Demonstrators against the government’s new regulations governing the sale of alcohol on inhabited islands held the first of many planned protests on Friday afternoon.
The protest had been planned for the artificial beach area but was moved to the open space near the tsunami monument due to the Red Bull Street Style football stunt event.
Stallholders along the park estimated the crowd numbered 2000, while newspaper Haveeru reported that it reached 3000-5000.
Spokesman for the NGO coalition against the new alcohol regulations, Mauroof Zakir, said the protesters reached a peak of 5000.
“It was lucky we moved it to the tsunami monument, because we weren’t expecting so many people,” he said.
Many of the men present wore white while women were dressed in black to show their support for the fight against the new regulations, he said.
State Minister for Islamic Affairs and Adhaalath party spokesman Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed, one of the leaders of the protest, said he would resign his post in the ministry along with other senior people if the government approved the regulation.
Sheikh Ilyas Hussain also spoke to the protesters, warning that the former government had been changed because it had “walked in the wrong path”.
If the new government also chose the wrong path, he warned, “we might have to work to change the government.”
Zakir reported that the organisers derailed an attempt by a speaker from the People’s Alliance (PA) to politicise the issue by removing the microphone from him.
“There were a lot of MDP activists there,” he said. “Adhaalath is not against the government, we’re just asking the president to remove the regulation.”
He said that yesterday’s protest was “just the beginning”, and that even larger demonstrations would continue if the regulation was approved.
The protest ended for Maghrib prayers at 6pm after a recitation of a ‘dhua’ by Sheikh Ilyas.
The government currently appears to be gauging public sentiment on the issue. The Ministry of Economic Development announced the new regulations would come into effect on 1 March, but the president’s office has responded that they would only apply once gazetted. Late last week President Mohamed Nasheed was reported to be seeking religious advice over the issue.
Meanwhile, security has been stepped up across the city particularly outside the president’s residence and the Holiday Inn, one of the hotels reported to be seeking a liquor license under the new regulations.
The issue has sparked vigorous debate about the country’s relationship with alcohol. Under Islam the use, handling and sale of alcohol are considered ‘haram’ to Muslims, and Article 10(b) of the Maldives’ Constitution states that ‘no law contrary to any tenet of Islam shall be enacted in the Maldives.’
However the country depends heavily on tourism for its economy, particularly resorts which profit from the sale of alcohol. Thus far the resorts have been separated from the definition of an ‘inhabited island’, however the Ministry of Economic development has argued the sale of alcohol to foreigners in these areas is essential to create an environment “conducive to foreign investment”.
Among those opposed to the regulation, the debate has split between those who believe the Maldives should move away from its reliance on an industry that profits from the sale of alcohol, and those who believe a compromise is possible while retaining the country’s national identity.
Minivan News will continue to cover the issue as it unfolds this week, speaking with the key players on both sides of the issue.
Images provided by Maapu