Tagged: Authoritarian reversal Maldives

An attempted assassination, a Jinni, and the Maldives army

by Azra Naseem

A Jinni led the army’s investigations into the alleged explosion on the presidential yacht, Finifenmaa, in September 2015, says a police statement leaked sometime in the morning of 2 March 2016, an extraordinary day in the life of Maldives.

The ‘Finifenmaa Blast’, as the curious incident on the president’s yacht came to be known, is portrayed in official discourse as an assassination attempt on President Yameen—allegedly masterminded by now jailed Vice President Ahmed Adeeb.

The leaked statement is made by a 20-year-old Jinni Whisperer (for want of a better term) called Ahmed Mamdhooh. The story astounds at many levels, for a variety of reasons:

At around 15 years of age, Mamdhooh meets a visiting Malaysian by the name of Abubakuru (last name and current abode unknown) who teaches the boy to summon Jinnis. Using skills learned from Abubakuru, and the Qur’an, Mamdhooh now helps people shake off wicked spells cast against them by enemies.

A few days after the Finifenmaa Blast, Chief of Defence Major General Ahmed Shiyam recruits Mamdhooh as a member of what seems to be a Top Secret Investigative Team personally led by the Major General. The first meeting between The Chief and the Jinni Whisperer takes place outside Senahiya, a military hospital in Male’.

The Chief picks Mamdhooh up in his car.

“I want you to find the truth in the Finifenmaa Case”, says The Chief.

“How much?”

Mamdhooh does not charge for his services.

They arrange to meet again.

When The Chief meets Mamdhooh the following day he has a list of things he wants: the dirt on persons in military detention; the dirt on Vice President Adeeb; and, he wants to know: is it true there are weapons hidden somewhere in Male’?

The two men meet every day for the next three days. Each time The Chief asks Mamdhooh to summon a Jinni to get the information he wants.

“I don’t do that,” Mamdhooh wants to avoid summoning a Jinni. But The Chief insists until, on the third day, Mamdhooh relents.

“I will need someone trustworthy from the MNDF”, he says.

“That’s impossible”, replies The Chief.

Mamdhooh needs a Medium, a body into which the Jinni can be summoned. With no one the Chief of Defence can trust at the MNDF, he has to ask his own circle. He finds a friend of a friend, a young man named Zihan Ahmed.

Mamdhooh met Zihan when he helped the mother of his friend, Mohamed Ubaidh Ibrahim, get rid of the evil eye four years ago.

To summon the Jinni, Zihan will need to  be laid down somewhere private.

The Chief, along with another top army official, a Shad Sir as he is referred to, provide Mamdhooh with a suitable location. A building under construction near the post office.  One night soon after, on a date and time unknown, the three meet to get the hurly burly done.

Zihan Ahmed is worried about allowing the Jinni to  enter and reside within him. Mamdhooh comes to a compromise with him—the Jinni will only speak through Zihan, he will not be allowed inside Zihan’s body.

The ritual begins: Zihan is on the floor, Mamdhooh is holding his index finger and places a hand on his forehead.  “You must give me the first answer that comes into your head”, he tells Zihan, and recites several Sura from the Qur’an.

Chief of Defence Major General Shiyam begins interrogating the Jinni.

“The soldiers under arrest for the Finifenmaa Blast, do they have anything to do with it?”

“Does Papa (a senior army officer in custody) have anything to do with it?”

“Yes” to both, says Jinni.

“Does the Vice President have anything to do with it?”

“Yes.”

“Does he [the Vice President] have anything to do with weapons?”

“No.”

The session ends here, whether due to lack of cooperation from the Jinni, or other pressing military matters The Chief has to look after, it is not said.

The next session is held about three nights later, same location.

“Is there any involvement of a former President in this?” The Chief resumes the official interrogation into the alleged assassination attempt.

“I don’t have any names”, says the Jinni, via Zihan.

The Chief begins naming former presidents.

“President Nasheed?”

“No,” says Jinni.

“Someone who was president for a very long time. Was he involved?”

“Yes,” says Jinni.

*******

The Chief and the Jinni Whisperer meet at the MNDF headquarters. The national security risk is high — military intelligence reports say there could be weapons stashed away in different parts of the country. The Jinni’s services are desperately required to protect The Sovereignty.

The Chief says weapons could be hidden on any of the 1200 islands in the archipelago. It is too big a territory for Mamdhooh’s Jinni, which needs a list of suspect locations to choose from. The Chief points to the island of Hibalhidhoo, Bodu Kaashihuraa and another with a name now forgotten. Jinni says Hibalhidhoo is the most likely. Next day, the army finds weapons at Hibalhidhoo.

“There could be more”, The Chief wants Mamdhooh to summon the Jinni for verification.

“I can’t do that from Male’.” Mamdhooh’s Jinni does not have as wide a jurisdiction as the MNDF would like.

Mamdhooh is at home one night soon after when The Chief provides him with an MNDF Special Forces uniform which he puts on before departing for Hibalhidhoo. Dressed in the army uniform, the Jinni Whisperer is taken on board a vessel which stops at the prison island of Dhoonidhoo en route.

“We have to pick up someone (name and abode unknown)”, says Shad Sir, who is joining in the trip. “He is suspected of colluding to hide weapons on Hibalhidhoo. Make him tell us how, in his own words.”

When they arrive on Hibalhidhoo the prisoner is blindfolded and brought to the beach, which Mamdhooh says is the best place for his Supernatural Interrogation Techniques.

“Tell me what you know,” Mamdhooh says to the prisoner who has been sat on a chair.

“I know nothing.”

Mamdhooh places his hand on the prisoner’s knee and starts reciting a Sura from the Qur’an he says is known to make people spill secrets. He recites the Sura 98 times before handing the prisoner over to the police and joining an MNDF team on a tour of the island.

They check many locations but find nothing and return empty handed to Male’ around sunrise.

*********

The Jinni Whisperer, who has a brother in the army, finds out a day or two later The Chief wants his services again. The prisoner subjected to Supernatural Interrogation on Hibalhidhoo is now talking, and is giving reason for The Chief to suspect there may be explosives and weapons hidden in various parts of Male’.

The Chief needs the Jinni to zero in on exact locations. He says the President of the Maldives himself would like Mamdhooh to look into it. While Mamdhooh is engaged in this new mission, he receives word from The Chief that explosives may have been planted somewhere along the President’s usual travel route in Male’.

“Look deeply into this,” says The Chief.

“I cannot, until you give me the President’s route.” Mamdhooh’s Jinni, characteristically, needs to get precise information to give precise information.

Around 22:00 hours the same night, the Maldives National Defence Forces’ Supernatural Investigation Squad—Mamdhooh The Jinni Whisperer, Chief of Defence Major General Shiyam, Shad Sir, a soldier going by the name of Dunk, and Mamdhooh’s army brother—travel around Male’ together. The Chief identifies the President’s usual route.

Obviously such information is shared only with top military intelligence, like Mamdhooh, the Jinni Whisperer. The National Security is very important.

“If there is anything, it will be on top of street electric boards; between such boards and walls; in vehicles parked in the area; in dustbins of garages in the vicinity; and it is likely they will planted at eye-level”, Shad Sir tells Mamdhooh as they drive around near Mulee Aage.

The former presidential palace, Mulee Aage, would have been the official residence of the President had he not chosen to live in his own home at great expense to the taxpayer and much inconvenience to neighbours. As it is, he frequently uses it for party functions and other unknown business.

Mamdhooh has a lot to do. He goes home, performs a prayer, says several prayers, and recites many Sura including one that he repeats 4444 times. He knows the location that comes into his heart following the ritual would be where a suspect device is likely to be hidden.

“Around the burial ground near the Friday Mosque, to the east of the military headquarters,” the Jinni Whisperer tells The Chief. This is the location he sees from his third eye.

“Give me the precise location”, says The Chief.

“For that you have to take me there.”

The next day, 2 November 2015, Mamdhooh is busy most morning looking after a sick mother, and with other family chores. Around 15:30 he goes to the Beauty Shop to buy some Kalhu Bokaru, black frankincense. He needs to hold some in his hand when walking along the President’s travel route, making his recitations, looking for an IED.

Unfortunately, the shop is out of its Kalhu Bokaru stock and Mamdhooh continues without.

He bumps into Zihan Ahmed (The Medium) and another friend, Tholhath Mohamed, twice.

“Where to?” they ask, the usual Maldivian greeting for someone you meet on the street.

“I am on a Mission”, Mamdhooh tells them.

Not long after, he meets another friend. The Mission is on hold for the next twenty minutes as the friends catch up. Just as he resumes his walk he bumps into The Medium and his friend. They laugh.

Mamdhooh continues on The Mission, reciting and walking beside parked vehicles on Nooraanee Goalhi. There, on the battery of a Pick-Up (or a mini-truck) parked around the corner from Mulee Aage, he notices a black bag. He lifts a corner and peeps in, sees a number of wires inside.

“I see something.” Mamdhooh phones his brother in the army, “Come.”

When his brother comes, Mamdhooh points him to the bag. A short distance away, he can see Shad Sir and Dunk, watching. [You may remember them from the Supernatural Interrogation Team on Hibalhidhoo.] Mamdhooh points them to the suspect device, too, and hangs about the area.

The ‘network jammer vehicle’ the MNDF uses in the president’s security arrangements arrives, and army personnel are soon active in the area. The army’s bomb disposal team say the suspected explosive is connected to the battery.

Mamdhooh watches them attempt, and fail, to ‘take X-Rays of the device in situ’. They decide to transport the device to the football stadium in Maafannu, put it inside a container and place it in the MNDF vehicle. Mamdhooh watches as the vehicle pulls away, to travel halfway across the crowded, always busy streets of Male’–with what they are said to believe is a ticking time-bomb.

Mamdhooh is told, and he believes, the container is designed to cause minimum damage in case the bomb explodes en route. He accompanies the army team, and the live bomb, to the stadium.

“It is not an explosive”, he learns shortly after.

“It is an explosive”, it is decided soon after, and handed over to Police Forensics to check.

Mamdhooh watches as the forensic team works.

Suddenly, storm clouds gather, and weather takes a turn for the bad. Mamdhooh decides to go home but lingers to hear a conversation Shad Sir is having on the phone. He remembers the tail end of it.

“Now we have to play that same scene again. How are we supposed to do that in this rain?” Shad Sir continues, “The order comes from up high, so it has to be done.”

Mamdhooh and his army brother, Dhonbe, are home when Dhonbe gets a phone call.

“It is a stick dynamite”, Dhonbe is told. He is to go to the stadium area to help defuse it.

Mamdhooh joins Dhonbe. They are en route when they learn of a mind-change: the device is to be taken to Girifushi, an island about 17 kilometres from Male’ the army uses for training. They return home then, and Mamdhooh knows nothing of whatever takes place later that night.

The following day Dhonbe shows him some video footage from the stadium area but the picture quality is so bad, Mamdhooh does not notice anything significant.

Later, Shad Sir shows him some footage on his phone. In this one, Mamdhooh sees himself walking and Ahmed Zinan (The Medium) and Tholhath Mohamed [the same two people he encountered twice when he was looking for an explosive the previous day] coming behind him on a motorcycle.

“Did you have anything to do with planting an IED anywhere on the President’s route?” Mamdhooh says he asked the pair when he met them near the park.

“No.”

The army now wants its Jinni Whisperer to identify who planted the explosive. They give him a list of suspects with photos. He points to one. Later, he finds out the person he identified is ‘Superman’ (of no other known name or abode).

Soon after, for reasons unknown, Mamdhooh becomes a suspect in planting the alleged bomb. As do his friends Zihan, The Medium; Tholhath Mohamed; and Mohamed Ubaidh Ibrahim.

Mamdhooh, who knows how to use the Supernatural to get what he wants, and his three friends remain in prison.

It is not known why Mamdhooh has not summoned the Jinni to help them escape or prove their innocence. It is possible the Maldives National Defence Forces have other, more powerful, Jinnis working for them.


Photo 1: Security for President Yameen when he visited Vashafaru, 1 March 2016 by @ali_shamin

Photo 2: The MNDF Bomb Squad during State of Emergency, 2015 by Unknown

Author’s Note: All the information in the above article is taken from a statement made to the Maldives Police Service by Ahmed Mamdhooh during their investigation into his alleged involvement in the incident. A copy of the statement was leaked to the media on 2 March 2016.

Reflections on the Maldivian democracy

Maldives Sunset

by Daniel Bosley

Maldivian democracy. Democracy in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It’s unique. 360,000 people. 90,000 sq km. 187 inhabited islands. Coconuts. Coral reefs. Transmitting the desires and needs of the people to their elected officials in this environment? It’s difficult.

The features of the Maldives’ recent democratic endeavours have also been unusual in many ways. Unusual in that they have been televised and written about across the world. Unusual in that massive increases in global tourism and the age of digital media have raised the profile. For most who have read about the problems facing ‘that place that their friend went to on holiday that one time’, it is all very new.

For half of the Maldives too, the explosion of politics in the past decade must seem unprecedented after three decades of calm dictatorship (supplemented by the occasional enhanced interrogation). Those under the age of 40 will be too young to remember any similar upheavals.

Looking at the documented history of the country, it is clear many of the modern characteristics of its politics are new. Most noticeably, political violence is now endemic, compared to just a few short years ago when any act of violence would set tongues wagging in many mouths in many islands (there are reports that any angry outbursts in the past would prompt police intervention).

The answer to why these traits have occurred is probably the same as that which solves 9 out of every 10 such puzzles. Money. These days, there’s a lot more of it in the archipelago. Tourist arrival statistics now have 7 figures and resorts have 7 stars.

The stakes are higher, but is the game all that different? Are the basic problems facing Maldivian democracy new?

Foreign media accounts of the recent political turmoil are usually fairly superficial, with few even willing to look back as far as the failure to secure judicial independence post-2008 as the key to the current chapter of ‘_____ in Paradise’. Insert the words ‘judicial independence’ in there and then try and sell it; the likelihood of a successful pitch is about the same as any foreign outlet having the time or resources to look any further into the national context.

But contrary to the necessary reductivism of international coverage, many of the current traits have been seen before. The fact that the average Sultan’s reign lasted just 8 and a half years suggests that messy power transfers are not a modern phenomena. Those observing through aftermath of the country’s first written constitutions in the 1930s noted that new institutions were quickly dominated by a tiny and nepotistic elite, while a number of leaders were soon hounded out of politics (and the country) – accused of moving forward too fast for the general population.

For the lazy analyst, the above details could be copied and pasted into a text discussing recent travails, with cries of nepotism and oligarchy following the spectacular ending of President Mohamed Nasheed’s presidency, which had been deemed too liberal by another decidedly undemocratic rent-a-mob.

Additionally, the political polarisation that has split the country down the middle in the age of multi-party politics has been seen before. ‘Unique’ anecdotal cases such as the physical division of islands along party lines in recent times, can be found frequently in more historical accounts. Feuding between wards, families, and towns are frequently cited as having inspired ‘fanditha’ attacks, arson, and even a dividing trench dug across one island. Attempts in the 60s to have elected atoll chiefs were short-lived due to the local factionalism the process exacerbated.

Despite the seemingly idyllic surrounds, people in the islands have the same need as all people to create an identity by finding an ‘other’ to push against. In a country with little or no cultural, ethnic, or religious heterogeneity (and, thankfully, with little propensity for violence), it is hardly surprising that people will (ab)use politics to satisfy these human egotistical urges.

But at heart, many (particularly older) Maldivians seem to know that they are watching a reboot rather than a sequel to the political drama, and while international headlines wail about new crises, most locals roll their eyes in apathy, or let out an exasperated chuckle. Despite taking part in the soap opera – to alleviate boredom as much as anything – they know that current cast members are interchangeable. They know that most of the root causes will not suddenly disappear by simply sacking the lead actor (although using a different talent agency occasionally might be a good thing).

That a progressive young leader is transformed into a curmudgeonly despot is not a new story anywhere, and the recent transformation of VP Adheeb from a reportedly mild-mannered young man to the country’s favourite scapegoat begs more questions about the system than the individuals in it (Dr Jameel’s recent transformation may yet be attributed to amnesia…or maybe an evil twin).

Questions and answers

As the Maldives’ political landscape looks set to continue its monotonous cycle of purge and coup, it will require new thinking to redirect the political currents that traditionally move jobs, privilege, and land from one side of the island to another with each new set of leaders. It is these predictable beyfulhun monsoons that create grasping kleptocrats and dictators.

Both leaders and voters should be encouraged to think beyond short-term (corruption, political prisoners) and medium-term problems (judicial independence) to long-term (democratic consolidation, rule of law, stability) issues in order to break the country out of a pattern that is becoming too harmful to continue.

Engaging democratic citizens will not make great headlines (‘Engaging voters in Paradise’, anyone?). It is a slow process that must start with providing people adequate representation, and an ability for introspective thinking about themselves, their community and their leaders; national pride without nationalist xenophobia, loyalty without patriarchy, public service without quid pro quo.

Any journalist working in the Maldives should also aspire to assist this process, building trust and making information accessible for the analysis of the individual reader – not telling them what to think by funneling facts and manipulating the narrative.

It is at the level of political engagement that Maldivian democracy faces particular systemic problems. Many people simply don’t take political science seriously for the same reason anti-intellectualism exists in working class communities around the world; they have not been convinced of the long term effect politics has on their lives. The rapid transition from small communities of fishermen to citizens of a modern democratic nation is particularly tough for these reasons.

In order to draw people into politics and create a thriving democracy, more politicians must try to get into the heads of the people they represent (without moving the furniture about while they’re in there). Short term populism (and bribes) may win a vote, but only a long term vision of people’s wants, hopes, and needs as Maldivians will bring long term stability that leaders crave and the country needs. Indeed, with the changes the society has undergone in recent decades, such an appraisal of the nation is desperately needed.

Until people are truly engaged, blatantly illegal activity by those in office and brazen kleptocracy will not result in the groundswell of outrage many expect. Apathy is the enemy of accountability. Additionally, constantly lobbying foreigners to force through changes from the outside is a poor substitute for home-grown remedies.

A disengaged electorate is made worse by the continuing dominance of a few patriarchs, who in turn have always danced to the beat of bodu beru from Male’. Disillusionment with distant leaders is not unique to the Maldives, but the physical disconnect between Malé and the atolls has always been extreme.

The current gap between politicians and those they claim to represent, however, will not foster the type of engagement upon which a democratic culture can flourish. Presidents in the elite bubble continue to buy votes and rent crowds while convincing themselves that they are very popular (a questionable method of polling); literally dragging their supporters along rather than asking them to follow. Meanwhile, MPs occupy spaces in the Majlis, nominally with the intention of representing an island constituency, and yet few spend any time with their voters beyond the time it takes to count the ballots.

An outsider can never truly know a community as its permanent members can, and a distant member of the elite will struggle to understand the wants and needs of their electorate. The fact that every atoll in the country has its own ‘representatives’ suggests they should be represented in the embodying-their-values-and-needs-in-the-Majlis sense of the word, rather than the enjoy-your-football-field-see-you-in-5-years meaning. This unnecessary aloofness misses a vital opportunity for local leaders to articulate and to translate Maldivian democracy to their voters; to find that sweet spot between dry theorising  (sorry about that) and a man on a podium calling his opponents heretics.

Lists compiled by social scientists have included over 500 different types of democracy, but every single one them has to meaningfully involve the people in decision making (rather than as a fig leaf for oligarchy). The Maldives’ current leaders are quick to point out the unique nature of the country, and to try and mould such a place to perfectly fit western models would represent the worst type of orientalism (in Edward Said’s sense of the word).

Indeed, Maldivian democracy could well end up with it’s own unique position in academia, but without the engagement of the electorate it will remain an oxymoron. Rather than patronising patrons telling people what they want (or more often what they should be afraid of), Maldivians should be asked what they want from their democracy and given the informational tools to answer by their leaders and their media.

The new character of Maldivian politics is only adding greater urgency to older and deeper problems surrounding its democracy growth. Without asking the right questions, however, it will be hard to develop long-term answers.


About the author: Daniel Bosley is a British journalist working in the Maldives’

Photo: Daniel Bosley

Keeping up with the authoritarians

YameenFathun2

by Azra Naseem

The Maldives is no longer a democracy. For some reason, this is a fact which most observers, especially from the outside, are unwilling to accept. All statements and reports from the international community note ‘with concern’ the many actions of Yameen’s regime that fall well within the boundaries of authoritarianism, yet continue to insist the Maldivian democracy still exists – it’s just ‘at risk’.

According to experts, modern democratic regimes meet four minimum criteria: 1) the executive and Majlis are chosen through elections that are open, free, and fair; 2) virtually all adults possess the right to vote; 3) political rights and civil liberties, including freedom of the press, freedom of association, and freedom to criticise the government without reprisal, are broadly protected; and 4) elected authorities possess real authority to govern, in that they are not subject to tutelary control of military or clerical leaders.⁠1

Which of these criteria are met by the current Maldivian regime?

In terms of No.1, the electoral process, the Supreme Court’s interventions in the presidential election of 2013 made a mockery of the electoral process. The many tricks and tactics used to draw out the election until it eventually ended in a win for Yameen are by now well documented⁠2 and cannot be described by anyone who understands the principles and norms of democracy as ‘democratic.’

The Majlis elections in 2014, which was preceded by Supreme Court-engineered firing of President of the Elections Commission Fuwad Thowfeek—noted for his integrity—was characterised by vote buying and selling. As the EU Observers noted, while⁠3 the election was ‘calm and orderly’, it was marred by ‘allegations of prevalent vote-buying, excessive campaign expenditure and abuse of state resources’⁠4.

Another death blow to the electoral process has been the systematic imprisonment of all opposition leaders. Almost all opposition leaders are in jail: former president Mohamed Nasheed for 13 years, charged and convicted of terrorism; leader of Adhaalath Party Sheikh Imran Abdullah, charged with terrorism and in detention without trial now for over a 100 days; former Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim, convicted of weapons smuggling and jailed for 11 years. Those who haven’t been put behind bars, like 2013 presidential candidate Qasim Ibrahim, have either been coerced out of the political arena through threats to personal freedom and business interests while others—like the Chairman of MDP Ali Waheed, Deputy Leader of Jumhooree Party (JP) Ameen Ibrahim and impeached Vice President Mohamed Jameel Ahmed—have chosen to live in exile rather than spend what could be decades in prison. This state of affairs ensures that, when (or if) the next election comes around it would be, for all intents and purposes, non-competitive.

Number 2 on the list, the right for virtually all adults to vote still exists. But based on the experiences discussed above—judicial interventions, the now deeply embedded custom of vote buying and selling, patronage, blackmail and corruption—it is clear to see that the mere existence of that right does not ensure its contribution to the strengthening of democracy.

No. 3—the protection of civil and political rights—has suffered equally greatly. It is not simply leaders of the opposition the regime has clamped down on. From 8 February 2012 onwards, it became the norm to quell opposition protests with brutal violence. Pepper spray, violent beatings, and imprisonment were prevalent throughout the regime of caretaker president Waheed and during the protests in the lead-up to and during the 2013 presidential elections; and it has been standard practise after Yameen’s election. The arrest of over 200 protesters on 1 May 2015 and their subsequent unlawful detentions, mistreatment and intimidation—combined with the continued imprisonment of Nasheed and coercion of MDP—have effectively put a stop to all opposition rallies.

MariyaDidi

It is not just activists and mass protesters who have been silenced. There are virtually no independent institutions or civil society organisations left with the capacity or courage to criticise the government. The independence of the Elections Commission and the Human Rights Commission was taken away through Supreme Court instigated suo motu cases, while all other institutions, such as the Police Integrity Commission (PIC) as just one example, have been rendered toothless by appointing regime loyalists as members. The recently published report by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) chronicles the many steps taken against cvil society organisations since 2013, which all contribute towards elimination of civil and political rights.

And, when it comes to No.4, the possession of ‘real authority’ by elected officials to govern—this now applies only to Yameen and members of his Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). The entire local governance system has been dismantled, and elected council members rendered powerless. In the Majlis, PPM and its allies enjoy the majority power needed to pass whatever Bills they propose, and where an absolute majority is needed—as seen in the machinations that saw MDP voting with PPM for two controversial constitutional amendments—it resorts to blackmail, coercion, patronage and the usual web of corruption and deceit to engineer the result it desires. Elected MPs have also lost their power through amendments made to Majlis rules such as the recent abolishing of the requirement for debate and discussion before passing bills, and the new regulation which says only PPM members can propose any legislation or amendments related to state finances.

Clearly, the Maldives is failing to meet the minimum criteria required of a modern democracy in all sectors. Experts admit that violations of these criteria occur in even the most established democracies. However, in such cases, the violations are not systematic enough to ‘fundamentally alter the playing field between government and opposition.’ In the Maldives, the playing field is not just failing to be level, it has been almost totally annihilated. The Maldivian Democratic Party is at its weakest since inception, its power to mobilise supporters and lead opposition activities held hostage to a) government’s unlawful detention and mistreatment of its charismatic leader, Nasheed, and b) to the threat to freedom and security of all its supporters.

So what kind of a regime is it that currently exists in the Maldives?

As the ICJ report noted, the Maldives’ transition to democracy was flawed. While Nasheed managed to instigate several democratic reforms, many key elements of the state apparatus remained within the control of the former Gayoom regime. For most of the transition period under Nasheed, the Majlis remained under opposition control, not acting as a responsible branch of the opposition but existing as a bulwark against much needed democratic reforms. The judiciary, too, remained in the grips of the same forces, its key members acting against the new democratic constitution rather than with it. As diligently chronicled by former member of the Judicial Services Commission, Aishath Velezinee, MDP was at times unable—and at other times unwilling—to instigate the actions necessary for change in the right direction.

The Maldivian democracy in transition under Nasheed can therefore be described as being, a ‘weak’ or ‘flawed’ or even a ‘diminished’ democracy; nevertheless it was one that met the minimum requirements of one. A difficult transition experience is neither unexpected nor unusual, as seen by the many African and Eastern European countries that adopted democracy in the post-Cold War era. And, as was seen from these countries, authoritarian reversal is not an unusual ending to such a transition.

waheed-maldivesOnce the controversial end to Nasheed’s government was accepted by CONI as ‘legal and constitutional’ with ‘no coup, no duress, no mutiny’, possibilities opened up for the ‘flawed democracy’ to change into a hybrid regime veering away from democracy towards competitive authoritarianism. When caretaker president Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik took the reigns of the country, this is the direction in which he—with the Gayoom loyalists he signed with—firmly steered the country.

In a competitive authoritarian regime, violations of the four criteria discussed above are frequent:

Although elections are regularly held and generally free of massive fraud, incumbents routinely abuse state resources, deny the opposition adequate media coverage, harass opposition candidates and their supporters, and in some cases manipulate electoral results. Journalists, opposition politicians, and other government critics maybe spied on, threatened, harassed, or arrested. Members of the opposition may be jailed, exiled, or—less frequently—even assaulted or murdered. Regimes characterised by such abuses cannot be called democratic. (Levitsky and Way 2002)

As discussed previously, the presidential election of 2013, was less than democratic. Waheed’s rule was marked by major clamp downs on opposition, the brutal murder of MP Afrasheem Ali, and several attacks on journalists and media organisations. All such activities multiplied after Yameen’s election. Three young men, including a journalist, have been missing for over a year. The government has failed to investigate and, in the case of the disappeared journalist, has actively obstructed efforts to find him. While media freedom remains, Maldives has slipped from 51st place in the World Press Freedom Index in 2012 to 112th place in 2015. Added to this are the threats and actions against the opposition previously discussed, and the government’s control of the judiciary and the legislature — all hallmarks of competitive authoritarianism.

Clearly, the Maldivian democracy has long since passed the ‘at risk’ stage. It no longer exists. The question that should be asked is, under what sort of authoritarianism is the country in? Is it competitive, or full-scale authoritarianism?

YameenQayoom

In a competitive authoritarian regime, although not a democracy, there are still arenas of contestation through which opposition forces ‘may periodically challenge, weaken, and occasionally even defeat autocratic rulers’. These are: a) the electoral arena; b) the legislature; c) the judiciary; and c) the media.

In competitive authoritarian regimes the electoral process can be marked by large-scale abuses of state power. The media is often biased, and there is widespread abuse and harassment of opposition activists and candidates. But, major opposition parties and candidates still compete, the elections are generally free of massive fraud, and international observers are allowed to monitor the process. This (apart from the extra-legal interventions of the Supreme Court) largely applies to what happened in the 2013 presidential election in the Maldives.

Things have, however, progressed far beyond that stage now. What is seen happening in the electoral process at present—such as the routine imprisonment of opposition figures—are hallmarks of full-scale authoritarianism where elections are either devoid of any serious competition, or are not held at all. At the level of local government, the electoral process has all but disappeared. When it came to the latest round of local council elections, the newly elected Elections Commission—populated by regime loyalists—decided the process wasn’t worth the required MVR100,000 or so. Furthermore, if an increasingly loud media murmur is to be believed, plans are now in the offing to extend the presidential term limits from five years to eight years through yet another constitutional amendment through the Majlis.

Looking at the legislative arena, things are not any rosier. In a competitive authoritarian regime, the legislature—although controlled by a ruling party majority—remains a place where the opposition can, even if occasionally, put up a good fight; and can still be a public platform from which to criticise the regime. This was largely the case with the Maldivian Majlis during caretaker Waheed’s regime. Recent developments in the Majlis in relation to the constitutional amendments, however, proved that it no longer serves as a people’s parliament, representing differing opinions and voices. It, too, has become a hallmark of full-scale authoritarianism where ‘conflict between the legislature and the executive branch is virtually unthinkable.’

ConstitutionThat the third arena—the judiciary—is under the complete control of the government is not an argument that anyone seriously contests, except the executive itself. Dozens of reports have been published by a whole range of international organisations from the UN to the ICJ censuring its lack of independence and corruption, and criticism has flowed from individual states, regional bodies and supranational entities. During Waheed’s competitive authoritarian regime, the widespread corruption, patronage and blackmail inherited from the Gayoom era remained in the judiciary. But there was room—although very little—for individual judges to express dissenting opinions. Several decisions by the executive since Yameen’s assumption of office, brought into effect via the compliant Majlis—such as the restructuring of the Supreme Court bench—have, however, destroyed any wriggle room for independent thought or action in the judiciary.

The media, is perhaps the only one of the four arenas which full-scale authoritarian regimes usually control that is not yet fully within the grasp of the Yameen regime. This is due not for the lack of trying, but to the impossibility of imposing such control over the kind of globally inter-connected media that exists today. Spying—both traditional and cyber—on dissenting voices by the police is common place, as is harassment and intimidation. And, as discussed before, the working environment for many journalists is far from safe. On top of this, the regime is now set to pass two new Bills—one on Freedom of Expression and one on Counterterrorism—which are set to curtail dissent and opposition to degrees not seen since the transition to democracy in 2008.

In addition to all this is the Yameen regime’s total dismissal of international democratic opinion, treaties and laws, and a deliberate foreign policy shift away from the democratic international community in favour of China, and authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Except for the fact that the Maldives is not (yet) a threat to international security, the regime could easily be described as a ‘rogue state’.

And yet—despite all the evidence which shows the Maldives fitting neatly into the existing frameworks of what defines at best a competitive authoritarian regime and at worst a full-scale authoritarian regime—leaders of established democracies, and international stakeholders in the global democratisation efforts, continue describing the Maldives as ‘a democracy at risk’. This is clearly no longer the case.

Why the reluctance to let go of the ‘democracy’ label? Does it arise from a fear of acknowledging defeat and admitting that despite the international community’s interest and (sometimes admirable) efforts to help democratise the Maldives, it has failed to take root and succeed? Or is it simply because international actors are not keeping up with the authoritarians in the Maldives?

This must change. Any efforts to restore democracy to Maldives must start with the acknowledgement that however successful the transition appeared in the beginning, it has been deliberately failed. A fresh start that learns from the past, and knows what we are dealing with at present, is necessary.


1 Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, ‘The rise of competitive authoritarianism’, Journal of Democracy 13 (2) (2002), 51-65:53

2 EU Election Observation Mission, ‘Republic of Maldives parliamentary elections 22 March 2014: final report’, available at http://www.eueom.eu/files/pressreleases/english/eu-eom-maldives2014-final-report_en.pdf (27 August 2015).

See also: International Commission of Jurists and South Asians for Human Rights, ‘Justice adrift: rule of law and political crisis in the Maldives’, August 2015, available at http://icj.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Maldives-Justice-Adrift-Rule-of-Law-Publications-fact-finding-report-2015-ENG.pdf (28 August 2015).

3 Commission of National Inquiry (CONI), August 2012

4 . EU Election Observation Mission, ‘Republic of Maldives parliamentary elections 22 March 2014: final report’, available at http://www.eueom.eu/files/pressreleases/english/eu-eom-maldives2014-final-report_en.pdf (27 August 2015).