Comment: Toothless Civil Society

When a people’s liberties are suspended whenever there is an emergency, there is a word for that: dictatorship. There is a line between democracy and dictatorship – and over the course of the last week we came dangerously close to stepping over it.

Not necessarily because of the President’s actions, the incarcerations, or the now common place parliamentary upheaval, but because those who should have spoken out remained silent.

Yes, you in the civil society need to raise your voices. Raise your voices to demand explanations, protest abuses, and safeguard the right to criticise a sitting government.

Instead of raised voices, however, we have only heard silence. And this started from the moment this affair began. The President’s office holds a press conference where the entire cabinet resigns, the President asserts his supreme authority to find justice, and what does the media say? Do they question the legitimacy of the action? Do they ask what this will mean for the peace in this nation? Or even whether the government expects demonstrations in retaliation and how the President (now the only civilian authority over the police and army) will respond?

No. They stay silent. Well, practically silent. The hardest hitting question was “does this mean your government is a failure?”

Really? Good job guys.

But who can blame the fledgling media groups in this nation. Unaccustomed to true democracy, they are not the ones who are directly tasked with protecting and asserting our democratic rights and ensuring this transition from autocracy to democracy actually works out. Who does this benevolent task fall to?

Civil Society

Organisations such as Transparency International, Democracy House, Open Society Association, and the newly renamed Maldivian Democracy Network all claim to safe guard democracy.

To work for its betterment – and yet civil society remained silent. Even Jamiyathul Salaf, who seem to have religious edicts about everything, stayed silent.

We have seen allegations of corruption first leveled by the executive branch against the legislative branch and then visa versa. We have not only seen wire-tapping where private conversations were recorded without warrants and outside of due process, but also seen them leaked to the public, indicating that civilian/partisan individuals had access to them.

We are witnessing a power struggle between executive and legislative branches with neither side realizing that they are both part of one government. And we see a judiciary that is caught in the middle and being accused of being susceptible to political influence.

We see the army working side by side with the police in the capital, outside of their mandate. We see all the things that would be any democracy fighter’s dream. The perfect excuse for a civil society group to put their two cents in, allowing them to claim they are meeting their own mandates. But instead we have silence and even some amount of fear.

The Fray

Civil society seems to be afraid of jumping into the fray. Of being labeled as being inclined towards one political party or another. Instead they give no comment and it is not hard for one to come up with excuses for why they should not comment at all.

Firstly, everyone must realise that this is a highly charged political atmosphere where any statement at all will be seen as aligning with one group or another.

Secondly, no formal charges have been brought against the three Members of Parliament (MPs) who have been detained. Instead, all that we have seen is allegations being flung about – none of which are easy to comment on.

And finally the questions: can’t there be levels to democracy? Where we move gradually towards it? After all, have any laws actually been broken?

The Other Side

The argument could be made however, that one cannot wait to evaluate. That civil society organizations are supposed to have principles and ideals that they adhere to above all others. And unlike political parties who can take time to organize, reflect, and adjust their values – civil society act on the basis of whether their values have been violated or not.

Does the MNDF’s involvement in everything that transpired adhere to their values? Was it okay for the MNDF to send a letter explaining why MPs could not go to Parliament in clear violation of their constitutional rights?

Was there any risk assessment that was done? And is there any level of alertness that we should be on? Do they have any questions about people’s conversations being tapped? Who else is being targeted? How does this feud between the executive and legislative affect the people? And who is responsible for failed policies?

My point is not that the executive branch has acted inappropriately, but rather that they have not been sufficiently grilled by the right people. My point is that civil society is an important part of our democratic transition, and right now they are slacking off.

I’m sure the government could post adequate answers to the questions posed, but my point is that the questions need to be asked in the first place from the right actors.

One Government

And it is also about more than just the executive branch. The civil society is responsible for explaining and helping us to define our government’s role. They are also responsible for reminding us that both legislative and executive branches are part of one government and that the failure of one aspect will make all of it fail.

We are in desperate need of this reminding. I walked out onto my balcony day before yesterday to watch protesters with underwear on their heads, supporting the arrest of our Deputy Speaker of Parliament – Ahmed Nazim.

These are protests that the nation believes is sanctioned by the executive branch. And they had underwear on their heads.

Forget the man for a second, and realize that Nazim is the Deputy Speaker of Parliament. He is third in the line of succession for the Presidency. And while it would be a black mark on our country’s record to have him in this position if he is in fact guilty of all that is accused of him, we cannot assume guilt. We cannot disrespect the office the people of this nation gave him. And we cannot forgo all measures of dignity and justice.

We are one government and should all be held accountable. And you, civil society, need to step up your game and live up to your values. Democracy’s survival is in your hands, and if it fails you will share the blame.

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]


27 thoughts on “Comment: Toothless Civil Society”

  1. This is why I feel that Maldives do not deserve this kind of democracy. We are not yet ready to embrace this kind of freedom. We have come out of a total autocratic period and now we are not sure how we can make use of democracy.

  2. Well, we are an infant democracy. And you will find all signs and symptoms of it. So if civil society was silent it was only because we are learning.

    Whatever may be the outcome of the present political situation, democracy is here to stay. Because once democracy is introduced, and once people enjoy the freedom it brings with it, it will be hard to revert back to a dictatorship. We may not have seen a long period of such freedom yet, but because we have been introduced to it, people have got the chance to taste what it may be like. Now people know that people do have power.

    You can see this in the protests and strikes that occur occasionally even in the most unlike of the islands for the most stupid of reasons. So to revert back to an autocratic rule will require not just brutal force, but also bloodshed. And I don't think any leader would like to see that, if not out of love for the people, out of love for himself!

    What stands out in your article for me is the following sentence: “We are one government and should all be held accountable.” This is a bit chilling statement for me. It wouldn’t have surprised me had this come from the opposition. Whether there is something for which the government should be held accountable or not, I find this a bit harsh. May be I have not understood what you meant!

    Nazim may be the Deputy Speaker of the Parliament. But, so what. If there are allegations against Nazim that are worrying for the government, it requires attention. And if the matter needs to be investigated, who else but the government will do it? I see no reason to not investigate IF these allegations are realistic. Remember, no man is above the law.

    If you think the head gear of the protesters is an issue … I think this is also one of those symptoms of an infant democracy. You cannot dictate the dress code for the protesters!

  3. Campainging civil society groups are a toothless waste of time in Maldives. On all the big issues of the day, religious fundamentalism, corruption in the Majlis etc, they are silent.

    The only ngos doing any good work are service delivery ones, like Tiny Hearts of Maldives, who held a great football fundraiser charity match on Friday night.

  4. Our so called Civil Societies are as much corrupted as the MPs.. They are also in some rich persons pocket or affiliated to MDP or DRP and does not usually have a code of ethics.

    NGO are spineless and the are a farce.
    Foreign donors please note.

  5. Salim Waheed, I have read many of your comments on this news site and in fact agree with much of it.

    The issues you have raised here are very valid. Except for the core issue, about civil society bearing the burden of questioning and guiding and what-not in this political crisis we face. What were you thinking when you wrote this comment? You yourself have been somewhat active in an NGO, as far as I am sure of. Why not your organisation? Secondly, you are very aware of the situation of the NGOs in this country. They have since time been used for political advantage which is why the active NGOs today stay as far from the political arena as possible. These organisations work with people already. They guide people on their rights, on what is in the Constitution. THE PEOPLE NEED TO SPEAK OUT TOO! What use is NGOs teaching people all of this if they are simply going to sit and watch, and expect a few NGOs to go radical whenever the executive and legislative start political wars? Politics is not everything. Does this country not have enough political actors, activists and organisations to address political issues?

    Also, how do you know if the civil society is being 'silent' on the issue? I know otherwise. Not being silent does not necessarily mean that everyone should go out on the streets and scream. There are many ways of doing something, and it would be worthwhile you checking it out first.

    The media. It is very much a pillar of civil society, and they are doing a lot on the issue. The thing is they should do a more responsible job of it.

    Take some time to think things through rationally Salim.

  6. The protesters can be regulated when they are being sent out by the PRESIDENT NASHEED. Look at all those political appointees. Look at all those state ministers, ex-ministers, and deputy ministers. Look at all the protests that have happened!! They were all MDP and government employees! Of course it reflects directly on the President Nasheed! It is a direct statement made by the President, and when HIS protesters wear jangiyas on their heads it is as if the PRESIDENT is wearing a Jangiya on his HEAD! Hahahaha.

  7. Whaddaya mean civil society. Most of them are pseudo Golhaa organizations, and act as fronts and apologists for the political culture of the past. Eg. There was murder in the jails will get a complicated response of how the constitution was different and various other excuses intead of a simple Yes. Civil %$#@#$% Society, indeed!

  8. What a load of crap! The only threat to our democracy is us, the people who back our political parties in a horserace defending the political elites' right to steal from us!

    Then again what chance do we have with 'journalists' choosing to satisfy our whim by pointing out the headgear of protesters.

  9. Jefferey, is it possible that these events could be the teething pains of a democratic project in its infancy?

    The unified opposition wields a parliamentary majority to devastating effect. One that demands actions oustide of what we would normally call due process.

    However, I get the point you've made and having been an active employee in the civil society, I can say with a fair degree of accuracy, that a large section of the civil rights NGOs operating in this country were formed under the umbrella of the MDP-led reform movement and therefore have either unbreakable ties to ruling party or feel that they do.

    Strengthening the civil society is in the best interests of the public, however, with a few notable exceptions, most NGOs found in our country are regarded by their members and the general public as stepping stones to public office. Stones on which there is barely room to stand for more than a split second in most cases.

    I honestly would like to raise the questions whether it would have been possible to initiate a dialogue across party lines in the political climate that existed following the 2008 presidential elections. The MDP, for all of its talk about their manifesto, mainly rose to power on a platform of anti-Maumoonism, while the DRP bases most of their support on allegiance to and admiration of the former autocratic leader. Could senior party officials transcend the natural antagonism that results from such opposing views?

    President Nasheed and the party to which he belongs is executing a plan which would thereby wrest the parliament and the judiciary from the hands of the opposition. How does one reach a suitable middle ground.? In a country with such a tiny population and a strong culture of clan-rule, is it possible for such things as independent institutions to display even a semblence of their namesake independence? A report gathering dust at the AG's office clearly states that the best possible way to ensure the development and effective running of the judiciary would be to appoint a minimum number of foreign judges to the post of Supreme Court justices. Would politicians ever allow the Maldivian people to accept such a move? What does this imply for institutions such as the Human Rights Commission?

  10. I believe whatever that is happening, whether its right or wrong is the best for our future. Why i say this is because this so called corruption is rampant within this small society. And that is not only on one side. It is present on all sides. If we let it run its course we will bleed this country dry with our own hands. Thankfully both will bring this corruption out to light in the course of this political battle. Once its out it cannot be contained and therefore the legislative side will be forced to produce more stringent rules to keep this corruption in check.

    My only hope is that the law will punish everyone who is corrupt.

  11. the present ,the future and the past is all connected.
    today u write freely because freedom fighters(peaceful),mostly of mdp had made sacrifices.some gave up their families,some gave up their lives battling the dictatorship of maumoon and drp.
    a war was fought between right and wrong.
    democracy(MDP)won in 2008.
    today we are just cleaning up the insugents left behind.

  12. There we go again. We are sinking to the failed state level. If there is another apostate there will be such a cry and condemnation! Maldivians have been and are more concerned about peoples private beliefs than what affects general society. PERIOD

  13. valid point salim. but the silence indeed speaks louder than words. why do you think the civil society is so quiet and in hibernation.

  14. ayya. it is indeed very clear that you are not aware of the contributions of the civil society to bring about change in the country in the past few years. to disregard it completely and label them as golhaas is your right in our democracy. because you dont have to prove anything but just shout and blame.

  15. I agree very much with Robin.

    I don't think this is democracy yet..This is a transitional government - people are testing the water here. Unless this government is able to deliver on, we might have to say goodbye to our democratic aspirations for a later time.

    I understand that the civil society lacks the people (numbers) and capacity to do many things - they have only made statements so far - they have not been lobby groups or pressure groups or being part of the opinion formers. Just like the Government, they learning.

    This is only a budding democracy and we want this to be the beacon of hope.

    You are very right to say, the Government has to be questioned, by the right people - not by people like Umar Naseer.

    Because of the silence from truly independent groups, NGOs, academics, opinion formers have been very uneducated, politically motivated crooks (by crooks, I mean both from DRP and MDP - not saying they are all crooks).

    It is really time efficient and capable people also move to the civil society and both the civil society and government begin to work together towards consolidating democracy in the Maldives - they may not agree on everything - but, thats the beauty of a democratic state.

  16. i think rather than blaming the Civil Society why cant the journalist start growing up, this goes to the president too. If he is simply grooming himself for the foreign more civilised white people; than my dear freinds our president has failed to understand 'us' (civil society, more primitive type ). We are Maldivians this is not EUROPE this is MALDIVES, start dealing with us FIRST.


    Underwatre Cabinet meating my A.... s ....s

  17. Oh I agree with all those who leave the country basically because they are too cowardice to bring any change or know how to do anything at all, and after the hard work of many Maldivians including NGOs they have the nerve to come back, employee the relatives of the family, who are not able to deliver any thing to the public and still makes a comment to the NGOs bravo excellent. if you dare why don't you like Nazim disclose your religious status. I guess like many Maldivians you have a mouth too remember the fish looses its life because of its mouth. I hope your reputation stays the same.

  18. i'm so proud of you my son. i wish everyone else understands. then again i have a ph in D.

  19. Dear Jeff! I wish your lazy dad was equally concern or atleast show some concern about Maldivians! All he do at his office and his palace is boost with his friends and with his DRP agent toppy who takes him to the seventh heaven with future presidency!

  20. Salim Waheed - your article raises some interesting points and whilst I agree with your general argument of the importance of civil society as a key pillar of democracy, I disagree with most of what you cite as evidence.

    1) 'Civil society' as a sector is generally defined by not intending to seek political/elected office and not-for-profit (although can generate income for public good). Civil society can also be organisations such as NGOs. However, civil society is also individuals, ie. the general public. So if you wish to critique 'civil society', then I believe you need to do that holistically - sector, organisations and individuals.

    2) For you to allege so publicly (and with so little evidence) that a handful of NGOs are 'silent' or 'slack' without checking out exactly what their past, current and future activities are, is not very fair of you. OSA was defunct once Dr Saeed formed Quamee Party, ie. almost 2 years ago. Transparency, Democracy House and MDN have all contributed quite alot to their respective areas when you consider their limited income and limited staff/volunteers.

    There are many ways to be active and contribute - not just get in front of the media, produce a press release, be part of a street protest. Other ways include building the capacity (slow process though this may be, it is critical) of the general public in matters such as owning the Maldives Constitution, claiming and upholding human rights, participating in democratic practices, being active citizens. It could also include working with other institutions - local and regional - to lobby political actors behind the scenes. All these ways are often not publicised, yet this does not equate to being 'silent' as you claim.

    So...these and other NGOs are supporting the broader public to take action - that is definitely substantive democracy when the average citizen can act, not only the well-educated, privileged Maldives elite which is pretty much what is happening now.

    Also - these 3 and other NGOs have actually been quite actively engaged in looking at how party politics, how the executive powers can be held more accountable and become more effective. I would suggest you speak to them further in-depth. Various NGOs have already planned or mid-way through conducting activities which will assist with the current situation in their own small but important way (again, remembering they have limited resources compared to any aspect of the government or independent commission). However, whether they felt it suitable or useful for them to be 'jump into the fray' (or at least this particular fray) is up to them to decide if this will be helpful or in accordance to their strategy / modus operandi. Also, if you are not happy with certain NGOs, then either register as a member so you can more formally contribute or set up your own NGO. A NGO's mandate is governed by its members, its Board, or both. They are not governed by random individuals. Hence, bagging out and naming certain NGOs is just damaging, rather than a contribution to solutions.

    I think the fact that some people have made the effort during the Gayoom regime to establish NGOs in this difficult period and currently still strive to contribute to their community, is clear evidence that they are the opposite to 'slack' as you so easily describe them.

    3) Finally, I do respect that you have been consistently vocal on a number of issues you are concerned with. Good on you. However, before you judge others and allege they are 'not living up to their values' (ie. you are calling them fake or hypocritical), I would gently suggest that others are not in such a fortunate position as you where they can easily fly out of Maldives with ease, let alone set up life in another country. Alot of people involved in NGOs are volunteers or if paid, get paid not very much. Many of these people have immediate family in Maldives who will probably never leave and who have to partly bear the consequences of the actions of their family members. Should NGOs 'put their two cents in' as you advocate, well....they and perhaps their family members have to live with the consequences - and given these unpredictable times, well maybe they are just being a bit cautious. However, each have their own reasons.

    4) And at the end of the day, as long as each of us are doing our best (our best, not your best), then that's probably pretty damn good - because everyone has their own concerns which should be respected I feel.


  21. Corruption is rife in this country. We need to root out the evils of corruption from this at any cost. What nonsense are you talking here Salim? You don't understand the ground realities here. You are just like our "chasbeh neiy" Vice President talking text book nonsense.

  22. I think Saleem do not understand the real challenges of the civil society maybe he has not been or experienced as he has lived outside Maldives all this time. The present Government needs to work and let the civil society grow as you say its a democracy and the voice of civil society is required. There is no enabling environment or funding mechanism for the NGO sector. Only NGOs are called by the relevant stakeholders when they want a show or say that civil society has been consulted. In all the national plans you hear that civil society partnership should be sought but does that happen in reality. So I would advise Saleem to conduct a study before raising your voice on something you don't understand.

  23. Mind you, Nazim who is third in line for president gets this, but what about the "haa hoo" made about the actual president on public media by opposition. It is disgusting to hear them addressing the president as, otherwise and constantly refusing him as president. If these politicians who hog up all our money, doesn't accept the president we cant blame laymen running around with an underwear on their head. None of these are appropriate. All the 3 pillars have failed us in giving what we deserve. We deserve a tax law, we deserve a health insurance, we deserve subsidies for staple food. Unless justice is given to us, the people the politicians should be made responsible.

  24. I think Salim Waheed wants is attention becoz his father is the vice president! While Salim Waheed hardly does anything meaningful or contribute anything positive to the society like his father Dr.Waheed who is currently silently sitting and cries occationally saying MDP did this and that to me and his elite-family party! To talk about civil society you really have to feel the pulse of the society! when was the last time you or your father or family last visited ordinary Maldivians with ordinary corner of life?? Perhaps your American experience and love of the lifestyle is something you wann duplicate here in Maldives! Then the question is do we want that? Are you a true Maldivian youth or just American Asian migrant who has lost identity and religion? Come here to Maldives and experience the true island life with the real challenges we face for jobs and daily struggle to talk and advocate on behalf of us! I believe you and your father Dr.Waheed has no passion and sincerity for Maldivians!

  25. If we had no passion for this country we would not be here. We would not be working constantly to create a stronger democratic foundation in this country.

    I have ran civil society programs, and understand the hardships, but i also have higher expectations than to allow people to hid behind societal explanations. Civil society to me does not include individual people, only non-profit organizations, foundations, and community groups.

    I am very clear about my identity. My heritage. And my faith in Islam.

    And "Fathima" - its pronounced Saalim. Not Saleem.


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