For real reform, the reform meetings must go on

On the 9th June 2004, President Gayoom launched his democratic reform programme. Since then, pro-democracy meetings have been banned, peaceful rallies have been brutally suppressed and pro-democracy activists imprisoned and tortured. The Maldives has become markedly more authoritarian and markedly less democratic. To Maldivians and international observers alike, the reform programme rings hollow. Allowing reform meetings would be a real step to get it back on track.

Democratic reform needs to be conducted in a democratic way. Listening to the demands and concerns of the public about the way they would like their country to be run is essential to make change a success. Democracy is, after all, about the will of the people.

Outside the Male’ elite, there is little understanding of concepts such as democracy and human rights, let alone constitutional change and political pluralism. This is why the reform meetings are so important. They provide forums not only for democratic participation but also for education.

The experience of the last meetings are testament to this. Not only was the turnout exceptional but the quality of the debate and the feedback from participants was also extremely positive. People said it was great to be able to express their views. They also felt that they really learned something.

President Gayoom appears to have banned the meetings because he did not like the criticism his government was receiving. This is hardly mature politics. One only needs to see the abuse hurled back and forth in the British House of Commons each week to know that whining about insults isn’t going to cut much ice with foreign observers. Nor does it demonstrate the President’s commitment to freedom of expression.

Allowing the reform meetings however, would give the President’s battered reputation a much needed boost. He has been mauled by the international media in the last two months and his popularity in the Maldives has hit new lows. This would be a way to try and repair some of the damage. It would also counter the opposition’s charge that the President is just tinkering with the existing system.

The reform meetings are an essential pre-condition for real democratic change in the Maldives. They must be allowed to continue.