The type of government that a nation consents to has a profound influence on its people and their quality of life. In the writings of early historians, Maldivians were depicted as “a most gentle people.”
Less than forty years ago, when a tourist visiting Male killed his girl-friend, practically the whole population of the island stopped their work and went to pay their respects. People were genuinely moved with sympathy for a victim of violence. “We were in deep shock. We were stunned really,” one man recalled.
How things have changed.
A single day’s headlines now expose the darker reality of this ‘Sunny Side of Life.’ A sixteen year old boy is murdered in a public park while law enforcement agents are busy arresting people for the crime of being “in possession of a cursed chicken.” A 65 year-old man is killed for his meagre pension money.
Meanwhile, the police pepper spray, beat and arrest people with impunity and young children are given guns to hold and admire as a tactic to enhance the profile of the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF).
Yes, change is inevitable. However, it is important to ask why such a fundamental change has occurred in the psyche of the whole nation in a 30 year time-frame. There might be many contributing factors but one of them stands out.
The style of governance under Gayoom’s regime affected the attitude of the whole nation. The violence, torture and lack of regard for other people’s dignity that characterises his regime, is unfortunately colouring the mind-set of ordinary citizens. The recent shameful episode of three policemen and an MNDF officer robbing expatriate workers makes sense in this dog-eat-dog society which is frighteningly becoming our reality. And why not? When ‘the best and the brightest’ of a country usurp power by pillage and brute force, the masses have no reason not to emulate their example. Exposure to violence desensitises us and reduces our sense of humanity.
There are a plethora of practical and philosophical reasons why the Maldives should embrace democracy at this stage of its development. One outstanding reason is the failure of the ‘Unity’ government that has emerged following the coup, which is neither a united nor a legitimate government. It is a loosely held conglomerate of ambitious individuals vying for power. The last thing on their minds is the well-being of the citizens. The sudden increase of police numbers, promotions and bonuses, in a period of economic recession, is testimony to the fact that the limited resources of the country are being squandered for the self-serving obsession of holding on to power.
Journalists, politicians and individual citizens discuss the execution of the coup that brought this regime back to power. While there is no doubt that a coup took place, and a legitimate, democratically-elected government overthrown, it is simply too generous to accept that a successful coup has been executed. A coup is not simply the acquisition of power. It also entails the maintenance of power by providing a functioning system of governance that would enable the usurpers to achieve legitimacy, at least through longevity.
What is obvious now is that the coup was a botch-up of gigantic proportions. The perpetrators of the coup underestimated the resilience of the people, ignored the determination of the MDP and assumed that Nasheed would walk away quietly and the rest of the population would return, sheep-like, to the conditions prior to the 2008 elections. However, three years of freedom from police persecution and terror has prompted a paradigm shift in the psyche of the nation. The coup government is struggling and is in a state of limbo. Their recent dealings with political activist and lawyer Mariya Didi and Chief Superintendent MC Hameed, Head of Intelligence of the Maldivian Police Service (MPS), have demonstrated the inadequacies of the regime in dealing with people who cannot be frightened into submission.
The regime has also made it clear to the general public that they are not capable of anything other than knee-jerk reactions. Meanwhile the people suffer as they watch the drama unfold and the numbers of political detainees continue to increase.
This failure to consolidate power is partly because autocracy of any form is an anachronism in the 21st century. Traditional respect for authority and the unquestioning subservience of citizens to those in power are fast disappearing. This is an age of social media and instant dissemination of information. Syria, Egypt and Libya provide clear evidence of how autocratic governments all over the world have been under increasing pressure. The type of Machiavellian political philosophy that advocates the suspension of common-place ethics from politics is out-dated and irrelevant in the 21st century, as is the Hobbesian interpretation of the social contract that people should submit to the authority of an absolute sovereign power.
Yet, these ideas form the political creed of the current regime in the Maldives; a cynical, out-dated creed that ignores the human potential for growth, both morally and intellectually. Thus, all autocratic governments, as the one that the old dictator has ‘gifted’ to the Maldives for a second time, are preoccupied with the business of propaganda, creating their own versions of the truth in an increasingly information-rich world.
Ruder Finn, the PR company employed by the regime to sanitise their record of human rights abuse, is not a new phenomenon, but the effectiveness of this huge monetary investment in disinformation, remains to be seen. Dr Hassan Saeed may indeed be destined forever to keep ‘applying lipstick to hideous pigs,’ as Yameen Rasheed so aptly puts it. However, the regime would be ill-advised to believe that the rest of the animals on the farm are impressed by the propaganda of Snowball and Napoleon.
It is generally agreed that the stability of a government is directly related to the economic well-being of a nation. What is less well understood is the fundamental human need for justice, order, goodness, and unity. In his hierarchy of needs for self-actualisation, Abraham Maslow defines these as ‘Meta-needs’, crucial qualities that help people to develop to their potential.
Where is justice when power is acquired and sustained by force? Where is order when the roads are filled with disenfranchised protesters and thousands are demanding that their right to vote be taken seriously? It is laughable to expect the nation to be united when the ruling hierarchy itself is divided by their personal agendas and are incapable of investing energy in the well-being of the people. The previous democratic government was much maligned for detaining a judge who was regarded as corrupt and morally questionable. While this may have been ‘impolitic’ in the cut-throat business of staying in power, it is a refreshing sign that the people’s government had the moral fibre to act decisively in a question of right and wrong, rather than be intimidated by political expediency.
But why democracy?
Winston Churchill’s words that “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried” have often been used as an apology for democracy. It seems to suggest that democracy is the best of a bad lot and we may as well make do with it because nothing else works any better. But modern research and experience seem to suggest otherwise. ‘The Spirit Level’ written by researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett is based on a variety of cross- country comparisons. They argue that greater equality does not only produce better outcomes for the poor.
“Equality,” they point out, “is better for everyone,” including the rich and the elite of the society. Their well-evidenced thesis shows that unequal societies suffer from more insecurity and status-related fears, which permeate through the whole society, destroying the positive influences of community living and lowering the spirit of the poor and the rich alike.
Although it is simplistic to assume that democracy provides a totally equal society, empowering the people of the country to decide the direction of their government and its policies are crucial pre-requisites for a healthy and inclusive society. The good health of a society is of huge benefit even for the rich as it provides a stable, educated and flexible workforce capable of keeping up with the demands of a constantly changing world.
Thomas Paine, in his treatise Rights of Man points out that representative democracy is the most inclusive and the fairest form of government. Three centuries later, this claim still holds good. Democracy opens the door for the utilisation of everyone’s energy, ideas, creativity and intelligence for the well-being of the whole population. Conversely, the raison d’etre of any autocratic government, as with the regime currently in power in the Maldives, is the preservation of their own privilege and exclusivity.
It is not a historical accident that the democratic movement, especially since the coup, has resonated strongly with the combined voices of women and the youth of the nation. Any successful society in the 21st century must address the needs of these two powerful, but traditionally over-looked groups. Islamic fundamentalism has been legitimised in the Maldives by the coup of February 7 which saw the regime’s cynical manipulation of a small group of radicals to overthrow the democratic government. The inclusive nature of democracy is also the only response to the mindless, patriarchal and antiquated agendas of these individuals who consolidate power and maintain their own personal self-esteem through the subjugation of such groups as women and youth.
As a form of governance, democracy has the added advantage of allowing a safe and disciplined transfer of power. Autocratic rulers, who invariably need to abuse basic human rights to stifle opposition and to stay in power, inevitably carry with them increasing political baggage. Just as with Gaddafi in Libya, Assad in Syria provides a contemporary example of an autocratic ruler who has little to gain but much to lose by relenting to the demands of those who see that his days are numbered. The only option open for him is to fight to the bitter end.
The fact that Gayoom has initiated a court case against an 82 year-old Maldivian historian who claimed that there were 111 custodial deaths in the 30 years of Gayoom’s rule is a timely reminder of how insecure autocratic rulers feel as they come to the twilight years of their political careers. The costs of this predictable path of action are staggering in human, social and economic terms; not just for the perpetrator of the crimes, but for the nation as a whole. Democracy, where the head of a government is decided by the consent of the majority of the people, is the only way of avoiding such a political quagmire.
Ultimately, however, it is a question of governance. In this context governance describes the methods a government use to ensure that citizens follow its processes and regulations. Good governance, like good parenting, is not simply a set of rules to achieve compliance through fear and punishment. Good governance is underpinned by a strong set of moral and social imperatives. It relies heavily on a series of ethical and social requirements such as justice and a shared vision by all its constituents. As abusive and violent parents enslave their children in a vicious cycle of similar behaviour, oligarchic systems of governance which portray that ‘might is right’, have a hugely negative and vicious impact on the citizenry.
Just as thirty years of life under Gayoom saw an increasing number of Maldivians lose their innate sense of fairness and compassion, Waheed’s recent sanctifying of the MNDF has ramifications for the type of society we live in and will continue to live in.
What the country needs is healing, justice and the voices of its populace to be heard. What is on offer is more imprisonment, more thuggery and more money being wasted in white-washing these actions. For many people, including large segments of the police force, MNDF and ordinary citizens, there is something extremely obscene in the disparity between what the country needs and the oppressive responses of the regime.
Maldivians have the courage and maturity to take risks and grow as a nation. The only way forward now is through an early, democratic election, before the powerful tentacles of autocracy reduce the country into another abyss of hopelessness, as it did for thirty years under Gayoom. History does not have to repeat itself.
Democracy is premised on the understanding that human dignity is an inherent right. But with the exception of a short period of three years under a fledgling democracy, generations of Maldivians have grown up and grown old with the belief that life is an inevitable submission to force, brutality and loss of dignity. Violence begets violence. It is an insidious force which destroys the very foundation of nationhood: justice, trust and compassion. To live wisely, the nation must attend to the welfare of all its citizens, not just a privileged few. The rule of the few must end. Government should be of the people. It should be by the people. And most importantly, it should be for the people.
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