sanctioned or the actions of a fanatic.


About the author: Mushfique Mohamed is a human rights lawyer. He has an LLB (Hons) Law and MSc(Econs) in Postcolonial Politics from Aberystwyth University.

Image: Zee News

 

Maldives’ coral reefs: latest victims of political power play

maldives-reef

by Ibrahim Mohamed

The Maldives is a coral reef system, one-fifth the size of the Great Barrier Reef and is hailed as the 7th largest coral reef system on the Earth and is the largest atoll reef system. The reefs act as both the economical and structural backbone of the entire nation highly vulnerable to climate change impacts. The two major economic activities, fisheries and tourism are heavily dependent on the healthy reefs, while making the islands resilient against major natural disasters such as storm surges. Though climate change is a slow process, reefs are the most important resilient feature for the adaptive capacity of islands.

However, warming episodes due to global climate change have been causing mass coral bleaching in the Maldives. Consequently, the Maldives advocates strongly on behalf of vulnerable small island nations and is currently the chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). In a recent Op-Ed in The Huffington Post, the Environment Minster of the Maldives, Mr. Thoriq Ibrahim, raises concerns of bleaching and mentions:

“On a local level, we must continue to mitigate the effect of human activity of these delicate ecosystems. Our government is increasing protection of affected areas and the scope. Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) will be markedly expanded in light of this recent bleaching event. That means stringent EIAs on new hotel developments and limiting terrestrial runoff and agricultural pollutants – proven enemies of coral reefs”.

However, news of blasting of a reef using dynamites, has loomed large in local media lately. Both former Environment Minsters Mohamed Aslam and Maryam Shakeela raised alarms about this destructive process. Aslam questioned the controversial decision of the Government:

I was just told Env [Environment] min [Ministry] have given permit for blasting reefs after 10 yrs of not permitting this destructive practice. Where are we heading?

Shakeela urges to appeal to concerned authorities to reverse this decision:

Y [why] not 1st appeal 2 [to] authorities yet again 2 [to] explain the consequences nd [and] suggest alternatives. Development can occur without harming env [environment].

History of reef blasting in the Maldives

In 1986, cracks in the North East Reef of Male’ were observed by local environmentalists, Mohamed Zahir and Husain Manik, who believed they may have been caused by reef blasting. Later on the 14th of November 1990, the Southern Reef of Male’ was blasted using dynamite resulting in shockwaves and severe damages to several buildings. Local diver and environmentalist Husain Manik informed President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom of severe damages to the Reef with photographic evidence, which led to strict polices on blasting of reefs.

According to The 2007 Audit Report of the Ministry of Construction and Public Infrastructure, the Ministry blasted a reef in the island of Vandhoo in Thaa Atoll without proper studies and the resulting damage caused a huge financial loss to the Government. To compensate for the damages, the Ministry paid MVR 1.7 million (about USD 100K) to islanders of Vandhoo and MVR 300K (about USD 20K) to neighboring island Hirilandhoo. Since then the Government has banned reef blasting. The Government has not conducted any assessments on the reef of Vandhoo Island and hence the damages to the reef has never been valued.

The Meedhoo Ismehela Hera Channel in Addu City

In 2011, to obtain sand for Herethere Resort, a proposal to dredge a channel between Meedhoo and Ismalehera Islands, was developed. A 2011 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) justifies the need for this channel, which was followed by the Addendum of 2016. The 2011 EIA envisages two main benefits as below:

(1)  To provide easy access between Addu and Fuvahmulah Cities via ferries

However, the Fuvahmulah Airport was constructed and began operation in 2012, which along with Gan International Airport based in Addu City became the major popular transportation mode for locals. The EIA hence underestimated the implications of air transportation’s dominance over ferries, and therefore need for the channel was not justified. There was no mention of development plans for the Addu City Seaport and International Airport and how this project may become obsolete in future with these major developments.

(2)  To decrease the cost of fuel for fishermen of Meedhoo Island

Although EIA 2011 and 2016 Addendum emphasizes fuel saving, no cost benefit analysis was provided. Also, the benefits including employment for small-scale fishers in Meedhoo, was mentioned but the impact of irreversible damage to the Reef and its marine life was not considered. Additionally, for tuna fisheries, baitfish is required and has to be obtained from the intra-atoll basin rather than by going out to open sea through this channel. Hence the benefits mentioned for fishermen in the EIA are not justifiable for this project.

2016 EIA Addendum

In 2012 the project was initiated and after using a one-ton air gun for almost two and half years of dredging the Channel, the project contractor realized it is impossible to break the beach rock formation underneath the Reef. One major reason was the Reef has become hard and stable over thousands of years. Hence, in 2016 an Addendum was submitted to determine the impacts of blasting the Reef using dynamite or any other suitable explosives. Given the complexity and uncertainty of impacts from such an explosion, the EIA review has shown that the blasting of reef does not comply with (a) The 1992 Rio Declaration signed by the Maldives, and (b) The Article 22 of the Constitution of the Maldives. Hence the initial EIA review has determined blasting the reef using dynamite should not be allowed and the project should seek other alternatives. However, the Housing Ministry appealed to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the Maldives regarding the decision. After deliberation the EPA has permitted the project despite the irreversible damage that could be caused, and against the EIA reviewers initial recommendations. The EPA has issued a statement saying that the Ministry of Housing should be responsible for any damages from the blasting and acknowledged the inevitable irreversible damages of using explosives.

The project as a key vote swinger

The Government candidate for local council election from the Island of Meedhoo has been a strong supporter of this project. This project also has been used as an electoral incentive in the past. The local business elites, who control a large number of votes, are the main beneficiaries of this project. For instance, in 2013 election the incumbent President Mohamed Waheed was able to gain majority vote from Meedhoo by expediting this project through his Government. The project was then stopped due to a lack of finance. Later, during the parliamentary election, Qasim Ibrahim promised to finance it. The project contractor left in 2016 due to financial losses incurred and the project was stopped – until now. The upcoming local council elections has now become a major reason to continue the project as a means to gain vote for the Government candidate.

The questionable way this project has been prompted at a time of an election is highly controversial. In addition, the way the project was given a green light, shows the hypocrisy of the current Government in dealing with environment and climate change at the heart of the Maldives. The Environment Minister of Maldives, Thoriq Ibrahim, currently attending Conference of the Parties of UNFCCC (COP) 22 in Morocco, is asking for finance for adaptation. Back at home, he has allowed the destruction of a reef, the most important adaptive feature of an island. As opposed to his pledge to international community in June this year on strengthening EIA process in the country to reduce damage to coral reefs due to human activity he has allowed to blast an important reef of an island already faced with severe erosion.

Just a few kilometers north of this destruction there is a European Union (EU) and Australian Government jointly funded Climate Change Adaptation project. This project, located in the Hithadhoo Koattey and Edhigali Kilhi Protected Area, is funding various activities worth millions of dollars aimed at protection and sustainable use of the coastal marine environemnt. In the meantime, the Hithadhoo Koattey Area Reef, which was resistant to 1998 bleaching, has been reported to have recently shown traces of bleaching.

The Government of the Maldives has an obligation both under local environmental laws and international commitments to stop this destruction. The moratorium on prohibiting blasting of reefs should be enforced in the country already with weakened environmental monitoring and enforcement. Instead of pleading to international community and condemning their inaction on global climate change the country should ensure they do not destroy their critical natural resilience against climate change.

The blasting of this Reef will be an intergenerational theft that can never be repaid.


About the author:

Ibrahim Mohamed is a Ph.D. candidate at James Cook University, Australia. His research is on the adaptive capacity of islands of the Maldives to climate change. Prior to his Ph.D. scholarship from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia under Australia Awards, he was working in the Maldives Environmental Protection Agency as the Deputy Director General. He has also worked for the Maldives Climate Change Trust Fund managed projects related to adaptation and mitigation.

Photo: New Scientist