Maldives Culture Editors Speak of their Struggle for Free Speech in the Darkest Days of Gayoom

Minivan News spends 15 Minutes with Michael O’Shea, who co-edits of with his wife, Fareesha.

Maldives Culture was one of the first websites ever to criticise Gayoom’s government. Micheal, who lives in Australia, tells us of the persecution he and his wife have suffered for speaking out against the regime.

MN: Your website,, is still banned by the government of Maldives. Can you describe the reasons for this? Also, a lot of Maldivian dissident writers found refuge in your site, and through your work the world outside have discovered the kind of life they have to live. For example, your publication of Sandhaanu Ibrahim Luthfee’s letters helped to underline this problem. Please tell us why you are inspired to help Maldivian writers.

OS: The banning of our website by President Gayyoom is indication of its importance in the battle against his dictatorship. It is an honour to be banned by a regime like Gayyoom’s, and an honour we share with another important website – Dhivehi Observer. Gayyoom also bans or suppresses the best books about Maldives – ‘People of the Maldive Islands’ by Clarence Maloney, ‘The Maldive Islanders’ by Xavier Romero-Frias, and ‘Iyye’ (Yesterday) by Abdul Hakeem Hussein Manik. As far as we are concerned, Maldives Culture is in exalted company.

It may come as a surprise to some people that Maldives Culture has not always been critical of Gayyoom. At first, it was established in Australia in 1999 as a Maldives history and social research site. At that time, we did not know about Gayyoom’s institutionalised torture and theft of government funds. When Maldivians living overseas, and in Maldives, sent us emails and documents about Gayyoom’s crimes, we doubted their authenticity. We had heard little about rampant corruption and Gayyoom’s NSS terror tactics while we were working in southern Maldives in 1996 and 1997. People living in dictatorships were easily fooled until the Internet became available. Like many other Maldivians and foreigners, we were deceived by the regimes’ propaganda, and thought Gayyoom had the interests of his country at heart. How wrong we were!

We began to realise our mistake when we published extracts from a Maldives Internet discussion forum that Gayyoom had closed down. Our motive in publishing these extracts, and highlighting the strong family links among his ministers, was simply to attract more readers and encourage sensible and informed debates, but the reaction from Gayyoom and his supporters was rabid. For months, we received lengthy and obscene emails, rape and death threats, and military-style orders to cease publication immediately. It shocked us, and made us wonder what Gayyoom, his family and his NSS generals had to hide. Meanwhile, other Maldivians realised we were genuine, and they sent us articles and information that exposed Gayyoom’s atrocities and methods, and the extent of the criminal conspiracy that had gained control of the country. As we translated, edited and published these revelations, Gayyoom declared us public enemies and persona non grata in Maldives. He used his links with corrupt police and security services in India and Sri Lanka to order our arrest if we travelled there.

Gayyoom and fellow senior officers from the NSS tried to destroy our reputations and website by similar methods to what they are using now against the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). However, their virulent campaign helped turn Maldives Culture into a symbol of free speech and independent thought. The vicious torture and shootings of unarmed prisoners in Maafushi prison in September 2003 proved the accuracy of Ibrahim Luthfee’s predictions about the jail and details of torture practices, which had been published by Maldives Culture in the preceding months. Gayyoom’s public lies that torture did not exist in Maldives, was exposed for all to see; particularly, for the population of Male’ and the people of Sri Lanka where wounded prisoners were airlifted for treatment.

There was a profound change among our writers after those awful events. They ceased to be polite about the dictator. Gayyoom lost all legitimacy. They realised his removal was the only thing that could save their families and society from destruction. All countries need a moral core if their people are going to believe in their nationalism, and Gayyoom was and remains a direct threat to the essential beliefs that hold Dhivehi Rajje together.

The strength of Maldives Culture isn’t due to any single person, it has been a combined effort by many brave and intelligent Maldivians. Gayyoom never forgives people who refuse to submit to his criminal ways. Like a petty gangster, he demands ‘respect’ through threats, violence and bribery. Maldives Culture has refused to bow to his slanderous intimidation and obscenities, and we have deflected his lawyers’ harassment. Any hint that we might accept a bribe to cease publication (US$1-2 million dollars has been mentioned) was swiftly rejected. We have defied Gayyoom and told him to stick his money where it belongs – in the hands of the hardworking Maldivians who earn it. Readers will now understand why we remain banned.

We would like to take this opportunity provided by this Minivan interview to express our regrets to some Maldivians who have been personally and unnecessarily hurt by articles we published in the past. Early on, we did English translations of Haveeru articles about court cases involving members of the Maldives film industry. We now understand that these prosecutions were part of a vendetta organised by members of Gayyoom’s family and their associates. We regret the additional suffering that our translations caused.

Another lapse of editorial judgment was the publication of allegations of corruption against Gayyoom’s former attorney-general Mohamed Munnavar and former minister Ibrahim Hussein Zaki. We are still unsure whether these allegations were part of a slander campaign by Gayyoom against these two men who had been excluded from the dictator’s cabinet after the Maafushi jail shootings, or whether the allegations were a product of internal politicking among the groups who were forming the Maldivian Democratic Party. However, what has become clear is the genuine commitment of Munavvar and Zaki to the movement for democratic reform in Maldives. We apologise to both Munavvar and Zaki, and we regret that publishing the allegations initially made their good work more difficult.

Maldives Culture has grown and transformed as it strived to reflect the changes occurring in the consciousness of Maldivians in Dhivehi Rajje and overseas. In 2006, there are many excellent websites that accurately and honestly portray the country and its people. Maldives Culture is now an archive, link and support centre for the Maldives democracy movement and its supporters among foreign academics, businesspeople, bankers and diplomats. At last, the editors are able to concentrate on what we do best – translations and historical research. The crimes of President Gayyoom are fertile ground for such work.

MN: On the 16th of February, you published a translation of the Dhivehi Tareekh that covers Maldives history from 1558 to 1848. Can you tell our readers about this enormous work you have done and what inspired you to complete this work?

OS: The Dhivehi Tareekh is the most important surviving compilation of early Maldives history. This compilation was begun at the beginning of the twentieth century from a variety of earlier sources, and like any state-sponsored work, it has its deficiencies. Every country censors its own history, and historians re-write it to suit the political and social demands, and knowledge, of a particular time. There are many examples of that in other histories I am familiar with, namely, the histories of England, USA, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Indonesia, Eastern and Southern Africa, and the Middle East. This does not detract from the value of these histories. It just means they have to be read with the writers’ and compliers’ intentions and background in mind. All histories are based on original documents that have been written by people with their own agendas, or by writers acting under orders, or writers being paid by people who have certain expectations. How many government documents and newspapers today tell the truth? The Dhivehi Tareek is no different, and no better or worse than any other country’s official history.

However, there is one very important deficiency in the version of the Dhivehi Tareek that was published by the Gayyoom regime, and that is the deliberate removal of the centuries of Maldives history before 1558. We know the records exist (or existed), because H. C. P. Bell and his assistant W. L. De Silva saw them and fortunately translated them in an abridged form during the 1920s. They are to be found in English in Bell’s ‘The Maldive Islands’, first published in 1940, and available in Male’ as an expensive reprint . However, like the Dhivehi Tareek, Bell’s book is hard to read and not indexed. It is a big book, and a lot of the interesting information is hidden by poor presentation, or has to be extracted from the extensive small-print footnotes. The original Dhivehi Tareek has no chapters, table of contents or index. The Thaana script style used in the original has no spaces between words or sentences. Even Maldivians have great difficulty reading the Tareek in Dhivehi because it uses many Urdu and Arabic expressions that are no longer understood.

Our translation of the Dhivehi Tareek was a group effort, and we were helped by many Maldivians, both in Dhivehi Rajje and overseas. Majid Abdul-Wahhab in New Zealand was particularly helpful, and the translation has been achieved in part through his detailed knowledge of Male’ and its culture, and his expertise in Urdu and Arabic.

The Dhivehi Tareek is mainly a history of the Male’ aristocracy, rather than a history of Maldives. Other Dhivehi literary sources and English language books have to be read to understand the history and culture of normal Maldivians and the atolls. With regard to the English sources, I recommend the English translation of Francois Pyrard’s account of his five year stay in Male’ at the beginning of the 1600s, and Xavier Romero-Frias’ recent book ‘The Maldive Islanders’.

The completion and publication of our translation of the Dhivehi Tareek provides a basis for serious historical research in Maldives and in overseas universities. I have spoken to professors of history who say that Maldives has no real history as far as they are concerned. Well, now Maldives has at least a partial history that even professors cannot deny.

MN: Prior to this translation, you have also published a timeline, noting down important historical events that occurred in Maldives from 1900 to the present period. Please tell us about this.

OS: The timeline is based on the style of the Dhivehi Tareek, and we have also called it the Fahuge (Recent) Tareek in recognition of the work of Maldives historians whose work was used to construct it, particularly the late Abdul Hakeem Hussein Manik who was the best historian Maldives has ever had. We don’t agree with all his ideas and conclusions, but there is no doubting his integrity. Hakeem saw many dictators come and go. He knew their strengths and weaknesses as men and leaders. The most important lesson for Maldivians from his work is that even the best of men are corrupted by too much power.

The timeline is designed for use by Maldive and foreign writers, historians, researchers, diplomats, aid agencies, businesspeople and anyone else who work with Maldivians. President Gayyoom has suppressed all historical research into Maldives. He has many crimes to hide, and an intelligent and oppressed population to deceive. Control over history and the elimination of objective historical analysis, are essential for dictatorships. Only then can dictators define a country and its people in their own deceptive image. The timeline makes it much more difficult for President Gayyoom to fool his own people and foreigners. The latest debate over democratic reform in Maldives is a prime example. President Gayyoom has once again tried to argue that Maldivians are too stupid and uncontrollable to have democracy. This is a lie. In fact, Maldivians are better educated than the populations in other countries in South Asia and the West when democracy was established there in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The timeline shows that Maldivians have been seriously debating the benefits of democracy since the early 1930s. It also shows how, for nearly thirty years, Gayyoom has been using the same arguments and brutal methods to crush reform that Abdul Majeed, King Shamsudeen, Hassan Fareed, Mohamed Ameen, and Ibrahim Nasir had used before him. Their ideology is essentially fascist, founded in the same evil ideas that inspired the ruinous dictatorships in Europe and Russia. In the West today, fascist ideology has been adapted by unethical public relations firms and advertising agencies. Gayyoom’s alliance with the PR industry is as natural as Gayyoom’s friendship with Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler’s pet film-maker, the unrepentant Nazi, Leni Riefenstahl (now deceased).

The truth is far more powerful than lies. No matter how sophisticated lies and their presentation are, the truth will defeat them. This is the foundation of real human progress. Truth in history has been denied for Maldivians by Gayyoom and his supporters. They have banned any book that attempts to reach the truth. They have tortured, intimidated and isolated any Maldivian who dares to speak or write accurately about the country. They have slandered foreigners who write realistically about Maldives and its social, political and economic problems. The timeline provides a background, resource and a guide to counter the continuous stream of lies and propaganda that Gayyoom has used to sustain his dictatorship.

MN: In your opinion, given the ongoing struggle by Maldivians to become free from an authoritarian system, what does the future look like for Maldivian writers?

OS: Before the age of the Internet and cheap video filming techniques, dictators could easily control information, publications and films. Writers can now find places to publish their work that dictators will never be able to stop. This is one reason why the future for Maldivian writers is bright. Another reason is that conflict is the vital ingredient for any good story. By conflict, we don’t mean just physical violence. It can be a clash of ideas, personalities or desires. Look at any good story and it is full of interesting conflicts. Maldives today is brimming with conflicts. There are stories everywhere just waiting to be told.

For potential short film-makers, there is an exciting Internet development – the increasing number of short films that are being downloaded from a variety of sites and watched by millions. At present, a good video download site linking to most of them is but there are many others too.

To make a successful short film, a script is needed. It is similar to, but not the same, as writing a short story. Scriptwriting is an opportunity the writers of Maldives should not ignore. A scriptwriter needs to think in sequences of images. The writer must let the images tell the story, and use talking (conversation or a background narrative) only when absolutely necessary. If Maldivian writers learn this skill, then they will produce films that foreigners want to watch. The writers will also have to learn video-making processes, or co-operate with those who have the skill or potential to direct, use video cameras, sound recorders and film-editing programs. A good script, a computer with an editing program, a reasonable video camera and sound recorder are all you need. Short films can be a powerful tool against the dictatorship in Maldives, and a good way of tackling other problems the society faces. The actors don’t need to be identifiable, they can be illustrations or even fish. Video is a powerful medium, and Maldivians have the intelligence, imagination and environment to adapt their films in unique ways.

Books, articles and films that tell the truth about Maldives will appeal strongly to foreign and local audiences. Humour is an important ingredient, but a really successful film or piece of writing needs to be more than just funny. Maldivian writers won’t be successful if they only write what they think their bosses or families want to read. Like any other form of real education, influential books and films challenge people’s ideas and preconceptions. Honest books and films define a nation and make it stronger and more powerful than any amount of weapons or strutting soldiers.

MN: Do you think the government’s reform agenda will ever be implemented?

OS: The government’s reform agenda will never be implemented while Gayyoom and his associates are in power. There is a simple reason for this. If real legal and political reforms take place, Maumoon Gayyoom, Abdulla Yameen, Ilyas Ibrahim, Anbaree Abdul Sattar, Adam Zahir and Mohamed Zahir will face criminal charges and life imprisonment. Gangsters are not stupid. No amount of diplomatic niceties and public relations lies conjured up by international bankers and other organisations can change this fact.

If Gayyoom and his associates manage to flee the country and find safe haven somewhere else, then we believe the reform agenda will be implemented swiftly and peacefully. If they stay, then the awful violence that has plagued the country in recent years will continue, just as the dictator’s father predicted before his death in the early 1980s.

MN: What message would you give to opposition forces in Maldives?

OS: Stay united. The regime’s only hope is that the movement for reform will disintegrate through infighting. The reformers must remember that Gayyoom has tortured and beaten them to weaken their will and judgment. It is normal for healthy political parties and allies to argue among themselves, but if they lose sight of their real issues, they will lose.

The Maldivian Democratic Party and its allied parties have been tremendously successful because they have pulled together all Maldivians who hate the dictatorship, and these Maldivians are an overwhelming majority. There will be splits and factions, perhaps even before the next elections. Maldivians must ensure that such splits do not seriously weaken the movement for reform. A new government in Maldives might even have to accept a coalition with non-criminal members of the DRP. The NSS too, has a vital role to play in a new reforming government. It is quite possible for the NSS to become an organisation worthy of Maldivians’ respect and affection.

Maldivians can be united in their respect for each other, their healthy and tolerant religious beliefs and legal institutions. Another dictator, no matter how benign that person is at first, will be corrupted with power and responsibility. Democracy is neither easy nor perfect, but it makes a country remarkably strong and resilient because it makes all people share that power and responsibility.