Government commence student health screening

The Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) has commenced their student health screening project as part of the governments pledges. Local media reported that the MNDF have so far screened up to 600 students.

This initiative is being carried out as part of a joint agreement between Education Ministry, Health Ministry and the MNDF.

Education Minister Dr Aishath Shiyam said that neglect of small health issues in children has led to obstructions in their studies and development, an issue that the government is trying to overcome.

“With the combined work of the health ministry and the education ministry, health screening shall be administered to all the first grade students in all the schools of Maldives. The health screening we have done so far proves how important a service this is for school students,” she said.

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Comment: Seeking to put the judiciary in a spot

On specifics they may differ, but a common view seems to be slowly emerging on the imminent need for effecting reforms to the nation’s judiciary among the divided polity in Maldives.

Included in the discourse is also the role of the Judicial Services Commission (JSC), whose membership has also come under question, as should have been anticipated at the drafting of the 2008 Constitution.

To the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MD) of former President Mohammed Nasheed, everything that could go wrong with the judiciary and the JSC has gone wrong. The party often identifies its immediate concerns with the ongoing trail against Nasheed in the ‘Judge Abdulla abduction case’ when he was in power in January 2012. A conviction accompanied by a prison term not less than one year could cause his disqualification from contesting the presidential polls, slated for September this year.

Yet, the MDP’s larger concerns over judicial reforms pre-dates the ‘Judge Abdulla’ arrest, which contributed to the pervasive mood when the power-transfer occurred a couple of weeks later. President Nasheed went to the extent of ordering the Supreme Court shut down for a day – a rarity this in any democracy – until he had got the seven-judge bench of his choice when the mandatory two-year term ended for reconstituting the same after the commencement of the new Constitution.

The party did have to make compromises, and compromises are also what democracies are all about. It is not unknown to democracies that judges with political leanings often get elevated to the respective Supreme Courts in particular. In the US, the presidential model of which the Maldives has adopted under the 2008 Constitution, the political branding of Supreme Court Judges are so very complete that analysts would identify them either as ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ in their judicial approach.

Both the ideological background of the judges and their branding are inevitable, too. In a two-party system where most people choose to enroll as members of either of the two majors, namely, the Democrats and Republicans, students grow up to become lawyers, to be elected or elevated as judges. Whether they try to be non-partisan in ideological terms, starting with abortion but extending to state ownership and intervention, heir past accompanies them as an unburdened baggage.

Gayoom legatees, all

In the Maldives, everything government and everyone in government other than President Nasheed could be effortlessly branded as a ‘Gayoom legatee’. Most Nasheed aides, political and otherwise, belong there, too, but their timely cross-over may have helped the larger ‘democratic cause’ when it all unfolded. It is another thing to paint the whole judicial system and individual judges but in bulk with the same brush can cause greater trouble for democracy than can solve any of the existing problems, real and imaginary.

Not that the current scheme did not foresee the possibilities and problems. It has provided a seven-year term for ‘retraining’ of judicial officers at all levels in the country. Neither President Nasheed, nor his present-day successor President Waheed Hassan seem to have taken any serious step in this direction. The slanging-match, which contributes to the discrediting of the nation’s judiciary alone keeps cropping up time and again.

The MDP continues to claim that the three-member trial bench of the suburban Hulhumale’ court is illegal, unconstitutional and biased against President Nasheed, despite the Supreme Court dismissing its plea in the matter. The party has since sought the reconstitution of the seven-judge Supreme Court Bench itself. At an official function, Chief Justice Ahmed Faiz Hussain flatly ruled out any such reconstitution, saying that the present bench would continue as long as democracy existed in Maldives. Where a vacancy arose, it would have to be filled, he said.

President Nasheed reportedly added a new element when he publicly claimed that Chief Justice Hussain has been meeting regularly with President Waheed, and discussing the ‘Judge Abdulla case’ with him. From a public platform, he declared that he had never ever called the Chief Justice(s) of his time for any consultation whatsoever. Neither the judiciary, nor the Government, nor the President’s Office is known to have joined issue with him.

Row over JSC membership

Under the Constitution, Parliament has its nominee on the Judicial Services Commission (JSC), in turn entrusted with the appointment of judges and the overseeing of their conduct and acquittal as judges. The Jumhoree Party founder and presidential nominee is a member of the JSC, along with Parliament Speaker Abdulla Shahid, which chose the three-judge bench to try President Nasheed.

The MDP, after challenging the authority of the JSC in the matter, has since questioned the impartiality of the bench, chosen with Gasim as member. The office of the Parliament Speaker has however been kept out of what is essentially a political controversy. The two incidentally had participated in the JSC when it chose the seven-Judge Supreme Court bench, after President Nasheed and his government insisted on the executive having its say in the matter.

Attorney General Azima Shakoor opined that given the sensitivity of the issues involved, Gasim Ibrahim could have kept out the selection of the judges trying President Nasheed. She however clarified that the constitution having provided for parliament to nominate a member to the JSC, it was neither illegal, nor unconstitutional on Gasim’s part to have participated in the selection process.

One too many?

Larger questions remain. For starters, for a country of its size and population, the 2008 Constitution provides for one too many ‘Independent Institutions’ aimed at overseeing the functioning of various arms of the Government. The JSC is only one of them. The idea of having a Parliament’s nominee on the JSC was a creation of the new Constitution. So were so many committees of Parliament, tasked to oversee the functioning of the Government and its arms.

Whether intended or not, some of these committees and some of these Independent Commissions have assumed ‘sky-high powers’. Their disposition has been as much political as they could have been expected to be at birth. On occasions, their positions have changed with the changes in the political scenario and equations. These are inevitable consequences of democracy, particularly when politicians are consciously made part of the process where they are expected to be insulated from the rough and tumble of politics outside.

The problem with the Maldivian scheme, if any, owes to the political perception that underlay the thinking of various stake-holders at the time they comprised the Special Majlis to draft a new Constitution. With President Maumoon Gayoom on the defensive after 30 long years of unbroken rule, the co-sponsors of various constitutional provisions aimed at checking another ‘autocrat’ in power. This included a possible return of President Gayoom through what was being planned to be a ‘multi-party democracy’.

Given the over-arching run-up to the presidential polls, followed by Parliament elections next year, the time may not be just right or ripe for a review of the working of the constitutional scheme, that too with an open mind. Yet, with multi-party democracy taking deep and permanent roots in the country, and the emergence of an anticipated autocracy ruled out mostly, it may already be time for the new government and new parliament to set in motion an open-ended process aimed at addressing some of the present concerns, gained out of the working experience of the five years that have gone by.

Any final judicial verdict in the ‘Judge Abdulla’ case, impacting on President Nasheed’s candidacy one way or the other, has consequences for the nation and the constitutional scheme as a whole. That would just be the beginning of a new beginning – and not necessarily the end of anything gone-by.

Any process of the kind could serve its purpose if the political stake-holders look not at the immediate present alone but at the wholesome future, where they will be remembered not for what they ought to have been, but did not – but for what they actually proved to be.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to editorial@minivannewsarchive.com

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Comment: What after Nasheed’s ‘refuge’ in Indian mission?

The comparison sounds curious, though not odious. Possibly taking a leaf out of Wikileaks boss Julain Assange’s tactic, former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed has ‘taken refuge’ in the Indian High Commission in the national capital of Male, expressing concern over his personal ‘security’ and ‘regional stability’.

The comparison should however stop there, as Ecuador has since granted political asylum in its London Embassy, to help Assange avert arrest and deportation to face a criminal trial. No such request seems to have been made by Nasheed to India, nor has a situation seemed to have emerged for New Delhi to consider any such request at the moment.

“Mindful of my own security and stability in the Indian Ocean, I have taken refuge at the Indian High Commission in Maldives,” Nasheed tweeted a day after the suburban Hulhumale’ criminal court issued an arrest warrant for him to be produced before it. The warrant followed Nasheed not appearing before the court on Sunday, February 10, for standing trial on the charge of ordering the illegal arrest of Criminal Court Chief Justice Abdulla Mohammed on January 16 last year, when he was the President.

Nasheed had been to India after obtaining court’s permission and had overstayed the period during the previous visit, with his lawyers seeking further time from the three-Judge bench. Incidentally, this is the second time in five months that Nasheed had not appeared before the trial court when summoned. On October 1, the day he was to appear before the court, he proceeded on a long campaign tour of the southern atolls. The court later ordered his appearance, and had the police arrest him from a southern island, and let him off after recording his forced appearance.

The current development has raised a number of issues, legal, political and diplomatic. With presidential polls due in September this year, Nasheed would be disqualified from contesting the same if the court ordered his imprisonment or banishment for three years. The alternative penalty is MVR 2,000. The fine does not attract disqualification but an imprisonment of over a year does.

Despite all-round apprehensions about an inevitable term of imprisonment for Nasheed and the other three accused, the trial had not reached the substantive stage, for the defence team to hazard a guess about the possible quantum of punishment. The best case scenario for Nasheed would be his exoneration of the charges against him. In context, the prosecution would have to prove to the complete satisfaction of the trial and appeals courts that the orders for Judge Abdulla’s arrest were issued by President Nasheed personally, and they were patently illegal.

Questions also remain about the possibility of the case running its full course before the Election Commission puts the poll process in motion, in July this year.

As in all democracies, there is a three-stage judicial process, involving the High Court and the Supreme Court at the appellate levels. In between, Nasheed’s defence has also been taking up procedural issues at every turn. Interlocutory petitions on his behalf have not found much favour with the appeal courts, but the intervening time involved in the process has meant that the trial and the appeal stage may elude the deadline for the elections.

The legal issue at this stage also involves the wisdom of Nasheed’s defence possibly concluding that the arrest and production of Nasheed before the trial court would entail his imminent imprisonment. If so, it is unclear if the courts would have ordered a jail term for Nasheed, whether to restrict his movement, pending the disposal of the case, or for contempt of court. There may have been a case for the court to declare him as a ‘habitual condemnor’, given that this is the second instance of the kind.

According to media reports, the Hulhumale’ court, however, has since withdrawn the arrest warrant against Nasheed. It is also unclear if the court would want to hand down any prison term, endangering Nasheed’s freedom of movement, pending the conclusion of the trial stage. This has meant that the Hulhumale’ court, in a single stroke, may have removed Nasheed’s apprehensions about personal security, at least until the disposal of the case, either at the trial stage or at the final appeals stage.

It is also unclear if either the prosecution would seek court directions to enforce Nasheed’s continued presence and cooperation from now on, or if the judges would suo motu issue binding orders. With the two-day Maldivian official weekend falling on Friday and Saturday (February 15-16), the next move of the Government, the police and the prosecution would also be watched with interest. The possibilities are many, if one considered the judicial and legal options before the various players, including Nasheed.

Indian position

Through a series of statements on February 13, New Delhi confirmed Nasheed’s presence in the Indian High Commission in Male, and his seeking ‘Indian assistance’. The statement said India was in touch with Maldivian authorities in the matter, and wanted the government in Male to ensure that the elections were free and fair, and that there was no bar on candidates were not barred from contesting the presidential polls.

In an obvious reaction to the Indian statement, the Maldivian Foreign Ministry promised to ensure the immunity of resident missions of foreign countries in Male, implying that the police would not violate what is legally ‘Indian territory’ to detain Nasheed and produce him before the Hulhumale’ court. It made a pointed reference to the independence of Maldivian judiciary, about which there was no mention in the Indian statement.

According to local media reports, Government officials, in tweeted messages, claimed that India had ‘interfered’ with the domestic affairs of the country and also the judicial processes.

The Indian concern in the matter seems to flow from the substantial, if not proven majority support-base that Nasheed and the MDP enjoys within Maldives, and the wisdom of not allowing him to contest the presidency, over a pending court case. Any domestic unrest of the kind that marked Nasheed’s exit from the presidency in February last year could have consequences for political stability in Maldives – and by extension, the immediate Indian Ocean neighbourhood.

Indications are that political Maldives is as polarized for and against Nasheed this time round as it was around incumbent President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom ahead of the first-ever multi-party presidential polls in the country in 2008. How the nation and its 242,000 voters in the country would view the ‘stability question’ and equate it to the support-base of the MDP and vote for Nasheed’s candidacy, remains to be seen. This can also have consequences to political stability nearer home, for the region and bilateral relations with India.

From within the Indian High Commission, Nasheed has reiterated his earlier demand, asking President Waheed to demit office and allow an interim administration to take over, to ensure free and fair elections for the highest constitutional office in the country. As critics point out, this also has consequences. With parliamentary polls due in May next year, will there be a similar demand by different sections of the nation’s divided polity that the new President, elected this year, and his own Vice-President, too should quit office, to ensure free and fair elections, then as is being demanded now.

Incidentally, the constitution provides for Parliament Speaker to be President for two months and conduct fresh polls from the high office, should the incumbent, along with his Vice-President, to quit office, or otherwise fall vacant. This is the possibility that Nasheed has stressed in terms of ensuring a free and fair poll for the presidency, at present. However, the Constitution does not provide for a similar situation ahead of the parliamentary polls. The argument is that what is good for the presidential polls should be good also for the parliamentary elections. Or is it?

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to editorial@minivannewsarchive.com

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Proposed anti-piracy bill outlines legal framework for punishing suspects

The Government has proposed an anti-Piracy bill in an effort to curb rising concerns over the issue of security within its territorial waters and the wider Indian Ocean.

The bill has been presented to parliament by government-aligned Jumhoree Party (JP) Leader and business tycoon Gasim Ibrahim. The stated purpose of the bill is to establish a legal framework to deal with piracy within the territorial waters of the Maldives amidst concerns at the growing risk  of maritime crime in the Indian Ocean over the last few years.

With the Maldives located at a strategic intersection of sea trade routes, a significant amount of global maritime traffic passes through or near the country’s northern atolls.

The bill also seeks to outline legal procedures to deal with individuals suspected of committing acts of piracy within Maldivian territorial waters.  such procedures do not presently exist in the country’s legal system.  The acts outlined in the proposed bill would be considered as criminal offences.

According to the bill, a person who is found guilty of an act of piracy would face a 25 year jail sentence.   Meanwhile, if a suspect was found guilty of killing a person during a suspected pirate attack, they would be punished under Islamic Sharia to an additional 30 year custodial sentence.

For any damage to property incurred through piracy, a punishment of 15 year imprisonment is prescribed.

Those found guilty of conspiring to commit or assist in acts of piracy in the Maldives would face a punishment of 10 years imprisonment, according to the bill.

The bill specifically describes armed robbery as a separate offence, whereby if found guilty, a person would receive a 30-year prison sentence.  In a case where someone was killed during a suspected armed robbery, the suspect would face imprisonment along with additional punishment outlined in Islamic Sharia.

According to article 4 of the bill, the state authorities are vested with the power to apprehend offenders in its territorial sea, the contiguous zone, the exclusive economic zone and International waters.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defines a state’s territorial waters as extending up to 12 nautical miles from its baseline.  The contiguous zone is a band of water extending from the outer edge of the territorial sea to up to 24 nautical miles (44 kilometres) from the baseline, within which a state can exert limited control.

An Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of a state extends from the outer limit of the territorial sea to a maximum of 200 nautical miles (370.4 kilometres) from the territorial sea baseline including the contiguous zone, according to the same conventions.

Other offences noted in the bill includes the hijacking of vessels.  The punishment outlined for such a crime is 10 years imprisonment and a fine between MVR 100,000 to MVR 1 million.

Meanwhile, the punishment for obstruction of a safe passage is imprisonment for a period of no more than 15 years.

Courts in the country would also be allowed to extend the detention period of arrested individuals through means of audio and video phone in cases where it proved difficult to bring a suspect to a hearing, under provisions in the bill.

The power to arrest would also be vested to both the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) and the Maldives Police Services in the case of suspected acts of piracy. However, hearings of all offences committed under the bill would be tried at the Criminal Court in Male’.

Speaking to Minivan News, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ibrahm Muaz Ali said that the government had continued to raise concerns over security in the Indian Ocean for some times and had built strong relations with neighbouring countries like India to combat potential pirate attacks.

According to Muaz, the anti-piracy bill was perceived by the government as being a necessity in order to establish a framework capable of dealing with the issue. He added that the government was getting support from all regional countries on the matter.

Back in April last year in an interview given to the India-based Daily News and Analysis publication, Minister of Defence Mohamed Nazim highlighted the government’s concerns regarding the potential for pirate attacks.

Nazim at the time warned that “these threats have now come to our close proximity. We live by selling dreams of tranquillity and even a small incident in our territory could have devastating implications for the region.”

The comments were made at the same time that the first ever tri-lateral naval exercises between Sri Lanka, India, and the Maldives were held. Nazim told the paper that he believed a united approach was the best way to combat the problems of piracy in the Indian Ocean.

Nazim also praised the Indian Military for its assistance in equipping and training the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF).

First case of piracy within Maldivian waters

The Maldives experienced the first confirmed case of piracy within its waters back in March 2012, when a Bolivian-flagged vessel headed for Iran was hijacked by Somali pirates.  The vessel was released a few days later.

MNDF Spokesperson Colonel Abdul Raheem at the time confirmed that the vessel was hijacked about 190 nautical miles Northwest of Hoarafushi island in Haa Alif Atoll.

The vessel was identified on Somalia Report as the Iranian-owned MV EGLANTINE, with 23 crew members on board. The vessel, which has previously been named the Bluebell and the Iran Gilan, is owned by Darya Hafiz Shipping.

The Maldives’ government first expressed concern over the growing piracy threat in 2010 after small vessels containing Somali nationals began washing up on local islands. The castaways were given medical treatment and incarcerated while the government negotiated their repatriation.

Somali Pirates

In March 2012, 40 Somali castaways in the custody of Maldives authorities refused to return home despite arrangements that were made for their safe repatriation.

The government had at the time identified and obtained passports for the detainees and arranged a charter flight for their return to Somalia, confirmed a senior government official who worked on the case.  However, the source claimed that the government was unable to deport the foreign nationals against their will.

Refugees cannot be repatriated without consent under international conventions to which the Maldives is signatory, leaving the Maldives no legal recourse but to sign international conventions on the rights of refugees and migrant workers and their families and accept the Somali nationals as refugees.

In a special report on piracy in December 2010, Minivan News cited a European piracy expert who noted that increased policing of waters at a high risk of piracy was forcing pirates deeper and deeper into the Indian Ocean.

“We believe that this trend is due to the fact that the pirates are following the vessels – as merchant ships increase their distance from Somalia in order to feel ‘safer’, the pirates follow them resulting in attacks much farther east than ever before,” the expert said at the time.

An American luxury passenger line en route to the Seychelles in January was stranded in the Maldivian waters due to an alleged “piracy risk”, while the passengers departed to the Seychelles through airline flights.

Secretary General of Maldives Association of Yacht Agents (MAYA), Mohamed Ali, told Minivan News at the time that the passenger line had arrived on December 29 and was scheduled to leave the same day after a brief stop near Male’.

However, he said the cruise captain had decided not to leave with the passengers on board due to “security reasons”, as there have been several attacks by pirates near the Seychelles.

According to the government, the proposed bill if passed would pave way to deal with the matter easily and efficiently.

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Comment: Majlis fiddles with democracy as society burns

The country is broke and the price of living is going up every day while the standard of living is going down.

The price of a can of tuna is now 20 percent higher than it was a few months ago. A valhoa mas kiba, part of our staple food since time immemorial, is now beyond the common person’s reach. A bottle of water was Rf10 just a month ago; it is Rf14 this month.

Electricity bills, water bills, gas bills, are all hugely more expensive than any other country in the neighbourhood. A majority of people are living hand to mouth.

A vast chunk of the country’s youth population are either addicted to drugs or recovering from it. They are unemployable, and out on the streets, committing crimes big and small or looking in vain for another chance at life.

The standards of teaching in public schools are abysmal, and private schools remain an unaffordable dream for the majority. To say that public schools are free is to lie through one’s teeth; for people are paying through their noses for private tuition – a parallel education system that exists in a parallel universe. It is the elephant in every classroom that nobody in authority wants to talk about – the government cannot regulate it without first acknowledging the massive failings in the education system; and a majority of the teachers do not want to talk about it because it is the cash cow that supplements their meagre incomes.

Children from other islands are having to migrate to Male’, boarding with host families or packed into small rooms the rent of which they share; paid by parents who break their backs working on farms or on fishing boats, just so their children can get an education. The housing crisis and social problems related to overcrowding increase.

The health system is too weak to cope with any unexpected outbreaks of disease; Maldivian doctors are still the minority and are offered less pay and benefits than their expatriate counterparts; and infant and adult mortality rates are needlessly high. It was all too clear to see with the recent dengue fever outbreak.

Unemployment rates are sky-high while trafficked Bangladeshis are bought and sold by the planeload. They live in their scores of thousands working and living on building sites; existing in an alternate realm of worker drones, buzzing away in the background, building, serving, cooking, cleaning, maintaining; jobs that Maldivians consider themselves too good to be doing.

Their presence is acknowledged only when the buzzing gets annoying; when their levels of ‘civilisation’ are deemed not to match our allegedly impeccable manners and faultless social graces; and when foreign governments chastise the Maldives for its cruelty for putting a price on the heads of human beings and selling them to the highest bidder.

Longstanding traditions of peace, friendliness and cleanliness have disappeared; replaced with avarice and aspirations of grandeur achieved by any means possible. Basic civility, let alone friendliness, is conspicuous in its absence: the smile; the queue; the exchange of niceties; respect for the elderly; the weak and the vulnerable; the knowledge of belonging together – what are they? People push, shove and climb over each other to get to an undefined ‘there’ faster than anyone else – literally and metaphorically.

It is all there to see in the pantomime that the Majlis is enacting, fiddling with democracy as society burns. What is the purpose of these theatrics? Are we supposed to be impressed with his behaviour? Are we supposed to admire this display of ignorance as ‘people power’? Is this to be seen as standing up (or sitting down) for the rule of law? Are we supposed to applaud these MPs for their ‘valour’ in forcing a needless confrontation between legislative and military power?

Are we supposed to cheer in adulation or tremble in fear when one MP who was only recently bought by one party now shouts at the party he had just left?

Are we to ignore the fact that if such members did indeed have an ideology, or a set of deeply held political beliefs or values they would not be so easily bought and sold?

Are we supposed to laugh with them and chuckle at the smirks on their faces when they are being led away by the army? Are we supposed to let our children hear the filth that is sprouting from their mouths into our airwaves on daytime TV? Are we to appreciate as media savvy the manner in which, like a bunch of schoolboy bullies in a playground, they are taking photographs and videos of each other being bundled away by men in army fatigues?

Are we supposed to be appreciate as role models of feminism the female voices heard screeching like cockatoos at the spectacle of MPs being carried away like chimpanzees by zoo handlers? What exactly is being celebrated here? What state will our nation be in the coming years if these are our highest representatives, if this is the pinnacle of success that our children as future leaders can aspire to?

Whatever destruction that three decades of dictatorship could not unleash on our society with its ruinous policies, society is wreaking upon itself. We did not have a transition to democracy, we just changed one supreme power to which we subjugate ourselves for another: Mammon for Maumoon.

The Majlis should be where the people turn to for solutions to their problems. It is, however, both the representation of all our problems as well as their nucleus and their source.

What a sham.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to editorial@minivannewsarchive.com

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Comment: Doublethink culture

On the night of December 21, 1954, a cult of worshipers gathered together in a room in Chicago.

Having carefully removed all metallic objects from their person, including bra straps and metal zippers, they sat together in a silent huddle. Many of them had quit their jobs and colleges, left their spouses and sold their houses in preparation for that night.

They wouldn’t need any of those where they were going – for indeed, they were awaiting the arrival of a flying saucer that would take their small group of true believers away before the prophesied end of the world the next morning.

As it turned out, the flying saucer never arrived – and the world continues to spin majestically over half a century later.

Having their superstition proven so utterly false, one would reasonably expect that the cult would have disbanded and died out immediately afterward.

But, as chronicled in the famous book ‘When Prophecy Fails’, written by a group of authors who had infiltrated the cult to observe them first hand, the cult actually grew in strength after the failure of their central prophecy.

One of those authors, Stanford psychologist Leon Festinger, famously described this phenomenon as ‘cognitive dissonance’.

According to this theory, when faced with incontrovertible proof against a held belief, people tend to eliminate the dissonance by resorting to either denial or justification.

The cult members, upon realising that their alien saviors failed to show up, promptly decided that the Earth had been given a second chance as a reward for their night-long perseverance. Armed with this new theory, the formerly media-shy cult went on a recruiting drive and the cult expanded more than ever.

Cognitive dissonance would also explain the resurgent practice of ‘Baccha baazi’ in Afghanistan, where powerful warlords and other self-described Muslim men engage in pederasty with ‘bacchas’ or pre-pubescent dancing boys, attired in women’s clothing.

The men candidly admit to the practice on camera, denying that it was sodomy because they were not ‘in love’ with the boys, and providing the justification that they were able to judge the young boys’ looks beforehand, unlike the niqab covered women where it was more of a hit-and-miss.

In the dark alleys of Bangalore and Mysore in India, the hashish and heroin trade is known to be run by old Muslim men with prominent prayer marks on their forehead where it touches stone five times a day,

They too, justify their actions with an assortment of explanations about profits and business.

In these cases, one appears to have an inner moral conflict, as is clearly visible in the confused expression of the pious old Dhivehi woman with a fondness for traditional raaivaru and folk songs, when suddenly confronted with a religious ruling on TV from the leading sheikh of the day that music is forbidden.

The dissonance is then placated by subconsciously finding a convenient explanation that flies in the face of available statistics, just as a smoker finds a justification to smoke, or a motorist finds a justification to not wear helmets or seat belts.

The theory of cognitive dissonance is often used to explain the unintentional hypocrisy of individuals and social groups.

In the Maldives, however, it appears that hypocrisy has given way to something far more unpleasant – namely, self-deception.

The Ministry of Truth

As described in the dystopian society portrayed in George Orwell’s novel 1984, Maldivians seem to have embraced the practice of ‘doublethink’.

The novel describes doublethink as :

“To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancel out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it… to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again.”

Perhaps due to remarkable upheavals in their recent history, Maldivians appear to have mastered the art of effortlessly holding two utterly incompatible, conflicting ideas in their head.

The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming.

A casual stroll down the Artificial Beach in Male or the neighboring islands during the night reveals dozens of young girls – proudly wearing the Islamic head scarf – in various stages of embrace, undress or coitus with their partners under the veil of darkness.

There’s the story of the outwardly devout graphics designer who declined an assignment to draw a female figurine, citing religious principles. Notably, the man was later found to be downloading explicit pornography on his office workstation.

During one energetic debate on Facebook, one of the most vocal defenders of the faith was a young man with a colorful vocabulary. In case his demeanor and menacing threats didn’t make his tough gangster credentials clear, he also spelled out, in bright red letters, on his profile image, ‘Blood, Sex and Booze’.

To be precise, the young Maldivian man, who swore by ‘blood, sex and booze’ on a public social network, was the first to step in to defend morality and religion against perceived threats.

These are hardly isolated cases.

There are plenty of Maldivians who proudly embrace the creed that Islam is a ‘religion of peace’ and that those that create conflict are not ‘true Muslims’, but in the same breath, applaud Bin Laden, the Taliban, and other random militants who place bombs in schools, markets and mosques in Pakistan as righteous ‘mujahideen’ whose actions are sanctioned by the religion.

Young girls and boys, often wasted on drugs and given to casual sexual relations, often vocally argue for the imposition of an un-codified ‘Shariah’ law system that, if implemented, could very well see them stoned to death or worse.

The national doublethink is no doubt helped by the country’s dramatic swing from a heady, westernised disco-era to a rigidly conservative religious society almost overnight.

The 2008 Maldivian constitution forbids any law or regulation that contradicts loosely defined ‘tenets of Islam’.

In May 2010, the Maldivian government invited salafi preacher Zakir Naik who, during a heavily promoted lecture televised on prime-time national television, proclaimed to a gathered audience of ten-thousand, that income made from tourism was ‘haraam’.

But as recently as last week, the President of the Republic, Mohamed Nasheed, reiterated that the tourism industry – fueled by alcohol and, as the Mullah prefers to put it, ‘fornication’ – is the mainstay of the country’s economy that must be safeguarded at all costs.

The easily inflammable pseudo-religious groups that assemble on the streets at a moment’s notice to protest against everything from news editors to co-education, gathered in in late 2009 to protest against the restricted sale of alcohol in ‘inhabited’ islands.

Nevertheless, their screeching rhetoric against the sale of alcohol in the capital was in stark contrast to their meek acceptance of the availability of alcohol on the adjacent airport just five minutes away.

It could also be contrasted with their monk-like silence on the widespread child abuse and pedophilia, reports of which have hit local media with alarming frequency throughout the past year.

The same government alternatively claims that tourism is haraam and absolutely vital. The same television channel that plays music throughout the day also airs religious programs that proclaim music is forbidden. The same school that teaches that bank interest is forbidden in Islam also teaches students modern banking, and how to calculate interest.

The effect of this national doublethink on the young Maldivian democracy is a cause for concern.

Citizens who have given up the intellectual tools of reasoning have also inadvertently given up their ability to choose, leaving the country vulnerable to either sliding back into a dictatorship, or morphing into a theocracy.

Confirmation bias

The first comment on a recent Minivan News article about alleged bestiality involving the rape of a goat on a rural island, incredibly enough, appeared to blame the incident on ‘LIBERAL DEMOCRACY’.

This is further evidence that the Maldives is steeped in a strong confirmation bias, where the population disregards evidences that are in plain contradiction to their viewpoints, but jumps at even unverified hearsay supporting their prejudices.

Fifth grade science teachers have reportedly taught their students that the Apollo moon landings were ‘fake’, thereby insulting the achievements of thousands of scientists and engineers, while simultaneously robbing young students of the wonders and amazement of science, leaving them vulnerable to a lifetime of conspiracy theories.

Meanwhile, tiny moon rocks have been on display for years at the National Museum in the Maldives.

Openly biased reporting on the Middle East abound in the local media, as are outlandish conspiracies such as the easily discredited allegations that a team of Israeli doctors were ‘organ stealing Zionists’.

If this keeps up, Maldivians as a nation will be no better than the alien cult worshipers, who bend reality to suit their convenience and bask in an atmosphere of mutual-misinformation.

The vital essence of a successful democracy is the ability of its citizens to make critical judgments.

Once that ability is clouded by confirmation bias, dissonance and doublethink, the end-result closely resembles the confusion and noise that characterises Maldivian society today.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to minivan.news@gmail.com

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Comment: In power by default

Throughout Maldivian history, the system of government has been clearly structured on those who had property and connections. The leading positions of the government institutions as of late 2000 were unquestioningly a privilege to those born into aristocratic and landowning families and not based on merit. While they did not contribute to a productive Maldivian society, it was clear that, that system of government was the result of the society’s class structure and the institutional positions they maintained were by default and non debatable.

The system continues to exist even with the change of government and has been replaced by a group of hardcore political activists backed by the affluent and financially successful businessmen that the last regime fostered, holding more than 90 percent of the national wealth. The underclass, which covers at least 75 percent of the Maldivian population, continues to exist as one entity deprived of social standing while selected individuals both in the political and economic environment enjoy individualism and rights to become contributors and producers.

As the underclass continues as a permanent feature of both the regimes, both governments seemingly relied heavily on the pledges of the international community to bring about change. The promised change has been frustratingly slow and political representatives partly blame the lack of timely response and unfilled pledges by the international community being cause for non or slowed down government delivery. Although the country graduating from a least developing country this year onwards based on its per capita GDP of US$4600 (graduation criteria is US$900) the country’s social infrastructure has been heavily financed by development funding and donations. It is further characterised by low income families (16 percent of the population lives in poverty and unemployment rate is over 14 percent), weak human resources and a low level of economic diversification.

As before, most of the government ministries remain dysfunctional, lacking capacity and capability to perform, staffed by the people who are unable to produce results, lead by ineffective but loyal political activists of ruling political party.

Guarding the domain

A large underclass must exist for this model of society to function so that power hungry politicians can continue to dominate the country’s leadership. Within this exist the power hungry businessmen who are unwilling to let members of underclass enter into the realm of the “the privileged rich”. Within this exist the power hungry religious leaders, who try to formalise their control using religious mechanism. The three groups co-exist together relying heavily on each other to protect their existence. At the same time Maldives has a growing underclass indicating political, economic and religious control as three groups struggle to keep their supremacy over each other.

The privileged and the underclass need each other to function. Both the governments maintained the underclass by creating a large and dependent workforce making government the biggest employer in the country, a strategy to safeguard and retain loyalty. People’s values are formed by the structure in the society according to Karl Marx. To maintain functionality, the three groups work to create beliefs and conformity through various social, political and religious tools.

Functionalism at the cost of democratic principles

All the three groups work to create a consensus of belief and behavior (as functionalism has been described by Herbert Spencer (1820 – 1903) and upholding the norms is a function of society. The norms are further defined by rules and regulations that the society needs to adhere to function as a body. Within this type of societal model, anyone who upsets or threatens the norms has to be removed to recreate balance, taken away to prison and removed from mainstream society.

There is no individualism in the Maldivian society except for those in control. Individual’s needs are not validated and only the overall function of society is important. The Maldivian society is thus a singular being – something that can be manipulated and changed as a whole and poverty and inequality are just valid parts of society, so are juvenile delinquency, crime and domestic violence.

The functionalist approach is extremely convenient for politicians and others, who assume to be the sole representatives of the Maldivian citizens and speak out loud for the people while the underclass are not consulted nor are allowed to have any access to the political sphere. The MPs increasingly act in their personal interest as they try to add to their financial remuneration and privileges, political status and social standing.

Behavior has to be acceptable or punished in the functionalist society. As the gaps between the leadership and underclass widen and the income disparity grows, uprisings such as those in the tourism industry will occur. The outbreak of unhappy employees in tourism industry has drawn calls for measures to curb their activities and expression, regulating behavior and introducing new punishments. Attempts to unify religious behavior are an ongoing effort of religious leaders who condone religious freedom of individuals in the Maldivian society.

Don’t rock the boat

Democracy promoting change contradicts functionalism as change in society is seen as disturbance. It is the “don’t rock the boat” model. The groups within the society such as family must promote the norms and children are to do what their parents do and to be what their parents are. Employees are supposed to work without negotiating and be grateful for the hand that feeds them. Religious practices must be observed without questioning. Traditions that do not work for the three leading groups mentioned earlier may be discarded and new practices may be invented through their own consensus as long as they can maintain status quo and their power. Needless to say but people are comfortable when there is stability, status quo and life continues without disruptions.

Conflicting functionalism is people’s economic and spiritual needs that must be satisfied being human nature and cannot be controlled by regulated mechanism. Neither fear as a control tool is effective over a long period nor may rightful behavior as translated into rules serve to control people in the short run. For the society to develop, the change has to happen although it is irritating, but eventually leading to a new adjusted society where balance is restored.

Alliance for power

Would it not be great if the underclass could defeat the “ruling” class? Maldivians were elated in 2003 when the reform movement started. The Maldivians (along with the international community) thought this was the underclass and the suppressed breaking out of a rigid fascist regime. Those hungering for leadership were made up of three power hungry groups tapping on the ignorance of the underclass Maldivians to think they can expect and own a better share of the wealth that the country was earning. Maldivians were willing prey to promises of the leadership following the parties they thought would serve the purpose.

The affluent business community saw it was time to shift over and contribute a puny percentage of their wealth to bring the change. They also saw this as an opportunity to take positions of control so that their wealth could expand further. Later extension of resort lease deals was up for debate in the Parliament where politicians-cum-businessmen sat representing the citizens’ voice. Some MPs and activists in party leadership still claim they are first and foremost businessmen.

The pact between the religious party Adalaath and the then-opposition MDP at the time of the elections in 2008 was the only way religious leaders could secure a powerful position within the new government. Alliance with the likely party to win in the second round of elections was made on mutual advantage of holding power within their domains.

The main opposition saw their advantage in an alliance with the two groups mentioned above, business men representing resources and religious leaders representing norms and practices that the average (underclass) Maldivian did not dare contradict and commanded total obedience to their leaders. Both the groups taking a stand beside the main opposition won the elections.

Democracy is a threat to Maldivian politicians, businessmen and religious leaders because it calls for sharing or wealth and privileges, position and power. Democracy dilutes society as a entity, through its principles promoting equality, fairness and tolerance where the individual and minority are validated and majority will is respected.

Aminath Arif is the founder of SALAAM school.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to minivan.news@gmail.com

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Comment: Urbanisation is a challenge for public health

Historically, Malé city has been an engine of economic growth, a centre of culture, and a generator of ideas. But while human potential is infinite, resources are finite.

Urbanisation creates problems, but healthy cities can solve them. A billion people now live in the world’s urban slums. The urban population of Asia is expected to double between 2000 and 2030. The health sector needs to take the lead in calling attention to the enormous implications of this growth in cities for the health of the people who live and work in them.

On 7 April 2010, World Health Day, WHO will focus on the themes of Urbanisation and Health.

With the possibility that over the next 30 years all population growth will be in urban areas, urbanisation becomes a real challenge for public health.

Urbanisation is associated with many health challenges related to water, environment, violence and injury, noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) and their risk factors like tobacco use, unhealthy diets, physical inactivity, harmful use of alcohol as well as the risks associated with disease outbreaks.

In poorly planned cities, the urban poor are the ones who will suffer the burden of these and other health problems, including an increased risk for violence and for some communicable diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

In 2008, the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) carried on a “Rapid Assessment of the Housing Situation in the Maldives”.

In interviews in Malé, the study described issues such as exorbitant rent levels, housing space, size, overcrowding, unaffordable access to clean drinking water, and many other problems like unhealthy living conditions, social problems as a result of overcrowding.

Many of the respondents indicated that these problems were the key causes of rising social issues such as gang warfare and drug abuse.

Furthermore, several social problems are also faced within the household including child abuse, psychological impact in growing up in areas of overcrowding, breakdown of many families due to the hardship faced by them stimulating a ripple effect of social disorder for the families, particularly the children caught in the situation.

The assessment highlighted that the sources of such housing stress are many, but it is mainly attributed by the raising demand for housing as a result of increased migration of Maldivians and foreigners to the capital. There are over 30,000 international migrant laborers now living in Malé under more crowded situations.

In the rapid assessment, local residents reported as many as 30 men sharing 3m x 3m flats without running water or sanitation facilities. These workers have to queue at public water taps to access clean water and often have to sleep in shifts as not all of them are able to fit into the space they occupy at the same time.

Among nationals, they felt that public services in Malé and to a lesser extent in Hithadhoo, Thulusdhoo and Kulhudhufushi were significantly better than the services they could receive at home or urban centers closer to them, being hospitals, secondary schools and higher education the most commonly mentioned services.

Other important factors for individual and family migration included the availability of employment opportunities and higher wages in Malé and better prospects for developing one’s own business from the capital.

As we can see, it is important to note that the major drivers, or social determinants, of health in urban settings are beyond the health sector, including physical infrastructure, access to social and health services, local governance, and the distribution of income and educational opportunities.

The solution? Proper urban planning can promote healthy behaviours and safety through investment in active transport, designing areas to promote physical activity and passing regulatory controls on tobacco and food safety. Improving urban living conditions in the areas of housing, water and sanitation will go a long way to mitigating health risks. Building inclusive cities that are accessible and age-friendly will benefit all urban residents.

Such actions do not necessarily require additional funding, but commitment to redirect resources to priority interventions, thereby achieving greater efficiency.

The Rapid Assessment of the Housing Situation in Maldives conducted by the HRCM, concluded providing a series of recommendations, which together are designed to kick-start a broader process leading to continuously improving housing conditions in the Maldives.

Dr Jorge Mario Luna is the WHO Representative to the Maldives.

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Comment: A national emergency

Minivan News on Sunday: a 13 year old girl is being abused by her own father.

Another child abuse story. Another day. Did I notice anyone raise an eyebrow?

The children of this country are being sexually assaulted and abused by people they know and trust. This is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the regular appearance of news articles and stories about the abuse of children in our communities.

This happens all the time. It is becoming quite ‘normal’ now. In fact, there is evidence to support this.

The Maldives Study on Women’s Health and Life Experiences published in 2007 by the then Ministry of Gender and Family found that “girl child sexual abuse was most often a repeated form of abuse rather than a once off occurrence”.

The study also found that “male family members (other than fathers and step-fathers) and… male acquaintances were identified as the most common perpetrators of girl child sexual abuse”.

Most damningly, the study found that “overall, one in three women aged 15-49 reported experiencing physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives, including childhood sexual abuse”.

Another story, a different day.

Hundreds of liquor licenses allow the expatriate community to indulge themselves in the supposed pleasures of alcohol. A steadily increasing community of foreign workers have been indulging in such pleasures in our homes and communities for decades, quite legally.

The People’s Majlis passes a bill which attempts to control the distribution and consumption of alcohol. It would also stop the consumption of alcohol in our homes, which are rented by expatriates who have these liquor licenses.

Uproar ensues following the passage of the bill. Our airwaves are filled with news of protests and the constant reportage makes the whole issue akin to a national emergency. The horror of such a move by the government!

A group of allegedly devout men and women threaten to destabilise the country by toppling the government if the bill were to come into force. Communities are outraged and will not allow this to happen because alcohol is ‘haraam’.

Meanwhile, the lives of unknown numbers of vulnerable children continue being quietly destroyed behind closed doors, often by the very people who are responsible for their welfare and protection.

The community does not protest. It seems to be a non-issue for them. They do not condemn such behaviour or threaten to overthrow the government in fits of outrage. In fact, the community is silent.

The brutal treatment of children is clearly not a concern in this society. But the sale of alcohol to non-muslims sends our communities and media into uncontrollable convulsions.

What does this say about our society? What does this say about our priorities?

When the controlled sale of alcohol to non-muslims becomes a bigger issue than the destruction of our childrens’ futures due to sexual abuse and violence, is it not time to reflect on the madness and incoherence of the value system of this society?

Let us not look around for someone to blame. Let us consider and reflect upon our own failure to address this silent national emergency.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to minivan.news@gmail.com

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