A large crowd of mostly young people last night held a protest in Male’ against the rising cost of living, following a spike in import costs brought on by the government’s managed float of the rufiya – a decision which has led to a cost increase for dollar commodities of up to 20 percent.
Although the protest was led by opposition leaders, Minivan News observed many unfamiliar faces not identified as members of either major party.
The protest’s leadership consisted mostly of those from the ‘Z-DRP’ faction of the opposition loyal to former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, including MPs Ahmed Mahlouf, Ilham Ahmed and dismissed Deputy Leader Umar Naseer, Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) MP Riyaz Rasheed, Jumhoory Party (JP) MP Ibrahim Muthalib and other opposition allies were also present at the protest.
The group gathered near the artificial beach last night around 9:00pm and marched towards the tourist street of Chandhanee Magu, occupying the intersection with the main road of Majeedhee Magu. Minivan News observed many protesters sitting or lying down in the intersection, some having coffee.
Riot police initially blocked off vehicle access to the area, and waited without taking any action.
However at around 3:30am early on Sunday morning, police advised protesters to leave the area or otherwise they would use force to disperse the crowd.
The protesters declined to leave the area and continued protesting, whereupon police issued several warnings before throwing tear gas canisters into the crowd camped in the narrow and congested intersection, and moving in with shields and batons.
Male and female protesters were injured in the incident after being attacked with batons, while police claimed officers were injured in the effort after bricks were thrown. Protesters also pelted police with empty water bottles, empty cans and other such materials.
“One female officer was hit in the chest with a pavement stone, she is still hospitalised,’’ said Police Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam.
While police were attempting to disperse the crowd, a motorbike in the area was destroyed by fire and the glass window of a nearby shop was broken.
After the violent attacks, police failed to completely disperse the crowd as the protesters continued to return to the area and gathering.
Local media SunFM and Haveeru News also reported that police used excessive force on their journalists taking coverage of the area.
Haveeru, which described the incident as a “deadly clash”, reported that its journalists were arrested after they refused to leave the area were told by a police spokesperson that even journalists wearing press identification could not stay in the area.
The protest lasted until 9:00am this morning, lasting a total of 12 hours.
Residents living in the densely-populated urban area surrounding the intersection have complained of women and children being affected by tear gas used by police used to control the riot.
News agency Associated Press reported Gayoom’s spokesperson, Mohamed Hussain ‘Mundhu’ Shareef, as saying that dozens were hospitalised in the demonstration consisting of 5000 people rallying against “economic hardship, alleged government mismanagement and wasteful spending”, but was unable to raise a response from the Maldivian government. News of the incident quickly went international, appearing on the Washington Post and other major newspapers.
This afternoon the President’s Office released a statement condemning the violent protest as orchestrated by supporters of the former President.
“Scores of people were injured and shops and private property were damaged when protesters hurled bricks and other projectiles at the police. The police responded to the unprovoked assault with tear gas and made several arrests,” the statement said.
“The protest was orchestrated by the Z-DRP, a faction of the main opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party, which is under the control of former President Gayoom.”
President Mohamed Nasheed’s spokesperson, Mohamed Zuhair, added that “peaceful political activity, such as the right to protest, is legal – and indeed welcome – in the Maldives’ new democracy. But there can be no excuse for needlessly causing violence in the streets. We have numerous peaceful political rallies, protests, petitions and other forms of legitimate democratic activity throughout the year, which is a healthy part of our democracy. However, whenever Mr Gayoom’s supporters take to the streets, it always seems to end in violence and bloodshed,” Zuhair added.
Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) MP Dr Abdulla Mausoom told Minivan News that he believed the protests, which he described as a “youth movement” rather than an opposition political gathering, had been building for some time amidst concerns regarding the government’s commitment to democracy and increased living costs.
“We feel the protests are overdue, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) is not championing democracy like it promised,” he said.
Mausoom claimed that the prime areas where he believed the government had failed to bring about democratic reforms – a key policy area for the governing MDP party – were in freedom of expression and allowing protesters to demonstrate peacefully.
Although opposition parties like the DRP and the recently formed spin-off faction the Z-DRP were present at the protest, Mausoom said that they had been invited by local young people to support their concerns.
“This has been organised by young people [of the Maldives]. Opposition parties joined in support only after being invited. This was not a political movement, but a youth movement,” he claimed. “The protests were in themselves largely peaceful and we feel the police response was inappropriate.”
Mausoom added that he believed that the protesters should have been given the right to air their concerns and called on the government to address areas such as spending on political advertising and cutting living costs.
The opposition DRP has recently been split by infighting and violence between supporters of Gayoom and those of the party’s leader, Ahmed Thasmeen Ali, triggered by the expulsion last year of Deputy Leader Umar Naseer from the party for organising protests without sanction from the DRP Council.
Both sides claimed the animosity within the party was cause it to “disintegrate“, and there was speculation that Gayoom’s supporters would form a spin-off opposition party. However last Thursday, two days before the protest, Gayoom’s faction officially announced that it was “commencing work” as the Zaeem-DRP (Z-DRP), a separate branch of the main opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP).
The Zaeem-DRP (Z-DRP) faction today announced that it has officially commenced its work as a separate branch of the main opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP).
An earlier protest on April 12 against the government’s currency decision ended peacefully, with both factions conducting separate rallies around Male’.
A currency in crisis
The government has struggled to cope with an exacerbating dollar shortage brought on by a high budget deficit – triggered by a spiralling public sector expenditure – in comparison with the foreign currency flowing into the country. Civil service expenditure has increased in real terms by 400 percent since 2002.
Banks subsequently demonstrated reluctance to sell dollars at the pegged rate of Rf 12.85, and high demand for travel, commodities and overseas medical treatment forced most institutions to ration their supply or turn to the flourishing blackmarket.
After a short-lived attempt to crack down on the illegal exchange of dollars, the government floated the rufiya within a 20 percent band, effectively allowing it to be sold at up to Rf 15.42 to the dollar.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has been critical of the government’s growing expenditure despite a large budget deficit, praised the decision as a step towards a mature and sustainable economy.
“Today’s bold step by the authorities represents an important move toward restoring external sustainability,” the IMF said in a statement. “IMF staff support this decision made by the authorities. We remain in close contact and are ready to offer any technical assistance that they may request.”
However many companies dealing in dollar commodities immediately raised their exchange rates to Rf 15.42, along with the Bank of Maldives.
The government’s move, while broadly unpopular, acknowledges the devaluation of the rufiya in the wake of increased expenditure and its own inability to overcome the political obstacles inherent in reducing spending on the country’s bloated civil service.
Yet as Maldives relies almost entirely on imported goods and fuel, and many ordinary citizens have found themselves harshly affected by short-term spike in prices of up to 20 percent as the rufiya settles.
“We do not really know, based on the breadth of the domestic economy, what the value of the Maldivian rufiyaa is right now,” Economic Development Minister Mahmoud Razee admitted at a recent press conference.
The government has said it hopes the rufiya will stabilise within three months.