The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) is in the eye of a storm in Maldives. In its last meeting on 16 April it warned that it will consider “stronger measures” if the terms and reference and composition of the Maldivian National Commission of Inquiry is not “amended within four weeks in a manner that is generally acceptable and enhances its credibility”.
“Stronger measures” is probably a hint at suspension from the Commonwealth. Over two weeks have passed since that decision, now in Maldives there is talk about withdrawing the country’s membership from the Commonwealth.
How did all this come about? In the past few months, events in the Maldives have caught headlines and raised eyebrows across the world. These months saw the country’s democratic transition plagued by serious uncertainty. The most sensational part of this turn of events is mystery around the exit of former President Mohamed Nasheed.
The National Commission of Inquiry (NCI) was set up by the government to look into what transpired on the fateful day of 7 February 2012 when Vice President Mohamed Waheed Hussain took over following Mr Nasheed’s resignation – which the latter subsequently claimed was forced at gun point. The immediate backdrop for this is the military’s arrest the Chief Judge of the Criminal Court on 16 January 2012 under Mr Nasheed’s orders – a move that attracted international condemnation and regular protests in Maldives.
Mr Nasheed claimed that the judge who was under investigation by the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) represents a judiciary that is dysfunctional – while protests continued to rage and reports of a possible police mutiny began to emerge as 7 February unfolded.
Storm clouds have gathered over Maldives for long and the recent series of events are a culmination of what has been brewing for a while. Following a drawn out pro-democracy struggle in the Maldives led by Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), the 2008 Presidential elections saw Mr Nasheed contested against the incumbent Mr Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and winning – albeit by a margin of about eight percent.
The end of the 30 year regime of former President Gayoom was widely perceived as the beginning of full-fledged democracy in the Maldives. Since then, what began as a smooth ride eventually began to get bumpy. Rising prices, drug and crime issues, economic disparity, corruption allegations and concerns over the transparency of increasing foreign investments all began to cause unrest. Towards the end there were frequent public demonstrations and political standoffs.
While stalemates between the opposition dominated Parliament and the executive has been an issue, divisions also emerged between the executive and the judiciary – most of the appointments in the latter had been made during Gayoom’s tenure and the executive viewed this wing of state as being unreformed and loyal to the former regime.
The international community including the Commonwealth eased out of their heightened scrutiny of Maldives following the 2008 Presidential elections. In the aftermath the country’s nascent democracy has faced severe tribulations. Maldives is precariously located in the tip of South Asia, in the middle of strategic sea lanes making it important economically and politically both for the West and the two Asian giants – China and India. The crisis in the Maldives is an important bellwether of the edgy geopolitical climate in this region which has already found reflection in other countries of the region such as Sri Lanka.
While a lot of the current focus is mired over opposing political views within Maldives, it is important to remember that the vagaries of politics inside and outside the country should not ultimately lead to the Maldivian people viewing the values of human rights and democracy with blighted hope. It is important that these values are upheld and the protections that they afford are ensured.
An important step in doing this is to make sure that truth is both told and is seen to be told, freely sans politicisation. In this context, it is important that the National Commission of Inquiry is credible and is able to investigate and report freely and publicly. This call for credibility and impartiality has also been aptly echoed and elaborated by several Maldivian NGOs coming together in a new civil society coalition called ‘Thinvana Adu’ or ‘Third Voice’. Independent institutions in the Maldives such as the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) and the Police Integrity Commission (PIC) should follow this lead and conduct their own parallel investigations and report publicly at the earliest.
Even though the Commonwealth should have made more early and transparent efforts to scrutinise the progress of democracy in the Maldives, it is a good sign that after years of being dormant CMAG has now taken the directions given to it in the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting seriously. It is also important that CMAG has recognised the need for a credible National Commission of Inquiry. If Maldives decides to leave the Commonwealth it will be the only other country after Zimbabwe to do so – a parallel that may be politically damaging for Maldives to equate itself with at this time of crisis.
R Iniyan Ilango is a Coordinator for the Strategic Initiatives Programme of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.
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