Category: Long Reads

Maldives 2016 and beyond: a clash of futures


Maldives ends 2015 poised at a decisive moment for its future. Two visions for the country grip, and divide, the population at a deep level. The vision of Maldives as (a) a rights-based democracy where life is chaotic but vibrant and thriving, or as (b) an autocracy that enforces strict Islamic Sharia and takes people away from modernity and its complexities to a simplified world ordered in centuries long gone.

The fault line is invisible, it is often unspoken, but it exists, informing and governing people’s beliefs, their practises, and perspectives; curbing or allowing what people are able to say, think, and do. Stemming from, feeding into, and reifying, this major division are other interconnected issues of ideological and socio-economic conflicts. There are divisions between secularists and adherents to the constitutional stipulation demanding a nation of Muslims and only Muslims; between Islamic schools of thought; between the rich and the poor; the educated and the uneducated; the landed-gentry in Male’ and ‘the islanders’; the rebellious activists and the obedient followers; the ‘good Muslims’ and the ‘bad Muslims’; even the spurious division between the political and the a-political; and, particularly, an alleged division between Maldivian and un-Maldivian. These divisions, and their agitations for legitimacy often at the expense of the other, defines much of life—how it is seen, heard and lived—in Maldives at present.

Framing life

An example of how these visions and divisions frame not just people’s understanding of how and why events happened, but also how they see unfolding events is 7 February 2012, when the country’s first democratically elected government came to an end. Most of 7 February’s public events are recorded on television and radio. Many events occurred live on camera. But whether a Maldivian, witnessing the same events as they occurred, saw President Nasheed’s resignation as forced or voluntary depend on which of the two visualisations of Maldives they had previously embraced. The same videos, the same facts, the same images, when put together by mind-sets on two sides of the divide tell two vastly different stories. And, depending on their narrative, what happened on 7 February—the end of the first democratically elected government led by Nasheed and Maldivian Democratic Party—is concluded as (a) a good thing; or (b) a bad thing. Those who see it as a good thing work to keep the current government in power; those who do not want a return to democracy.

This frame can also be observed in the perspectives from which the events of 8 February are viewed. On that day Maldives Police Service (MPS) and its SOs, unleashed brutal force against those who saw Nasheed’s resignation as having been made under duress. It was all documented, the beatings, the blood, the chasing after Nasheed on the streets of Male’. Whether one sees the force as violence—or justifiable and proportional response—depends on whether one wants Yameen’s autocracy, or democracy with MDP. The perspective that Maldivians adopted to view the events of 7 & 8 February 2012—in favour of autocracy or democracy—has shaped and formed the present condition in which we find ourselves: at a cross-roads between freedom and submission. Freedom to be a person with rights as defined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights and to be governed by the rule of law, or submission to political dictatorship, more likely than not accompanied by religious hegemony of Revolutionary Islamist thought.

This is not to say that the divide is always so clearly cut and clearly separate from each other. Not everyone who has joined MDP are democrats; not every democrat has joined MDP; and nor is everyone who wants an autocracy a latent Jihadist. There are many intersections where the two main divisions merge and the picture becomes somewhat murky. Not all members of MDP are in the party because of its stated commitments to democracy, some are there because it is the largest party with most members, and therefore most popular. And MDP has not always stood up for the principles of democracy it aspires to. The same way, there are autocrats who do not want Saudi-religious hegemony in Maldives, but are too concerned with their own ambitions within the regime to discuss it in the open. There are both autocrats and democracy supporters who fund and facilitate the Wahhabis, the Salafis and other Revolutionary Islamists. There are billionaire resort tycoons from both sides who assuage their religious guilt for profiting from the sale of non-Islamic products by donating to the Salafi and Wahhabi missionaries. Similarly, several MDP MPs have voted for extra-legal amendments to the Constitution. Essentially, there are people who weave in and out of the two divides, with nothing but greed and ambition guiding them.

At the level of the Executive, Yameen is only interested in extending his term. Being a man of less than average religious inclination, he does not care what persuasion of Islam becomes dominant in the Maldives as long as he can continue as ruler. He will stay on whichever side allows him the longest leash. Saudi Arabia and China, with no demands to conform to universal values of democracy, make the perfect partners. Like the Saudi Royal family whose lives within their courts and abroad remain unmoored by Wahhabi interpretations of Islam, Yameen and his extended family and supporters can continue to enjoy access to Western education and social freedoms while the rest of the population is left to grapple with the consequences of outsourcing religious thought to the Saudis. Yameen has no friends left in the world of democracy, so he pursues a realist foreign policy where his allies are favoured according to how unlikely they are to ask him to conform to universal ideals of democracy that weaken his power. Democracy comes with conditions attached; it requires playing by supposedly universal rules and values based on a charter of human rights. Autocracy comes with no such requirements. Yameen is not worried by the religious unity agreement with Saudi Arabia and its effects on the people, he is concerned about the money it brings and the likelihood of it lengthening his tenure.

At the grassroots level, too, lines sometimes get blurred between democracy supporters and those who want autocracy. This happens most where there is a deficiency in knowledge about democracy itself. The idea of fighting for a system of long term benefits for everyone  is not sustainable without the ideological conviction that makes the long wait worthwhile. Sadly, the thriving civil society sector which came into its own during the fight for democracy and during the transition period, is now almost dead, deliberately stifled by the current autocracy. Registering an NGO involves cutting through huge amounts of red tape, only to be turned away for no reason except the authorities do not like its purpose. Only a couple of NGOs have survived, with skeleton staff and a skeletal budget. In the absence of a strong civil society, the task of democratisation falls on MDP, the leader of democratic thought in Maldives. This is not an ideal scenario for whatever else it is, it is first and foremost a political party. While MDP has been, and still is, in a position to mobilise large support in an impressively short period of time for any of its causes, its recent focus has not been on strengthening democracy in general, but on securing the party as one that still fights a specifically Nasheed-led battle for democracy. Lately, MDP has shown little energy and will to also take the lead to re-energise democracy at grassroots level. Given the full-frontal, all guns blazing attack  on the party by Yameen and his cronies, and the increasing apathy of the general population, this is not entirely surprising.  The result is that while there is coordinated efforts being made by the autocrats and the Islamists to get the public to accept their ideological and political stances as the ‘correct’ way; the ‘right’ way; the ‘Islamic’ way; there is considerably less such efforts being made by democrats to explain why democracy is such a good thing for the Maldives.

The political and ideological divisions also affect people’s perception of how just the Maldives justice system is. Those wearing democracy goggles see a justice system gone entirely haywire, lost touch with rule of law, and have empowered autocracy. Those who see autocracy as the best way to govern Maldives see the judiciary as an arm of the government, and not a separate branch of the State, thus justifying in their mind its injustices. In terms of the Islamists, they have chosen to ignore the injustices of the current system, which being also common law-based, is not worth even bothering about. Apart from pushing for Shari’a as the only way forward, they do nothing.

Both MDP and members of the remaining few civil society organisations rooting for democracy are also restricted in their actions, and scope of activism, by the government and Islamist narrative that encourage depictions of democracy and Islam as incompatible, and therefore to be discouraged. Democracy is portrayed as detrimental to development: why resist government plans to move entire populations into apartments in a reclaimed residential area called Greater Male’ when it means having a bridge that connects everyone to Male’, the capital? Demanding respect for the fragile environment over so-called development is, the public is told, a folly of democracy standing in the way of development. Hence the disbanding of local councils, the deliberate disintegration of the structure of local governance that was shaky to begin with. At the same time, many Maldivians are being persuaded to leave the country and join foreign wars for an Islamic Caliphate precisely because it favours democracy and, therefore, has become ‘a land of sin’. The voice that disagrees has been silenced as Un-Islamic, however mired in Islamic thought and jurisprudence their expressed thoughts may be.

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Maldives in South Asia: Let’s talk about Saudis

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by Azra Naseem

A deviation today from the usual focus on Maldives’ insane politicians: the spread of revolutionary Islamist thought in the Maldives, and some of its regional implications. This week I went to a conference in New Delhi about culture as a factor in regional cooperation in South Asia. These are some of my thoughts and observations from the conference.

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Maldives’ Yellow Brick Road to State of Emergency: Part I

by Azra Naseem

On 4 November 2015, President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom declared a State of Emergency in the Maldives, suspending along with other laws seven different fundamental rights guaranteed by its democratic Constitution. Even as his Attorney General announced the executive decree, the Foreign Ministry led by Yameen’s niece, Dunya Maumoon, was reassuring the world everything was ‘calm and normal’ in the Maldives. Cognitive dissonance between simultaneous announcements and a world of difference between things said and things done, have been hallmarks of Yameen’s regime. The state of emergency is the latest development in a month during which the leader’s paranoid, perhaps even schizophrenic, delusions and hallucinations have become the lived experience of the Maldivian people. For now, the world is looking at the developments, aghast. Soon, however, its attention will wonder, and details of this extraordinary time in Maldivian history can easily be forgotten. This series will record some of the details for posterity, before the Gayooms re-write history as they have a habit of doing. This part discusses events along the road to the current state of emergency. Accounts of later developments will follow in shorter posts as events unfold.  

The curious case of the exploding boat

On 28 September 2015 an explosion went off on President Yameen’s speedboat, Finifenmaa [Rose] as she cruised in to dock at the official presidential jetty in Male’. The President, his wife Fathmath Ibrahim, and an entourage of about twenty aides and associates were on board. The first couple were returning from Hajj (as all local media accounts of the incident were careful to note and repeat endlessly). The precise location of the explosion, as investigations later revealed, was right under the President’s usual seat. For whatever reason, it was First Lady Fathmath Ibrahim who took the President’s seat that day. Consequently, the President escaped unscathed. Lady Fathmath, however, remained in hospital until yesterday, reportedly nursing fractures to ‘bones connected to the spine’. MedamBoysAt first visited by many admirers, some of whom queued outside the hospital for hours with a white rose each to catch a glimpse of her, she was soon relegated to the back benches of national consciousness as events became progressively more dramatic with each day following the blast.    

For several days after the explosion, there was silence from the president. The public was given no official explanation. The matter was being investigated, and there would be no comment. The people, along with the media, were left to speculate. Selected bits of information fed to the people included news of forensic teams arriving from the FBI, Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia to ‘assist Maldives Police Service with the investigation’. They reportedly stayed on the president’s retreat on the island of Aarah, and collected samples from Finifenmaa. The main theory, fed by Presidential Affairs Minister, Mohamed Shareef, suggested the blast was an accident caused by an electric or mechanical failure.

An alternative narrative, suggested on 1 October 2015, came in the form of a blog post, ‘The man who wasn’t there’, written by a Dr Kharusath. It not only suggested the blast on Finifenmaa was deliberate, it also pointed the finger at Ahmed Adeeb, Yameen’s Vice President, as having planned and plotted the attack with the intention of killing Yameen. The writer suggested the young Adeeb’s failure to be at the airport to greet the President marked him as a guilty man. The post suggested that young Adeeb—a former model and footballer who has since put on a few stones and is known as a material boy who likes the finer things in life—had bought an expensive suit in anticipation of being sworn in as the new President that afternoon. At first the blog post went largely unnoticed.    

On 7 October, 10 days after the blast, Yameen’s Spokesperson, Ibrahim Muaz Ali [or TV Mwah as he is called unofficially on social media], summoned the media for an extraordinary press conference at 1:00 in the morning. He showed reporters a video of the blast in slow-motion and officially, dramatically, declared the blast to have been an attempt to assassinate the president. No one was allowed to ask questions.

With confirmation that Yameen was investigating the blast as an attempt on his life, @Karusathey’s blog and its accusations against Adeeb began to take on more prominence. By then three members of the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), two of them with access to the state armoury, had been arrested. Two members of Adeeb’s security detail were also suspended indefinitely. The soldiers taken captive then are still under military detention.

SaudiCakeAdeeb appeared on Sangu, a television channel he funds, to defend himself and declare his unchanging loyalty to Yameen. “I will stand wherever Yameen tells me to.” Yameen allowed Adeeb to feed some cake to the increasing number of Saudi officials in the Maldives, then  decided the best place for Adeeb at the time was China. On 13 October, two weeks after the ‘Finifenmaa Blast’, off he went to Beijing to represent Maldives at an investment forum to which no one came.

500% trust – #ItsTooMuch

On the same day Adeeb left for China, Yameen fired his second Defence Minister, Ex-army General Moosa Ali Jaleel, who was appointed to the post after Yameen’s first Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim was sentenced to 11 years in jail for planning to overthrow the government. Both Nazim and Jaleel were part of the events that prematurely ended former President Mohamed Nasheed’s government. Jaleel was also a close associate of Adeeb. Jaleel was fired but escaped jail, the fate of all others who cross Yameen. As it happens, he is a close family member of the Lady Fathmath. This, in Yameen’s court, is called due process.

While Adeeb was in China, Yameen gathered members of his ‘coalition’ together in what was said to be a ‘top secret’ meeting. It was akin to Don Corleone gathering The Family together. Phones were not allowed in, for confidentiality reasons. But, members of this family being Maldivian, proceedings were reported to the media almost verbatim by some participants as soon as they left Mulee Aage, The PPM’s Family Home. Some of what was said was meant to be ‘leaked’, like Yameen’s claim he had “500% trust” in his Vice President.

Aden's Fair-weather FriendsSome other matters were perhaps not meant to be revealed: like Yameen’s assertion that moneys MPs had been receiving [in envelopes outside of their hefty pay packets] came from his own stash and not Adeeb’s. In other words, the bribes they had been receiving came from Yameen and not Adeeb; the young Mr Vice President had merely been the Middle Man. MPs were assured their payments would continue—as long as they publicly declared, and proved, their loyalty to Yameen. All who had been copying up to Adeeb would do as Yameen asked–a majority of Maldivian MPs follow where the money leads.

As is customary for Yameen, his words and actions were far removed from each other. He declared 500% trust in Adeeb but immediately after the statement, started raiding the homes and offices of Adeeb’s closest family members and associates. Among the most high profile searches were a police and army raid on the house of super-rich business man Hamid Ismail—or Hamid Seytu [Hamid from the corner shop] in common parlance—a member of Adeeb’s extended family. He was later arrested in Malaysia, and deported to Male’ against Malaysian laws. Hamid is now in jail; as is a man who took a picture of him arriving at the Male’ International Airport. Similar raids were conducted of the office of the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Company (MMPRC) and of the home of its Managing Director Abdulla Ziyath, who is also now in jail. By then it was obvious Yameen’s so-called 500% trust in Adeeb was actually 500% percent suspicion. Nobody was surprised when Yameen decided to have Adeeb arrested on suspicion of involvement in the blast on the Finifenmaa.

On the eve of Adeeb’s early morning return from China on 24 October, Maldives Police Service closed off access to the so-called Green Zone—where protests and mass gatherings are banned for ‘security reasons’. The boundaries of this area is often fluid, moving according to whims of the security forces and have, at times, included the airport. The idea behind raising security levels in the Green Zone was supposedly to ‘protect Adeeb’ from an alleged threat to his life. It was another among hundreds of lies to the public by the government and security forces since the Finifenmaa saga began.In reality it was intended to stop Adeeb’s supporters from congregating at the airport, or at the jetties in Male’, to welcome him back. The police need not have bothered.

AdeebSupportersAdeeb’s ‘supporters’, who had deemed no burden too heavy to carry for their man, and seemed to number in their thousands at the height of his popularity—when he drove around town on motorbikes of various sizes with pockets full of money and bagfuls of swag—abandoned the VP before his plane touched down. Hundreds of t-shirts printed with his face, were dumped on the streets, cast aside like Adeeb himself.

IStandWithAdeebAdeebGirl‘Adeeb’s Babes’, a bevy of carefully groomed young women who framed themselves in pink to declare their support for him, never made it out on the streets in solidarity. Some stayed home with their t-shirts on and, shortly after, left the country altogether. And like many MPs who represent them, several hurried to delete all evidence of their support for Adeeb from the public sphere and began anew their efforts to cuddle up to Yameen instead.

Wasn’t me

The morning of 25 October brought the first public appearance of Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom since the “assassination attempt.” It was a sour-faced, arrogant rant that lasted 45 minutes; a tirade in which he attempted to defend his track-record as a president who got rid of two Defence Ministers and two Vice Presidents in two short years of being a president. According to him, they all betrayed his trust and conspired against him. The last thing he wanted to do was get rid of them, but their betrayals left him with no choice. He accused Adeeb of colluding with MDP, failing to cooperate with the investigation into the blast, and also failing to side with police and military in their suspicions and activities against Hamid Ismail and Ziyath. Former Defence Minister and coup-maker Mohamed Nazim had tried to get members of the military to stand against their Commander in Chief.

YameenJameelPinkThe first former Vice President, Mohamed Jameel Ahmed who wallowed knee-deep in pink with Yameen during the presidential campaign, had been totally incompetent, according to Yameen. [The Vice President, who fled the country ahead of impeachment, has been living in London. He married for the third time while in exile, and seems to have spent his honeymoon and all the days since Tweeting 140 character messages absolving himself of all the blame for unlawful actions taken by a government of which he was an integral part. All the while, he defines himself as ‘Former Vice President’ – to the man he is making all these accusations against.] 

Yameen also assured in his speech that ‘youth associations’—which many took to be a euphemism for violent gangs with whom both Yameen and his VP are known to have intimate connections—will continue to get their moneys due through an alternative channel in the absence of Adeeb. He had never spoken at such length to Maldivians before, and thus had never before revealed the true extent of his paranoia and suspicions, or the level of his disgust for conventions and values of running a democratic government. Throughout it all he maintained he did not want to fire his Vice President, but had been left with no choice. Perhaps his own words below can paint a more accurate picture of his feelings:


The gist of Yameen’s speech was that while the Vice President had been his closest ally, and had forced a Constitutional amendment to make Adeeb his deputy, he hadn’t a clue what the younger man had been up to. Everything wrong in the country since Yameen came to power was Adeeb’s doing. Yameen was as white and pure as a drop of coconut milk.

 What followed the above is a week in which several bombs were found, lost, disposed of, transported live across Male’; forensic science was deemed hocus pocus; a State of Emergency was declared; MDP responded with an Emergency Tea Party; and a Sri Lankan fish buyer was arrested on suspicion of being an assassin.  All this and more in The Yellow Brick Road, Part II.