Chaandhanee Magu is normally one of the busiest streets of Male’, the tourism hub of one of the world’s smallest and most congested capital cities.
Yet at 11:30pm on the night of Saturday July 14, an eerie silence fell on the street, save for the distant, tinny, looped sounds of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party’s (MDP) protest anthem “Chis Chis Kolliyas”, and the synchronised thumping of police shields hitting tarmac.
The protests, or “MDP mayhem” as they have been reported in some local media outlets, reflect seven consecutive days of anti-government demonstrations by opposition party supporters.
Amidst widespread allegations in both local and international media of police brutality, attacks by protesters on police and reporters, and numerous arrests – as midnight approached yesterday, the demonstrations – much like the country’s wider political landscape – were at a stand-off.
According to provisional police reports, nine people were arrested during the night’s protests. Two of those arrested have already been released. Police Spokesperson Sub-Inspector Hassan Haneef confirmed that one officer had sustained a minor injury during clashes, but insisted that there had been no use of hoses or rubber bullets. Demonstrators have meanwhile complained of the arbitrary use of pepper spray and mistreatment of female protesters by security services.
For the anti-government protesters and police gathered at either end of Chaandhanee Magu last night, the street represents the current front line of political dissatisfaction that has followed the controversial transfer of power in February.
Chaandhanee Magu, usually a gauntlet of brightly coloured souvenir shops for tourist and resort visitors to traverse, was last night lined by members of the press and photographers, all waiting for an escalation in clashes between the two sides.
For a brief period leading up to midnight, almost a dozen or so police officers stood back from the barriers in an apparently restrained and hands-off approach. Meanwhile, anti-government figures standing behind the temporary barricades tried themselves to bring a sense of order to the mocking chants and heckling of the country’s security forces.
Despite the ongoing tension and traces of pepper spray in the air, the atmosphere verged between noisy and almost playful to sudden bouts of cat and mouse baiting of police by anti-government figures in the crowd.
Later that evening, when the semblance of self-enforced order broke down into the sporadic confrontations that have been the hallmark of the week’s protests, a handful of protesters were quick to have their say to foreign-looking media as they made their way past barriers set up by police.
“They are a coup government. This is a coup police,” said an animated middle-aged man making his way down towards police stationed at the junction of Republican Square down from Chaandhanee Magu. “We are completely unarmed here.”
Unarmed in a conventional way, perhaps. Throughout the evening Minivan News observed isolated cases of small bottles filled with water and shoes being thrown from the crowd at officers. On one occasion, a sandal narrowly missed several journalists clustered behind the barriers.
Either in playful defiance, or an attempt at provocation, some protesters in between chanting and singing were seen kicking over and hauling away temporary barriers, before security forces responded by entering the crowd to return the symbolic if ineffective structures.
The occasional charges by police into the crowd lead to chaos, with demonstrators screaming and photographers sometimes being caught in the fray as officers sought to breach the protest lines. During one such charge, a handful of protesters were taken behind police lines, the barriers were replaced, and the songs and chanting then continued as if nothing had happened.
Despite a willingness among some protesters to remove the barriers, other figures in the crowd appealed for caution, calling for order on the opposition’s front lines.
A local man dressed as an “alternative” police chief, decked out in his own bespoke yellow uniform, issued orders to the crowd over a megaphone, mocking police whilst chastising one protester for attempting to kick over a barrier.
Among the throng of younger and middle-aged protesters is Naeema, a mature yet highly-animated protester in her sixties wearing a cowboy hat, who surged past the barricades brandishing an MDP flag and shouting at police, to the mirth of the gathered crowd.
Several figures from the former government at points arrived to survey the scene, but the biggest reception at the barricades is for the country’s former President Mohamed Nasheed – now leader of the political opposition.
At the stroke of midnight Nasheed, who was reportedly pepper sprayed earlier in the evening after police attempted to drive back the gathered crowds, returned to the protest, creating a swell of excitement and applause from his supporters.
In an act of either statesmanly defiance – or perhaps awareness of calls from senior government politicians for his arrest – the former president stood silently just behind the barriers set up by police, as supporters attempt to incite a response.
“You can see how he energises the crowd I think,” observed a a young woman upon Nasheed’s arrival at the barriers.
As the “excitement” led to temporary barriers again pushed away back into the crowd, protesters began to push forward down Chaandhanee Magu towards the gathered police forces further down the road.
Nasheed nonetheless remained behind the metaphorical police banner, aware of the potential for arrest – a line, politically, he seems unwilling to cross.
With Republican Square part of a so-called “Green Zone” due to its close proximity to politically sensitive areas of the capital – including the President’s Office and military headquarters – stationed officers carried plastic shields that were used to push the gathered crowd back down Chaandhanee Magu.
As the crows increased, the dozen or so police on duty bolstered their numbers in order to drive back and split protesters at the junction. At the same time, military forces were seen preparing a water hose to disperse protesters – a measure not used that night.
With more riot police, the crowd was forced back along Chaandhanee Magu, Fareedhee Magu and Medhuziyaaraiy Magu by shield-carrying officers to a cacophony of howls and screams.
The government today released a statement condemning “acts of violence carried out by opposition activists”.
According to the President’s Office, party activists led by former President Nasheed were charged with continuing to “harass” government officials and law enforcement officers.
“Similarly in the early hours of July 12 2012, MDP activists torched a newly built police station in Noonu Atoll Holhudhoo. A number of journalists have been injured by activists, including a television presenter from private broadcaster DhiTV,” the statement read.
President Mohamed Waheed Hassan said that efforts were underway to restore “restore peace and calm” to the Maldives.
“Those responsible for these cowardly acts will be brought to justice. We urge the leadership of the MDP to call an end to these violent acts being carried out by their activists and participate in resolving disagreements through the correct mechanisms,” the President said.
The MDP meanwhile moved to condemn what it alleged was the “targeted intimidation of women protesters” by the government, amidst what it claimed were “five months of ongoing peaceful protests”.
The party, issuing an official statement, pointed to a number of arrests of prominent female party activists, including the MDP Youth Wing President Aminath Shauna this weekend, as proof of efforts by the government to deny the rights of protesters in the country.
“The MDP have previously highlighted and expressed concern over the current regime’s steps to narrow constitutional rights through their representatives in the legislature, and through collusion with a judiciary which is far from independent,” the party claimed in a statement.
MDP MP and spokesperson Hamid Abdul Ghafoor said the authorities practised a skewed justice.
“Not one single police officer has been charged or prosecuted in connection with the widespread police brutality in the country since Feb 7 [this year],” he said. “Over 700 protesters have been arbitrarily detained, and many of them tortured and sexually abused.”
As allegation and counter allegations continue to pass between the country’s two opposing forces, by 3:00pm this afternoon barricades were again being set up by security forces across the “Green Zone”.
Traffic meanwhile continued to pass by Chaandhanee Magu. Come tonight, the barriers will no doubt be back, as will the songs and chanting – all as if nothing has happened.