Addu City Council has begun removing monuments gifted to the Maldives by SAARC member countries during the “Building Bridges” summit in November 2011.
Bhutan’s monument, a wooden sign, was taken down on Friday following a demand from demonstrators at the opposition-sponsored ‘Defend Islam’ protest on December 23 that all monuments be removed as they were “idolatrous”.
Councillor Hussein Hilmee told Minivan News that a small group of people had been vandalising the monuments and that police had needed to provide 24 hour security, which was unfeasible.
The leaders of Bangladesh, Pakistian, India, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka unveiled their national monuments to commemorate the Maldives’ hosting of the SAARC Summit.
The night before the unveiling of Pakistan’s monument a small group of protesters knocked it over, contending that carvings detailing the history of the Indus valley civilisation and a bust of the country’s founder Mohamed Ali Jinah were idolatrous. The monument was removed by Addu City Council and replaced on its plinth prior to the unveiling ceremony.
That evening a group of opposition MPs, including MP Ahmed Mahlouf from former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), were arrested attempting to take down SAARC banners at the airport which they claimed featured Christian imagery.
The Pakistani monument was subsequently set ablaze by demonstrators, after the Adhaalath Party issued a statement claiming that “no Maldivian of sound mind” would allow idols or iconography of other religions to be erected in the country.
The Pakistani monument was “part of efforts by adversaries of Islam to turn the faith that Maldivians embraced 900 years ago upside down,” the party said at the time.
The fate of the monuments quickly became a political football in the wake of the SAARC Summit, as the government began to juggle the perceptions of its regional neighbours with antagonistic public sentiment triggered by opposition-led demands that the monuments be removed.
Meanwhile, the wave of vandalism continued. The head of Sri Lanka’s lion statue monument was decapitated, and police were deployed to provide protect the surviving structures.
A month after it was unveiled Nepal’s monument, a metal plaque with a coat of arms resembling the country’s national symbol, was stolen during a police shift change.
“We regret what has happened,” Addu City Mayor Abdullah Sodig told Minivan News following the theft of the Nepalese monument. “It was not a religious monument. There is some political motive behind this theft,” he emphasised, citing “opposition party members” as likely suspects.
Islamic Minister Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari subsequently requested that government authorities remove the SAARC monuments that conflicted with Islam, although he did not specify which.
State Minister for Islamic Affairs, Sheikh Hussein Rasheed, was more muted, telling Minivan News that he did not believe that the monuments contradicted Islam.
“The Pakistan monument showed how Pakistan became an Islamic country from its Buddhist origins,’’ he said, but added: ‘’Although the monument does not contradict Islam, it should not be kept there if Maldivian citizens do not want it to be there.’’
Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair observed at the time that taking down the monuments would diplomatically be very difficult for the government, “especially where it was handed to us by another Islamic country.”
Removal of the contentious monuments was one of the five demands of the December 23 protesters, who also demanded that the government apologise for a statement to parliament by UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay concerning a moratorium on flogging for extra-maritial sex.
Today, Addu City Councillor Hilmee said the council had sent a letter to the Foreign Ministry requesting that it inform SAARC member countries that it was taking the monuments down.
Deputy Sri Lankan High Commissioner Shaanthi Sudusinghe said the Sri Lankan government had not yet been informed of any decision.
“We have requested that if [the government] is unable to preserve the monument that they hand it over to us,” she said.