Death of a fledgling democracy

Print edition : November 27, 2015

President Abdulla Yameen addressing the nation in Male on October 25, a day after the arrest of Vice President Ahmed Adeeb in connection with an explosion on the presidential boat on September 28. Photo: MALDIVES PRESIDENCY/AFP

Ahmed Adeeb at the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport, near Male on October 13. Photo: Ali Naseer/Sun Media Group/AP

JUST as the clock struck noon on November 4, Maldives’ Attorney General, Mohamed Anil, announced to the world that a state of emergency was being imposed in the 1,200-island archipelago. He said President Abdulla Yameen had issued an executive decree to this effect. This was based on advice from the national security council (NSC). The NSC was following a script: a little before the announcement, a joint press statement by the Maldives Police Services and the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) declared the presence of illegal firearms and explosives in Male, and held that this posed an imminent national security risk. As of now, the state of emergency is for 30 days. Nobody in Maldives believes that the emergency laws, which give the security forces and the administration sweeping powers, will be lifted anytime soon.

“Worryingly, this emergency decree allows a further attack on dissent in Maldives and severely limits civic space,” notes Transparency Maldives, the local chapter of Transparency International. “We also note that these restrictions come on top of recent legislative changes that severely restrict free speech and civic space under the newly enacted Anti-Terrorism Act (October 28) and NGO regulation (October 1). The Anti-Terror Act and the new NGO regulation allow the government to exert complete control over civic groups and eliminate dissent,” the statement added.

Maldives, a country of just over four lakh people, which is struggling as much with its experiments in democracy as with the effects of climate change, has witnessed a serious erosion of democratic functioning in the past year, and this far outpaces the ocean-caused erosion on its beaches that threatens to engulf the country. With the imposition of a state of emergency, all the gains made since the multiparty elections of 2008 have been squandered.

Media restrictions are in place. The Maldives Broadcasting Commission has issued a notice to all media outlets asking them to refrain from broadcasting anything that “risks national security”. It is not as if the media were airing anything against national security so far.

Two events

The imposition of a state of emergency comes ahead of two important events in the Maldivian capital, Male: an anti-government protest planned for November 6 and the impeachment of Vice President Ahmed Adeeb on November 5. Adeeb, accused of plotting to assassinate President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, is now in jail. The emergency decree made a curious specific change to the law, which seemed to indicate that the impeachment of the Vice President is the main reason that the emergency was imposed: it reduces the 14-day period provided under Article 100 of the Maldives Constitution for the Vice President to respond to the impeachment charges to seven days.

The rise of Adeeb is a fairy tale. In 2012, soon after Mohamed Waheed was sworn in as President, Ahmed Adeeb, who was head of the chamber of commerce, was invited to join the Ministry. He was given the powerful Tourism portfolio, and Adeeb went about consolidating his position. He, along with the businessman Qasim Ibrahim, played a crucial role in the election of Abdulla Yameen, who is former President Maumoon Gayoom’s half-brother, as President, in the second round of the elections in 2013. In 2014, though the Auditor General’s office charged him with misappropriation, the charges did not stick. He was the President’s favourite, and it was only a matter of time before he rose to become, on paper, the second most powerful man in Maldives.

When he was sworn in three months ago as the youngest Vice President in Maldivian history, he had a majority of the members of the Majlis (parliament) and the President on his side. After the “assassination” attempt on the President on September 28, he became a key suspect. Now he is a prisoner.

In fact, being Vice President is one of the most dangerous jobs in Maldives: Mohamed Waheed was Vice President before he went on to become President. He was the weakest President in the history of the country and was humiliatingly discarded in the next elections. Another Vice President, Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, was unceremoniously impeached to make away for Adeeb.


The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), the largest political party in Maldives, whose leader is in jail on terrorism charges, expressed concern over President Yameen’s imposition of a state of emergency and labelled the move “disproportionate” and “a desperate attempt, by a President who is losing his grip, to cling onto power”. The MDP spokesperson, Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, said: “President Yameen has lost control of the country.... Yameen has jailed or threatened every opposition leader, placed criminal charges against 1,700 opposition activists, and is now turning on his own by jailing the Vice President. For the good of the nation, it is time for Yameen to resign.”

Forced to defend her country, Foreign Minister and Gayoom’s daughter, Dunya Maumoon, described the emergency as a “pre-emptive and precautionary action… in the light of several security threats”.

The European Union (E.U.), the United States, and the United Kingdom have asked for the emergency restrictions to be lifted. India said it was watching the situation and China has maintained a silence so far. The E.U. described the imposition of emergency as “the latest in a series of worrying developments”.

“It is essential that all constitutional fundamental rights and freedoms are immediately restored and that due process of law is respected. A genuine dialogue with all political parties on the future of the country needs to be established,” it said in a statement.

The British government issued updated advice for travellers to Maldives, asking them to “take extra care and follow local advice”. Hugo Swire, the U.K.’s Minister for Asia, said in a statement that he was “deeply worried” by recent developments in Maldives and that it “further undermines confidence in the country’s democracy”.

“I am particularly concerned by the impact of the state of emergency on the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Maldives Constitution, including the right to privacy, freedom from arbitrary detention, freedom from restraint and freedom of movement.” He urged Maldives to uphold the “commitments it has made—including as a member of the Commonwealth—to democracy and to the rule of law. We call on the government to end the current state of emergency and to release all political prisoners, including former President [Mohamed] Nasheed.”

Looking back

From the developments in Maldives since 2012 it is very clear that India had a large role in pushing the tiny nation to the brink. India was the first country to recognise the “transfer of power” in Maldives on February 7, 2012. Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected President, was forced to hand over power and his Vice President Mohamed Waheed Hasan took his place.

In hindsight, the Indian recognition of this patently unreasonable and intriguing transfer of power appears to be the biggest of mistakes. Soon after the Indian recognition of the new President, the U.S. followed suit. Since then Maldives has known no peace. As the churnings in the nascent democracy kept getting worse, India looked the other way, or, worse, handed the issue to officials who were not focussed on the issues on the ground.

In seven short years, democracy has been extradited from Maldives. With China and India looking the other way, and the U.S., the U.K. and the E.U. issuing pious statements and not doing anything to push the government to act, and with the rest of the world uninterested, being in limbo will be a permanent state for the country.

R.K. Radhakrishnan

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