Maldives step’s back into autocracy

Maldives step’s back into autocracy

The Maldives example frames the problems of any transition to democracy, and also outlines the limitations of international pressure.

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By Sean Mowbray

Marking the end of Maumoon Abdul Gamoon’s 30 year long ‘sultanate’ and the victory of journalist Mohamed ‘Anni’ Nasheed in the country’s first democratic election, 2008 was a momentous occasion for the Maldives. Fast forward seven years and the island nation stands on the brink of returning to the long, dark night of authoritarianism.

On the first of May, May Day world over, Maldivians descended upon the capital Male in droves. Hundreds travelled from the distant atolls to protest against the continued imprisonment of Nasheed, jailed for the arrest of the Chief Justice in 2012.

Chief Justice Abdulla Mohamed, appointed by Gayoom, was investigated for blocking attempts to bring members of the old regimes to justice but the charges didn’t stick. Nasheed reacted by ordering the arrest of the chief justice. It was to be Nasheed’s downfall.

The pro-Gayoom forces and Nasheed’s opponents scented blood. Lacking a warrant the arrest was deemed arbitrary. Amnesty International released a statement calling for the judge to be released or charged.

Nasheed was later sentenced to thirteen years in prison for the arrest.

Supporters of his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) claim they are nothing but trumped up charges aimed at removing an obstacle to the ruling government’s power. This view is supported somewhat by the UN human rights office which denounced the trial as “vastly unfair, arbitrary and disproportionate” and claimed it was overseen by a judiciary wielding “incredible discretionary powers.”

On May Day protesters marched through the streets and congregated at the Artificial Beach in the capital. Joy mixed with a profound fear hung in the air. Days previously the Government’s education minister declared ominously “our security forces will be ready.”

It turned out to be a very real assertion as it was marked by violence from both sides. Two police officers were flown overseas due to the severity of the injuries they sustained and according to minivannews protesters were subjected to tear gas, beaten with batons, shot with stun guns and dragged from their homes.

As the protest quietened down and the crowds dispersed the opposition leaders who organised the event were rounded up and arrested. In all nearly 200 were detained on the night. There have been accusations that protesters, many on remand for 15 days, have been beaten while in custody.

International condemnation has quickly followed. “We’ve seen even now how regrettably there are troubling signs that democracy is under threat in the Maldives,” US Secretary of State John Kerry commented while in Sri Lanka, “where the former president Nasheed has been imprisoned without due process,” Recently, the EU passed a motion through its parliament raising concern at the troubling resurgence of authoritarianism in the Maldives and advised member states to announce travel advisory warnings to their citizens on account of human rights concerns.

However, the West did not act when Nasheed was removed from power in 2012. Instead many countries gave their backing to an official inquiry into the incident. The inquest ruled that there had been no coup in the island nation. It asserted Nasheed stepped down of his own volition and there was no “illegal coercion or intimidation”. The ruling was duly accepted by governments around the world.

The Maldives example frames the problems of any transition to democracy, and also outlines the limitations of international pressure.

Bacterial in nature dictatorial regimes must be removed completely otherwise they will mutate, bind themselves to their host and survive to eat away at the embryonic new state from within. Maumoon Gayoom’s government reformed. Maumoon Gayoom’s influence survived.

Governments, particularly those of a dictatorial nature, inevitably seek to sustain their power. Handing over the reins of the Maldives to a democratically elected President, it seems Gayoom was passing over only a portion of power. His influence lingered in the halls of vital institutions making the foundation blocs of a stable democracy laced with rot from the outset. Power was maintained through influence and it worked to hinder and frustrate Nasheed’s reforms.

Democracies on the other hand need to be nurtured otherwise they will wither away in their infancy.

From the first election onwards there is a sense democracy came as if on the wind to the atolls. A lack of voter education and a deep disdain for politics and sharp suits has marred every election since 2008. Vote buying is a common occurrence, the going rate is said to be around 20,000 Maldivian Rufiya ($1300) for a family of 5 or 500 Rufiya for the many drug dependent youths. They are the minor problems of any new democracy, the teething problems. But they must be eradicated, and quickly.

After the transition phase to democracy there was no effective dismantling of the power structures built up over the 30 year reign of Gayoom. When Nasheed’s government attempted to declutter the power base of the old regime it found itself undone. In particular when challenging the judiciary.

Nasheed himself found this. “Dictatorships don’t always die when the dictator leaves office.” Nasheed wrote in the New York Times in the wake of his resignation in 2012, “long after the revolutions, powerful networks of regime loyalists can remain behind and can attempt to strangle their nascent democracies.”

It doesn’t bode well for Maldivian democracy. Nor does the cathartic western response which has wavered at key moments in the transition. It appears the view point has been one of accepting democracy was won in 2008 and stepping back with a dusting off of the hands and a collective self-congratulatory grin. When the Maldives needed international support the most, in 2012 when Nasheed was overthrown, it was not forthcoming. Now, the country finds itself at a crisis point. What the future may hold is uncertain. But it may well end in more fighting and violence before it is over.

May Day was a devastating blow to those who hope for a better future, but it was not mortal. “Yeah, what happened with the opposition was very bad,” an MDP supporter on Naifaru told me after May Day, “but we will find a way, we know… and we will continue.”

Sean Mowbray is a freelance writer and blogger. A graduate of History and International Relations from the University of Dundee his interests lie in organised crime, particularly of an environmental nature.

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