Category: Uncategorized

Death of a nation: toxic politics is sinking Maldives

by Ibrahim Mohamed

Maldives is among only six nations entirely made of coral atolls; composed of 1192 islands grouped into 26 natural atolls over 90 thousand kilometres, making it one of the most dispersed countries in the world. The population of 407,660 inhabit 188 islands with an area of 227 km making it also one of the most densely populated nations in the world (Duvat and Magnan, 2019). Magnan and Duvat (2019) in their study of 107 inhabited islands found that about 60 percent of them have a population growth rate exceeding 5 percent, while on 18 percent of those islands this rate is above 25 percent. They also found that anthropogenic drivers have caused rapid changes on the islands over the last decade. Consequently, the adaptive capacity of most of the inhabited and exploited islands to cope and adjust with climate change induced oceanic pressures has been highly undermined. The anthropogenic changes Magnan and Duvat highlighted as causing major destruction to the reef island system includes artificial island expansion with reclamation; hard engineered shoreline armouring; and sand mining. For instance, in the last decade islands with reclaimed areas increased by 51 percent, and the number of islands with hard engineered coastal protection more than doubled. These developments have direct impact on island coastal geomorphology, such as the destruction of reef flats, resulting in changes in sediment budget around islands and disruption of currents around the islands (Duvat and Magnan, 2019). The desire for fixed, sedentarised rapid infrastructure development with inevitable hard engineering solutions undermines the dynamic biogeophysical system’s capacity to adjust and cope with climate change induced pressures. Consequently, the biogeophysical system is pushed in to positive entropy resulting in the shifting of thresholds and tipping points to undesired states. 

Environmental interventions as a trade off 

The sedentarisation, permanent fixtures and hard engineering development projects involving the terraforming of the natural island systems annihilate their natural ability to repair and maintain themselves. It is an alien ontology to islandness, devaluing it as a cheap commodity to be exploited for short term benefits. Islandness is far from cheap – it is a culture and a way of life. Theoretically, islandness has been explained as a unique system of relationships underpinned by an array of sensory engagements of islanders, pertaining to their interactions with their environment (Mohamed 2020),. A major aspect of the Theory of Islandness is the non-representational dwellings perspective where the sociocultural dynamics within islands are essential for their adaptation to climate change (Mohamed, 2020). Islandness, synonymous with the local term “jazeeraa vanthakan”, is not just a way of life, but also a campaign slogan promoted by the incumbent government which pledged to make development more sustainable and environmentally sound. However, consecutive governments with their short-term planning for a five-year political term have set a trend of indulging in patronage and biopolitics with no regard to sustainable development as envisaged in Article 22 of the Maldivian Constitution which tasks the State with the responsibility to prevent destruction of natural resources. It requires development to be affected in ways that ensure intergenerational equity and environmental sustainability. 

Owing to patronage politics and biopolitics at the local level, the rapid human driven anthropogenic impacts related to unsustainable development are also being shaped by a new brand of politics driven by government’s desire to demonstrate visible achievements within their short five-year term.  Additionally, where the problem of island vulnerability to climate change induced impacts and absolute land scarcity is concerned, politicians view it from the perspective of patronage politics. These permanent fixtures and sedentarisation of islands at the cost of their natural dynamics is politically attractive given that the politicians can use it as an electoral incentive, and they can be displayed as symbols of development.  However, the costs of undertaking dredging and reclamation as well as hard engineered armouring of coast lines is prohibitively expensive and hard to reverse. For instance, in the last decade a staggering USD 18.5 million has been spent on shore line protection of 17 islands covering 10.3 kilometers. In addition, the cost of reclamation before COVID19 Pandemic was at a rate of USD 275,000 per hectare including the cost of coastal protection of the reclaimed area, and various surveys and EIA processes. Owing to budget constraints, the government has sought development loans and contractor financing in addition to pleading with donors to cover the costs of these projects, all of which have the potential to make their political standing strong. Recently the government secured a loan of USD 71 million from the EXIM Bank of India for such a reclamation project while also securing more money through contractor finance for the same project, according to the EIA report of the project.

Flirting with the geopolitical order 

Turning to donors for money and flirting with them according to domestic political interests, combined with its geopolitically strategic location, has made the Maldives relevant to the emerging new world order. The competition between China and India to increase their influence on the small island nations of the Indian Ocean, has placed these same countries in a precarious situation, while domestic politics become subjected to foreign policy divides looking to the East and the West. Owing to the maritime security interests of India in the Central and Western Indian Ocean and China’s Belt and Road initiative across the Indian Ocean, both nuclear powers are now at loggerheads on who gets to control the Indian Ocean. While China has already put Sri Lanka into a debt trap with huge loans for infrastructure, India has secured an important island of Mauritius as their foothold in the southern Indian Ocean. President Yameen, who led the Maldives from 2013 to 2018 formed close ties with his Chinese counterpart, securing financial assistance from China for various infrastructure projects including the now famous China Maldives Friendship Bridge which cost USD 220 million. The EXIM bank of China provided a loan of USD 68 million while the Chinese government granted another USD 126 million toward the bridge project. In addition, Chinese State Companies have also lent USD 421 million for upgrading Velana International Airport, the main gateway into the country. While ties with India frayed during Yameen’s leadership, the new government which defeated him came with India’s blessings in 2018 and speedily renewed the old India First foreign policy. India was eager to invest and increase trade with the Maldives. Currently, bilateral trade amounts to USD 290.27 million where the trade balance greatly favours India as of 2020 (Vashist, 2021). EXIM Bank of India also has given various loans including USD 40 million for sports infrastructure, while a staggering USD1.33 billion has been loaned for various development projects including in Addu and towards building the Greater Male’ Connectivity Bridge (Vashist, 2021). For India, ties with Maldives is critical given that 50 percent of India’s exports and 80 percent of its energy imports are transported through maritime routes within the Maldives. Moreover, the Indian foreign and military vision for an inclusive Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) requires a strong alliance with the Maldives. Consequently, the current government has abandoned romancing with China and is sinking inexorably into a sea of Indian debt. Opposition politicians have begun their dog whistling against the incumbent regime consistently, using the slogan of “India Out” to mobilize opposition supporters against the government. 

Debt bounty of economic warfare

Colonization and conquest of nations in the 21st century has unfolded under a new brand of war. War on terror or war for democracy, depending on where you stand. Most recent wars, while waged under such banners, have also exploited wealth and resources. For instance, crude oil, rare earth metals and other resources of victim nations become the bounty of their “saviors” to be pillaged and exploited with the western world view of nature as a cheap commodity. Such wars have caused huge losses to natural resources and transformed environments rapidly. On a par with such wars is the debt fed to incumbent regimes by larger economic powers, allowing them to strengthen their political competitiveness. The debt money is often used to make visible infrastructure for patronage politics. The huge undertakings of such infrastructure in the guise of development often results in maladaptation and destruction of natural resources, trapping the local communities in a vicious cycle of dependency for politicians. When the common pool of resources available for all, such as coral reefs, are destroyed for development, people lose their economic freedom and have to depend on predatory capitalism and political patronage for survival. It is precisely this type of capitalism that underpins the 50-year-old tourism industry of the Maldives where local communities benefit little from the billions of dollars generated by high end resorts. 

Neocolonial geopolitics and predatory capitalism versus biopolitics. 

The land reclamation of Addu is a major concern, and scientific wisdom puts it under the precautionary principle. The only decision tool for the environmental consideration of such developments is the Environmental Impact Assessment report which, despite being heavily watered down, shows clearly the inevitable loss of our environmental inheritance were the project to go ahead. The sheer scale of dredging it requires in a relatively small atoll will have devastating consequences on the environment, with rapid transformation of the entire atoll’s biogeophysical system. 

Addu has always been the sacrificial lamb for the elitist ruling class of the Maldives. The atoll is critically positioned at the very southern end of Maldives, making it invaluable in the event of warfare in the east and middle east. This makes Aduu attractive to any international actor with intentions of war or other maritime security interests. The biggest achievement of the incumbent regime has been the large cash windfall from India for allowing Maldives to become a part of India’s SAGAR vision. Given how much Maldives is in debt to China, the influx in cash from India has allowed the Maldives to avoid the same conditions that have hit neighboring Sri Lanka once China called in the debts. Crucially, this has also allowed the current government to stay in power. India has moved rapidly to establish itself in the strategic Addu, pushing the government to undertake large development projects in the atoll that strengthens Indian presence in the area. One such project is the land reclamation for Addu. Despite having the potential to become maladaptive, this project is being driven forward partly due to the availability of a huge loan from India and Indian political pressure on the incumbent regime. The biopolitics used as such a destructive means to an end may be tenable in the short term, but the irreversible damage done to the environment will have major consequences for generations to come. In a contemporary world on the precipice of great conflict, climate induced disasters and being caught in a debt trap, will not only create political chaos, it will also set the Maldives on the path to a dire future. 

(Un)Doing Development

Development in the Maldives is often about the un: unbalanced, uncertain, undesirable, unfit, unjust, unhealthy, unplanned, unrepresented, unsustainable and unsystematic. This tendency for (un)doing appears soon after major infrastructure projects are commissioned. An example are the social housing towers recently constructed on the island of Hulhumale’ . What was envisaged as a remedy for crowding has also come with the seemingly unexpected ‘side effects’ such as ghettoization and a sharp rise in social inequity. The focus on patronage politics in the development agenda means gaps remain in both legal and planning aspects. .Given the partisan environment of Maldivian politics and the tendency to put party before nation, the sustainable development envisaged in Article 22 of the Constitution becomes impossible within a five-year term. For sustainable development, envisaged in the Article 22 of the Constitution of the Maldives, a political term of five years is insufficient. What political parties and elected leaders aim for is to make development as visible as possible within those five years. Concrete thus becomes their favored choice to showcase their achievements. . For instance, paved roads, airports, hospital buildings, land reclamations, harbor development and many other concrete based infrastructures are erected to display as achievements against rival politicians. Consequently, scientific wisdom, nature and economics is often undermined or traded off to favor the most politically attractive options. For instance, development criterions are invented and manufactured as electoral incentives during elections, often with no regard to island needs and necessities or context. For instance, the majority of lands reclaimed in the past decade remain barren and unused, even though a land use plan is approved before the reclamations. 

For centuries, Maldivians relied on the sea for their sustenance. Fishing and seafaring is still considered as the primary economic activity. Until tourism became the major driver of economic growth, trading among islands was also common among the dispersed islands.  The vulnerability and exposure and the low biogeophysical thresholds in the natural system of the tiny islands of the Maldives makes it senseless  to create human settlements akin to mini-Dubais in the Maldives. However, short sighted politicians with five-year targets sell Maldivians the vision of development as epitomized by  Dubai, that Mecca to capitalism once alien to the island culture and environment of the Maldives. The Maldives does have poor soil and scarce freshwater in common with Dubai, but that’s where the similarities end. For one thing, it does not have the financial capacity to transform into a real estate haven for international markets. From a sustainability point of view, especially with climate change projections related to coastal hazards, making human settlements and tourism products with reclamations is untenable. 

Utopian dreams of climate smart islands

The dredging company which won the contract to protrude more land in to the reef edge of Addu Atoll by burying coastal ecosystems, envisions transforming Addu city into a utopian climate smart economic hub to attract a particular type of traveler.  This illusory comprehensibility of predatory capitalism which undervalues environment and ecosystem services as cheap by separating humans from the rest of the interconnected web of life is a western ideology alien to centuries old culture and islandness of the Maldivians. The spatiality of islands is a lure for “on-and off-island power holders” to manipulate them economically, socially and politically (Baldacchino, 2010 and Grydehøj, & Kelman, 2016), especially when the geopolitical stakes are high. Consequently, for predatory capitalists, islands are suitable spaces for political and economic maneuvering and environmental exploitation (Grydehøj, & Kelman, 2016). Terms such as “climate smart”, and “economically viable” are often coined by governments and investors for reaping economic benefits, while neglecting various social issues such as equal and equitable accessibility, social justice and economic freedom as well as ghettoization and widening of gaps between rich and poor (Grydehøj, & Kelman, 2016). The creation of land by filling coastal regions adjacent to islands also opens up the possibility to create exceptional regulatory spaces like special tourism zones which may favour the corporate elite while adjacent island communities may lose their economic freedom due to over-dependency on rich investors who will own the spaces for over 50 years. Consequently, reclaiming land through debt money is a freebie for global corporate elitists to take advantage and grab land at the behest of current and future generations who will pay for these debts.  


With the looming threats of climate change impacts and frequency of cyclones and storms developing in the Indian ocean, as well as food insecurity where ship to mouth is the norm, Maldives needs a respite. Even though climate change induced coastal hazards have increased, the impact is yet to become severe. Hence innovative ideas which enhance sustainability of islands are essential. The coastal and marine systems and the socio ecological systems of most inhabited and exploited islands are gradually reaching their tipping points. Hence, we need transformative innovations where technology is fully utilized. We must create hybrid solutions by working with nature-based solutions and hard and soft engineering. Instead of reclaiming and fortifying with hard armoring, we need to explore how we can enhance our islands’ ability to retrieve and accommodate for climate change induced hazards. We need to create and recreate edge conditions and explore the possibilities of developing over the water structures with minimal impacts on coastal geomorphology and ecology. It is time our policy makers accept that tradeoffs for politically attractive options have already undermined the capacity of most inhabited islands to cope and adjust with climate change. Consequently, we have to fight a constant battle against nature, which results in a huge financial burden. We can transform our islands by safe, small-scale hybrid, nature-based solutions and garner adaptation finance for such projects. We must become more flexible to building adaptive pathways instead of relying solely on hard engineered fixtures against the natural dynamics of our islands. 


Baldacchino, G. (2010). Island enclaves: Offshoring strategies, creative governance, and subnational island jurisdictions (Vol. 14). McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP.

Duvat, V. K., & Magnan, A. K. (2019). Rapid human-driven undermining of atoll island capacity to adjust to ocean climate-related pressures. Scientific reports, 9(1), 1-16.

Grydehøj, A., & Kelman, I. (2016). Island smart eco-cities: innovation, secessionary enclaves, and the selling of sustainability. Urban Island Studies, 2, 1-24.

Mohamed, I., King, D., & Cottrell, A. (2020). Adaptive Capacity for Climate Change in Maldivian Rural Communities. International Journal of Social Research & Innovation, 4(1).

Vasisht, C. (2021). India-Maldives Policy Brief. Vivekanda International Foundation. New Delhi. [accessed from:].

[photo credits and renders: Margret Ikeda and Evan Jones and the author]

Ibrahim Mohamed has a doctorate in Environmental Science and Management from James Cook University, Australia. He is a specialist in environmental social science related to climate change adaptation focused on small low-lying islands. He has a research interest in climate change impacts on small island communities and adaptation for post sea-level rise scenarios. He has published in various aspects related to climate change adaptation and mitigation in small island nations.

MDN banned for ‘blasphemy’, forced into exile

Shahindha Ismail and Mushfiq Mohamed

The Government of Maldives banned the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) from the Maldives two years ago in a state of paralysis, to appease religious hardliners within and outside of the government structures. MDN published their assessment on violent extremism in the Maldives in 2016. Three years later, a year into the new President Ibrahim Solih’s tenure, the coalition government made the decision to shut down the organisation on 19 December 2019. It did so despite calls from international groups and governments and despite the stark absence of any due process. 

Then in January 2020, the Maldivian government seized all of the donor funds in MDN’s bank accounts. The authors of the ‘MDN report’ are still alive solely because of the support and assistance of the human rights community outside of the Maldives and the foreign governments that chose to protect their rights.

The “Ban MDN” Smear Campaign

Smear campaigns in the Maldives have an identifiable pattern and modus operandi. A known, and often a well respected, religious group publishes material online accusing another group or an individual of being anti-Islamic. It then gets picked up by violent groups and political opponents. 

The smear campaign against MDN began days after the NGO published its review of the government-proposed amendments to the Anti Terrorism Act in September 2019. It rapidly escalated into a violent protest that moved from online to offline spaces and spread throughout the country. Dozens of people demonstrated on multiple islands calling to burn and kill the authors of the report and ban MDN. The law enforcement, however, was absent from these scenes. 

An anonymous Twitter handle called @SecularErazer began doxxing MDN and its staff as early as August 2019. Twitter posts alone carrying the hashtag #BanMDN exceeded 39,000 by February 2020 and continues to be used today despite MDN’s local deregistration. The smear campaign has now evolved into using MDN as a dog-whistle term to refer to secularism and those who identify as liberal Maldivians. 

“We have to shut you down or we may lose the government” 

“We had to sacrifice MDN, you have to understand what was at stake” 

These are but some of the justifications used at the time by those who took the decision to ban MDN. Official responses from the government to the UN Special Procedures have asked the UN to “view this as an isolated incident”. The government stated that the incident had the potential to cause a threat to national security.

What remains clear is that it was a critical inflexion point for the country. Not a single politician or civil society actor or human rights activist in the Maldives unequivocally and publicly said MDN’s ban is unacceptable, or at least that it was arbitrary in every sense of the word. Fear is a word that was casually thrown around at the time. It is also used very selectively when the perpetrators of violence are interconnected to those behind religious extremists. In a small community like the Maldives, there is barely a degree of separation between corrupt politicians, zealous clerics, and violent groups.

It is the bare minimum to say that human rights workers should be able to work freely and without threats. It should not be controversial to say that people have the right to live and work in their home country. To give back and serve your community. And in a country where violent groups kill, violently attack, or force into exile journalists and activists—it is even more important for state officials to reiterate these simple truths. If this is the reality of the strangled media freedom and civic space, what does it mean for those vulnerable individuals and groups whose rights they defend?

The truth is, banning MDN was due to more than just a lack of principles and values or a lack of respect for the rule of law. Local politicians and NGOs directly benefited from MDN’s forced deregistration. 

The Roots of Sectarian Violence

It goes without saying that those who would most benefit by silencing MDN are those religious hardliners profiled in the 2015 MDN report on the drivers of violent extremism in the Maldives. The profiles are supported with evidence of violent extremist content those individuals and organisations have been promoting in the country for years without interruption. These include messaging in government-approved sermons and other informal mediums. 

Regardless of whether MDN is silenced or not, the evidence in the report has been with the authorities for over six years. To say the least, the only people the government and violent non-state actors have come after are the authors of the report and the organisation that commissioned it. The violent extremists profiled in the report remain free and continue to spread the radical ideologies in the Maldives. This has resulted in dozens being forced to flee the Maldives since Solih took office, afraid for their lives after being targeted by violent groups. 

Three groups that greatly benefited from the persecution of MDN were Salafi groups, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, and violent extremists. On 11 October 2019, Sheikh Ilyas Jamal, an official at the Islamic Ministry publicly said: “We were very concerned when this report surfaced. When we look at the report we see very dangerous matters. The introduction itself says this research was foreign-funded. We know the writers were well-paid. How can such research be conducted in a 100% Muslim country?” The Islamic Ministry official then went on to use a hadith to urge vigilance over “the enemies of Islam.” It did not matter that this was not a religious publication, but a study conducted by an NGO based on human rights standards. It was seen as heresy. 

A video sermon from Salafi cleric, Abdul Salam, leading an organisation named Jamiyya Salaf, speaking at a mosque threatened the Maldivian government with consequences if it did not ban MDN: “I say to the security services, counter-terrorism agencies, People’s Majlis, and the President; we, the scholars and advisors, cannot prevent ‘(violent) youngsters’ (from harming people) living in this country, who believe we a have a right to criticise Islam and the Prophet. (For that reason) we call on the authorities to prevent people who promote these rights.” In the Maldives, the word “youth” is sometimes used synonymously with young offenders in criminal gangs.

In November 2019, we came across a video sermon on the MDN report, accusing it of offending the Prophet and criticising Islam, published by a Maldivian radical cleric Al Akh Abu Amru Al Maldifi. The so-called sermon raises concerns about the “threats from within” against Islam and the Prophet. The speaker in the sermon believes that the government functions under “the infidel democratic system” and that it is backing the authors of the MDN report. It further goes on to use a hadith to support acts of terror against the authors of the report, calling on “the lions of the Ummah” to defend Islam against such enemies. “This is a golden opportunity to show the strength of your faith without heeding those who manipulate the religion to support these apostates”, the speaker said at the end of the sermon. 

A Dhivehi-language video sermon on YouTube channel ‘Naseyhai’ depicts MDN as deceptive “enemies within”, in a similar vein. The speaker mentions ongoing battles against Islam. He warns the audience of apostates who have “Muslim (or Arabic) names”, campaigning against Islam using modern tools and the language of human rights. “They make NGOs under different names, shield them with the rule of law, and effectively implement planned activities against religion”, the speaker says in the video that is still online. The video ends with a call to violence by “the warriors of faith who will defend the faith against those who sow religious discord through secularism.”

The Unusual Government Response

Firstly, the government got votes to fool the public into thinking some religious battle had been won, and that the Maldivian faith was promised protection from criticism. The local council elections were a few months away. Senior government officials and political figures congratulated and expressed relief that the government had banned the human rights organisation. They portrayed it as a win for pious Muslim Maldivians. 

Maldives’ long-serving former dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom tweeted: “I give thanks to the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment for banning MDN, it is a relief for Maldivians who love Islam and the Holy Prophet.”

Even those belonging to supposedly democratic camps applauded the government. There was no mention of the vigilante violence suffered by those merely suspected of blasphemy. Criticism of religion, the establishment decried, is a red line one cannot cross in the Maldives. And with sentiments such as these being recreated by this government donning an honorary democratic badge, how are we to say that this ‘democratic’ Solih government is any different from the previous ‘authoritarian’ governments? 

Former president Abdulla Yameen said the same about journalist Ahmed Rilwan’s forced disappearance and writer Yameen Rasheed’s brutal killing: They were asking for it. Never mind what was actually said, the perception that someone wronged religion was good enough to make them fair game for violent mobs. 

For example, many are unaware that MDN had, in April of 2019, begun advocacy on transitional justice in partnership with a US-based legal advocacy INGO. One of the primary points of advocacy was to include the atrocities from the second republic. Of course, that would put former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in a difficult situation. He was the only former leader alive and active in politics. MDN had testimonials from thousands of torture survivors from his regime. Despite being at odds with the principles of democracy and human rights, Gayoom is also an influential member of the current government coalition. 

In an unprecedented act of political violence, local journalist Ahmed Rilwan was forcibly disappeared in August 2014. He was last seen leaving for Hulhumale from the Malé ferry terminal. It reshaped the reality of risks for journalists and activists. In September 2014, MDN published a report containing the findings of a private investigation into the disappearance. From then onwards MDN and its staff began receiving violent threats. None of it was thoroughly investigated.  Police regurgitated several findings in the report eighteen months later, representing them as “new evidence.” This was the first time the authorities publicly admitted Rilwan was, in fact, disappeared by force, a truth that was covered up for almost two years. The findings in the MDN report connected the abductors of Rilwan to the then President Abdulla Yameen and his Vice President Ahmed Adheeb.  

The Rule of the Lynch Mob

Secondly, it gave a clear signal of the consequences awaiting those defending the rights of minorities and condemning corruption. Civil society must not cross that line and if they do, their very existence, let alone their activism, will not be tolerated. And the Maldivian state is unable or unwilling to afford them any protection. It is the law of the jungle, not the rule of law, that applies to such individuals. Lynching by angry mobs become a very real possibility. None of it will be investigated, and no one will be prosecuted for inciting the violence.  Human rights protection and due process take a backseat to the appeasement of religious hardliners and to the State’s need to weaponise anti-blasphemy laws against critics. This reinforced the fear President Yameen engendered by enabling the killers of Yameen Rasheed, Ahmed Rilwan, and MP Dr Afrasheem Ali—killings inspired by extreme religio-political ideologies. Indeed, Yameen’s government and that of Solih use the same rhetoric to justify the continuation of such injustices. 

The Maldivian government has ensured that critical voices are muted using the age-old technique in the islands: buying their silence through jobs and kickbacks. Most vocal critics of the previous government, including star activists of MDP and yesterday’s champions of justice for Ahmed Rilwan and Yameen Rasheed, are now on the state’s payroll. MDN’s critical report was conveniently useful when in opposition, and for them to position themselves as allies in the US-led war on terror. But once in government, it only served as a barometer of what is acceptable criticism of extremism. With the slow and slimming chances of justice for Afrasheem, Rilwan and Yameen, the powers that be sent another clear message to dissidents: We will not hesitate to use your pain and losses to fool the young and the impressionable, and discard you when it is politically inconvenient.

The pressure of the sheer terror incited by the collaborative efforts of non-state parties and the government successfully created the space that isolated MDN and its people. It is perhaps understandable that colleagues, friends and associates disassociated themselves from MDN. After all, their lives – and livelihoods – were at risk. What was also revealed in the process was how willing former leaders of the organisation were to distance themselves from the organisation when it needed their support most. What mattered were not the principles at stake but the positions of power they now held in the government. The power they were willing to use only to protect themselves, the new government and, especially, their new positions within that government. 

The very first official of the state to publicly declare that the complaint against MDN was “serious” and a “priority” was the Commissioner of Police Hameed, who had only resigned from his position as the Vice-Chairperson of MDN earlier in the year shortly after his appointment at the Maldives Police Service.

He despicably failed in his attempt to appear unbiased when he completely ignored the violent mob operating against the individuals at MDN in broad daylight. It was one of the most unilateral investigations conducted by the authorities yet. No investigating officers ever put a single question to the accused. Current Prosecutor General Hussein Shameem was the Chairperson who led MDN’s Executive Committee when the report was published in 2015. But, true to form, he wasted no time in distancing himself from the organisation. As a licensed religious scholar, he was asked to review the report at the time of publication, which he claimed he duly did. Once it was condemned by other ‘religious scholars’, however, he maintained complete silence on his associations with MDN and the report itself.

The Dysfunctional Society

What of the civil society actors? Why did the Maldivian human rights community remain silent when their fellow human rights defenders were terrorised? The civil society landscape in the Maldives is one where solidarity only exists as a word. Blinded by prejudice, civil society actors seem unaware of the dangerous precedent they have set for themselves. Their deafening silence speaks of self-preservation. Their continued actions—to depict MDN’s ban as an isolated incident that justified the government-led excesses, the violent smear campaign from the opposition, and the mob rule of violent groups—crystalise their blatant complicity in the whole saga. In keeping with the public mood at the time, a Maldivian academic based in Australia, researching violent extremism, was quick to discredit the report as “methodologically poor,” and presumably, therefore, worthy of being treated the way it ultimately was. Had any of the authors of the report failed to make it safely out of the country, it could well have been the first time that an author had been killed for methodological weakness.

The Maldivian civil society is faced with the most common challenge that civil societies everywhere do—finding reliable financing to sustain their legitimate human rights activism. What may be somewhat different in the Maldives is that no local donors exist for groups that work on civil and political rights. While the dysfunctional civil society landscape is worthy of a closer look, the result is a division caused by the extremely unhealthy competition for foreign funds that mainly come through diplomatic missions assigned to the Maldives and Sri Lanka. An important point to note here is that those funds also mean the livelihoods of many NGO workers in the Maldives. Few NGOs compete for the minuscule funding from these sources. It means that the activities, campaigns and advocacy of NGOs are decided by external donors; not Maldivian island communities, or grassroots movements. Human rights groups have truly made a Faustian pact with the Maldivian government to shield it from criticism over unlawfully banning MDN.

The Arc Towards Justice  

One can argue several possible different ways that MDN could have reacted in the face of the terror that erupted around them two years ago. It was, however, a situation where a small organisation was left to fight an entire political system for its existence without any support on the ground. 

If there was any possible reaction that would have yielded a better result, none was offered in the scram for safety against a mob operating with full impunity. The persecution of MDN and individuals advocating for equal rights would not have been possible without the collective amnesia and hysteria on the ground. 

The deregistration of MDN’s legitimate human rights advocacy will continue to taint the Maldives’ human rights record. It is however not a wrong that is irreversible. The government can still, and must, reverse that flawed decision in order to create an enabling environment for human rights defenders and to prevent further incitement of hate and violence in the guise of religion. 

Mafia state behind the tourist paradise

by Mushfiq Mohamed

Two years ago, in November 2019, the Deaths and Disappearances Commission (DDCom) published its report on Dr Afrasheem Ali’s killing on 2 October 2012. It was the first time the widescale operations of violent groups associated with religious beliefs was acknowledged and detailed by an official source in the Maldives. When the war in Syria escalated in 2012 and Maldivian foreign fighters flocked to the conflict zones in the Middle East, the Maldives was in a state of disarray, a military-backed coup against the first democratically elected government had created a power vacuum and heightened disorder. The news of young Maldivian jihadis and their families fleeing the country saturated the media. 

It was a time when transnational Salafi-Jihadist groups were not only dividing into factions based on ideological differences but also multiplying for the same reason. The stories of Maldivians leaving to fight in Syria and Iraq seemed linear, unlike the mutually constitutive disaster of today, where the jihadi outflow is now rippling back, or on their way back to home – with or without the Maldives government’s knowledge. 

The State of Maldives is an organism with its unique memory and trajectory, consisting of multiple cells programmed to spit and swallow the non-conforming, the dissidents, the undesirables. If the new mutations contradict pre-existing hereditary (dis)information, they must be stamped out. And what better way to enforce these unwritten rules than through society’s disaffected? – reintegrating through repentance by eradicating free thought

The state is protecting several individuals named in the investigative reports, leaving them free to conduct alleged terrorist activities, to issue violent threats – often openly on social media –and to build their capacity to follow through on the threats.

The DDCom lines of enquiry 

The DDCom’s investigation followed four main lines of enquiry. Whether Afrasheem’s murder was politically motivated and perpetrated by officeholders in the previous government. Whether his murder was a result of internal party politics and competition. Whether the assassination was carried out to unduly influence the 2013 presidential elections. Whether Afrasheem was extrajudicially killed because of differing religious views.  

Three individuals were investigated. However, the prosecution only submitted charges against two, and only one was convicted in January 2013. The prosecution did not appeal the acquittal. The investigation was incomplete, as DDCom stated in its report, the police investigation had not identified those who planned the murder and more importantly their motives. 

The DDCom found itself in an impossible situation with many of the suspects who had fled the country to Syria and Sudan with the help of the acquiescent former government. What’s more, witnesses began refusing to give statements, fearing for their security and safety, without an existing witness protection regime. 

Extremist jihadi groups have been operating in the country for a while. The bombing in the Sultan Park was their doing. Al-Qaeda cells operating in the Maldives are divided into small cells each with a name like A, B,C,D. Members of Cell A has no knowledge of who is in Cell B. Each cell has an Ameer. Each Ameer does the recruiting for their own cell.

Anonymous Witness No:1, testimony to DDCom

The secret witness told investigators that he had been recruited by Al-Qaeda in 2011. “In 2014, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the ISIS Caliphate during Ramadan (on 29 June that year), the local Al-Qaeda leadership broke into factions.” According to the DDCom report financing, evangelism, and other activities are controlled by three different wings of the groups. They believed that the Muslim Ummah must wholeheartedly accept al-Baghdadi as the Caliph, and it was their religious duty to do so. 

Speaking about the financers, the witness said, “for instance, they believe all lawyers are disbelievers, their blood and property are ‘halal’ (or fair game).” The financers’ Salafi beliefs, he said, is deliberately hidden. “Their speech would be casual. They would not greet saying ‘Assalam Alaikum’ when they speak over the phone. They would not sport a beard. Even if they did, it would appear casual.”

Religious conflict, the other pandemic 

The picture is much more complex and one that is constantly moving. As the secret ‘former radical’ witness revealed, the terrorist cells are backed by a network of business (the financers) and shielded by political actors (the beneficiaries). Criminal gangs and their infiltration of politics have been researched and documented. And in a country whose nationalism is religious, sectarian violence is a useful technique to silence those who make the powerful uncomfortable. It is political parties that have created a market in the underworld landscape, giving these violent groups a sense of purpose and income for doing their bidding – whether it is intimidation and killing of political opponents, or providing security when a rival gang is used by a rival party to intimidate a member of one’s party. 

The perception of who is a criminal and who is not is unilaterally decided by the cash flow into party politics. Those accused of criminal activity have learned from politicians and religious leaders that involvement in local politics is the only way to ensure immunity from prosecution or imprisonment.

The DDCom report goes into detail about the financers and those leading operations of the terrorist cells in the country. Unapologetically naming names and uncovering covers. In a country with so little social mobility, blood-lusting vigilantism is a business that makes bigger bucks per hit. Through the secret witness’s testimony, the DDCom was able to dissect the dynamics of the splinter. “Now that this group has split into factions, the ISIS faction is led by [name redacted]. The other Al Qaeda faction, which gave its allegiance to Jabhat al Nusra, operates in Syria and Iraq. That faction is led by [name redacted]. The next in line in that faction is [name redacted], and [name redacted] under him. He maintains that the “Jabha” faction is “led by [name redacted], who lives in Feydhoo in Seenu Atoll. He is native to Feydhoo in Addu Atoll—he owns the fabric shop on the island.” The witness added: “Before the group [Jabhatal Nusra] split, a businessman [name redacted] joined it and became its primary financer.” 

Non-violent Salafis inform the Salafi-Jihadis, meanwhile opposition politicos and their social media fodder normalise religious violence through the mantra of ‘they deserved it for offending religious sensitivities.’ The opposition, who do not appear or identify as Salafi, exploit these fissures adding another layer of legitimacy to the threats first expressed by fundamentalists and violent extremists. This works like clockwork; social media then fuels and expedites the chances of stochastic attacks or expulsion fearing persecution. 

The A-Z of ‘the Horsemen of the Apocalypse’

A villain in a play can be effortlessly made into a hero in six simple acts. First, show the villain in their most grotesque form; juxtapose it with the villain’s perspective, humanise them. Add layers of redeeming qualities to the character as the story goes on. Now introduce villains way worse than the original villain. The first villain, less villainous than his new colleagues, then goes through a series of events that demonstrate s/he has turned over a new leaf and is now making the choices only a hero would. And voila, the villain is a hero. 

Based on the Maldives experience, the entire process gets so much easier if you provide the masses with some novel entertainment. See, for example, the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

In March this year, Maldives Twitter was both enamoured and disgruntled when a red-bearded horse whisperer, W, who obtained permissions to import horses and start an equine business in the southern city of Addu. Horse riding is not what brings tourists to the island nation where 99% of the territory is sea. Some social media users praised W, liked and retweeted his posts knowing full-well he was one of those named in DDCom’s 2019 report. The announcement of his new equine business was announced almost a year after W had been named as a leading financer of Salafi-Jihadist activities in the country. Who could forget V and his bros, who abducted Maldivians suspected of being religious or sexual minorities in June, a few months before Rilwan’s abduction in August 2014? He, too, chose the enterprising path, opening a gym and rebranding as a spearfishing fitness-warrior. 

Another individual, X, who was charged but acquitted for the forced disappearance of Ahmed Rilwan, the journalist and blogger who was abducted in 2014, contested in MDP’s upcoming internal elections but was disqualified after pressure from Rilwan’s family. “Innocent until proven guilty”, the party said in defence, after using the family’s tragedies to win the 2018 election. The former Prosecutor General did not appeal the acquittal. X was also seen playing bodyguard during President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s campaign. Another MDP activist with gang connections, named in the DDCom report, Y, who was one of the two individuals prosecuted for Afrasheem’s murder but acquitted, has also wiggled his way into local politics as an MDP activist. He is currently one of the activists campaigning for those running for MDP’s national congress.  

The other, Z, a PPM council member from 2013 until March 2019, openly threatened slain writer Yameen Rasheed on Twitter on 24 December 2011 in Dhivehi: “The blood of disbelievers like you is halal for all Muslim Maldivians.” He did not stop there. Z came back a month later with more threatening tweets. “Those who need to be exterminated from this country”, he tweeted after tagging seven individuals, including Yameen and Ismail Hilath Rasheed, an LGBTQI+ blogger whose throat was slit in a near-fatal attack in June 2012, five months after the tweets with death threats. Z is a well-known lackey of former president Abdulla Yameen. He was summoned to the DDCom in December 2019. Z also contested—but later dropped out—in PPM’s race for the parliament in 2019.

The 2019 DDCom report annexed text message exchanges between the slain MP and cleric, Afrasheem and the former Islamic Minster, Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed, that contradict his statement given to DDCom investigators in December 2018. Shaheem claimed to the DDCom that Afrasheem’s TV Maldives appearance on 1 October 2012—a few hours before his killing—was a last-minute request from Afrasheem. Although, as DDCom’s 2019 report states, text messages from 12 September to 1 October 2012 show that Shaheem organised and offered the TV slot to the late MP. Further to that, the DDCom report states that these events hauntingly demonstrate that Afrasheem was intensely distraught and given an ultimatum to publicly repent within a specific period, or violent gangs would not hesitate to resort to vigilante violence.

To the bitter end

These examples show the collision and convergence of the political, the financial, and the criminal. In the Maldives, forgiveness and a clean slate is given to the most unforgivable. Will they leave many a wreath for the murdered Maldivian writers, or will those who threatened them while they were alive be celebrated? 

Few came to Afrasheem, Rilwan and Yameen’s defence. How can a person claim to have the authority to take matters into their own hands and kill or threaten with full impunity? Why did no one ask him what authority any individual has in policing another’s faith? More importantly, why are those who incite and act out violence and hatred left without prosecution?

It appears that many still believe in the “their blood is halal” rhetoric, or don’t care to counter it. That individuals, fashioning themselves as religious warriors doing god’s work on earth, can threaten people with death and play with their lives as they wish if a religious line is crossed. To make sense of the increasing political violence in local politics, the links between criminal gangs, the police, politicians and clerics need to be investigated further. If action is not taken based on nuanced evidence of terrorist financiers and their enablers, the details and witnesses disappear, relegating justice solely into mythical dimensions.