‘Democracy, freedom, human rights have come to have a definite meaning to the people of the world which we must not allow any nation to so change that they are made synonymous with suppression and dictatorship.’ Eleanor Roosevelt, September 28, 1948.
The Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin allegedly said that ‘The death of a man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic.”
Although this may be attributed to his lack of humanity, it also makes a salient point about the nature of 20th century dictatorships. Like Pol Pot and Mao Zedong, Stalin belonged to an exclusive group of dictators who wielded enormous power and exterminated millions of people who stood in their way.
Although Gayoom’s dictatorship in the Maldives was never in the same league, the political constructs were the same: the monopoly of the press, iron-fisted control of the judicial system, one party rule and the torture of political opponents as a tactic to stay in control.
However, in the late 1970s, just as Gayoom was beginning to spread his tentacles of power in the Maldives, globally, the tide began to turn in favour of democratic ideals. The fundamental concepts of life, liberty, justice, equality and the notion of the common good made a come-back. Concurrently, the word ‘dictator’ which was synonymous with absolute power and authority, became a term of ridicule, of derision, signalling an appalling inability to change with changing times.
But have dictatorships, like the famous parrot immortalised by Monty Python, ceased to be, expired and gone to meet their maker and become bereft of life? Have they kicked the bucket, run down the curtain and gone to join the bleeding choir invisible?
There are two realities that people of liberal persuasion must grasp. Firstly, despite the Arab Spring and strong forward movements by democratic ideals, conservatism as a trend has re-asserted itself. The Empire has struck back, nurturing the same ideology but armed with a different set of tools. It has reinvented itself and like a chameleon, reappeared in a different guise; one that is more in tune with the 21st century political landscape.
Secondly, and most importantly, democracy is worth fighting for. Its defining characteristics of justice, inclusiveness and equality are universal values that give dignity to human life. Despite the slow encroachment of conservative and elitist ideologies, democracy is not finished, it is close at hand and its worth demands our sacrifice.
But beware! Today’s dictator is not in a uniform covered in gold-plated medals; nor is he an object of ridicule generating derisive laughter. He is well spoken, cosmopolitan and media savvy. His CV and certificates on the wall may indicate strong academic connections that validate his claim to good governance and commitment to progressive ideals. He is Putin of Russia. He is Mohamed Morsi of Egypt. He is Mohammed Waheed Hassan of the Maldives. They are the new face of dictatorships in the 21st century.
Shimon Peres, one of the recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 said, “Today, if you are looking for a safe job, don’t become a dictator.” The world has become less forgiving of human rights abuse, torture and mass killings. Dictators not only have to show restraint in their own personal inclinations and hide their draconian political agendas, but they also have to dress their actions in a different style. Thus the art of equivocation has been perfected by modern dictators. They understand that excessive violence in the tradition of Tiananmen Square is no longer possible, but they still relentlessly punish their opponents. They stand behind what seems a set of progressive laws, but they are masters of the selective application of these.
Waheed’s government in the Maldives provides an almost text-book study of this type of dictatorship; its creative double-talk masking its overwhelming cruelty and desperate grasping for control.
His search for legitimacy and global recognition came early. One of his first political engagements was to write to heads of states to explain why he was forced to take over power. He proactively set the scene: here was a man of reason, who could articulate his noble intentions in rational and practical terms; here was a man who could be trusted to work with the international body. However, almost simultaneously, on his home-turf, the members of his police and the armed forces, who helped to place him in the presidency, were executing a reign of terror, previously unseen in the Maldives.
According to a reply written to Waheed’s letter by Mike Mason, the Energy adviser to President Nasheed, Waheed is ‘committed to Maldives and Democracy.’ But Mason fails to distinguish between a simplistic, self-indulgent, self-deluding belief in democracy on the one hand and the physical responses and actions which totally destroy democracy on the other hand. Mason simply underlines what many of us know – Waheed is a superficial individual who lacks the intelligence to see beyond his rhetoric. He has never demonstrated his commitments to democratic principles.
Proof of this can be seen in his rewarding the armed forces with resort islands, promoting and increasing their salaries as opposed to bringing to justice the police and defence force members who brutally attacked innocent Maldivians and vandalised public property. The proposed budget for 2013 would see an increase of the defence spending by 14 percent. Instead of promoting democracy he is paving the way to a military dictatorship. All signs indicate that such a fate is not far.
Meanwhile, the IMF mission, in November this year spoke of ‘a ballooning fiscal deficit’ the effects of which are felt by the average Maldivians who are struggling, not simply because of the global economic recession, but due to the moribund economy based on the debilitating corruption and nepotism condoned by the Waheed, Gayoom, Military consortium. In doing so he is destroying meritocracy, the civil service, the level playing field and the acceptance of differences that exist in a true democracy.
Waheed speaks of Maldives as ‘a damn good democracy’, yet he has denied the people their call for an early election, disregarding the advice by international bodies such as the EU and the Commonwealth to do so. There are increasing allegations by MPs that his government’s bullying tactics are creating a ‘climate of fear’ in the People’s Majlis.
Ostensibly he stands for tolerance, yet his bedfellows and support base include the Salafists. The country is fast sliding into a fundamentalist nightmare where an Adhaalath ( The Islamist party) aligned MP has recently gone so far as to call for one of his opponents to be ‘hanged to death’. Journalist and writer, Azra Naseem, points out that in ‘a damned good democracy’ the president describes his Islamist supporters as ‘Mujaheddin, fighting a Holy War.” All these add to the climate of intolerance, hatred and escalating violence.
New age dictators like Waheed claim to stand for law and justice. The Maldives for instance, has a constitution. But the new dictator of the 21st century is adept in the selective application of this justice. Putin for example uses his fire and health regulations to close down opposition radio stations and newspapers. But the same rules are not applied to his supporters. In the Maldives also, justice is used to destroy opponents; and this together with the failure to bring to justice more urgent cases that need addressing, creates a tangible state of injustice.
Waheed’s main focus is to prevent the former president, Mohamed Nasheed, from participating in the next elections. Meanwhile the immensely corrupt judicial system and the Chief Judge of the Criminal Court, Judge Abdulla Mohamed continue to high-jack any efforts to make progress in this all important sector of the state.
Like the dictators of the past, Waheed continues to use propaganda to white-wash the actions of his government and its supporters. However, the style today is more subtle. The regime’s narrative is disseminated in a two- pronged programme. The first and the most expensive, and possibly the least effective, has been the employment of the Ruder Finn PR company at a cost of US$150,000 a month. Fortunately for the seekers of truth, the contract was terminated in November this year: it is not clear whether the bankrupt Maldivian government ran out of money to fund this type of expensive hobbies, or that the company came to the inevitable conclusion that some clients are just too toxic for it to be associated with.
The second, and the most direct, has been the narrative constructed by the regime: the building of metaphors, the framing of issues and the controlling of the political dialogue that help their cause. Here MDP is depicted as an aggregate of drug taking, alcohol swilling people who lack any respectability. Nasheed is attacked personally and presented as a cynical opportunist who uses the democratic platform to get to power for personal gain. We have to ask why?
Is this because they have no other way of attacking Nasheed? Could it be that his actions, unlike the words of the dictator, speak louder? During the three short years under MDP, a comprehensive system of old age pension was introduced and access to health care for all Maldivians improved. For the first time, the outlying islands began to get the recognition and support they deserve. There was development in infrastructure. Travel between the islands was upgraded with a more efficient transport network and the fiscal deficit, the legacy of neglect of Gayoom’s regime, was attended to. In 2010 IMF reported that ‘the government of Maldives has put together and is implementing a set of essential fiscal adjustment measures’, but in April 2012 under Waheed, it raised “grave concerns for the Maldives economy.”
It is not surprising that in the recent by-election in Raa Atoll, a regime stronghold, MDP support shot up by 120 percent. It is obvious that they cannot attack the actions of their opponents, so they are reduced to attacking the people involved.
Waheed’s political vicissitude does nothing to inspire confidence, either in his own people or in international stake-holders. Some see his failure as a result of the hand he was dealt with, which was “almost impossible to play.” Others question his intelligence; the type of intelligence that functions when cocooned in an ivory tower, is different to that which is required in running a state. Some comment on his poor work ethic or his inability to commit to any one objective. Perhaps there are elements of truth in all these, but the defining weakness is in his ideological stand.
Dictators may appear to have made a come-back. But within their success in reinventing themselves, and gaining support though the dangerous game of deception, lie the seeds of their own destruction. A dictatorship is a dictatorship, however it is packaged.
Abraham Lincoln was believed to have said, “You can fool some of the people all of the times, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”
The new-age dictator cannot have it both ways. Despite ‘candid’ letters and high sounding rhetoric, a dictatorship is not a democracy and we must never let ambitious despots use democratic jargon to gain legitimacy.
The passage of time has become the greatest witness to Waheed’s failure. Nine months has elapsed since the coup and the political and social landscape is littered by the fall-out of his inability to lead. Violence has escalated, government influence of the media has increased and Islamic fundamentalism has been allowed to grow into a forceful political power. Even Waheed has been forced to admit that “everybody runs the state as they please.”
Personal freedoms have declined as has the standard of living of the majority of Maldivians. The state is bankrupt and the government’s financial and political supporters cannot seem to grasp the simple fact that the Maldives is a vulnerable, small state that needs the goodwill of its neighbours.
Crucially in this political wilderness, the police and the armed forces have been permitted to do as they please. Time has shown that Waheed’s brand of dictatorship is not working. This begs the question: will he move up to the next level of dictatorship and use more force or, while he is procrastinating and thinking of the appropriate rhetoric, will the police and the armed forces take the initiative and establish themselves as a military government? Sadly, none of these impending eventualities are in the best interest of the people of the Maldives. But, these are the only two alternatives for Waheed’s government.
There is room for optimism, however. The greatest danger to dictators has never been the well-meaning bureaucrats hidden behind glass windows of high rise buildings. The most feared opposition to injustice and authoritarian rule has always been the ordinary people. Democracy, as an ideology is global. Its strengths are firmly embedded in universal and timeless ethical values. It is not simply a convenient aphorism to claim that human progress towards its full potential has little to do with technology and materialism but has everything to do with the way we learn to treat each other. Democracy is a potent force that will not be beaten. As Victor Hugo said, “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.”
As the world slides down to economic recession, the opposing forces of democracy and dictatorship are equally balanced globally as they are in the Maldives. The traditional caretakers of democracy, America, Europe and the Commonwealth, are focused largely on the internal, economic problems of their respective nations. It would appear that the coast is clear for men who lust for absolute power, to seize the moment.
However, paradoxically, economic hard-times can also make the self- interest of dictators and the lifestyles of their elitist friends stand out in stark contrast to the poverty and the struggle of the ordinary man on the street. The masses, no longer kept distracted by ‘bread and circus.’ can rise again.
Nothing is as powerful as the will of the people.
All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]minivannews.com