The opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party’s (DRP) “Red Notice” protest against hiked electricity tariffs on Thursday was forcibly broken by riot police outside the State Electricity Company (STELCO) building, leaving protestors and police officers injured.
Following a tense three-hour stand-off on Thursday evening, police used water canons and then tear gas to disperse the crowd at 1.15am and took a number of DRP activists into custody.
An hour after the demonstration started at 8.30pm near the tsunami monument area, the red-shirted protestors marched to STELCO led by two pickups with loud speakers, breaking through the first police cordon before coming to a halt in front of riot police.
The crowd, numbering in the thousands, was led by DRP MPs, who vowed to continue the protest until either prices were reduced or President Mohamed Nasheed resigned.
“We are not a party that takes protesting and raising our voices lightly,” DRP Leader Ahmed Thasmeen Ali told supporters just before the march, adding that the party would do everything necessary on behalf of “suffering and impoverished Maldivian citizens” to hold the government accountable.
The raised tariff was “a debt” the government owned to citizens, he said, pledging DRP’s support and cooperation in fulfilling the government’s campaign promises.
But, he added, it had become clear the current administration was “ruining people, impoverishing citizens, putting them on their knees and forcing them to beg.”
He concluded with a warning that the government’s harmful policies and disregard for citizens’ welfare would spike if MDP candidates were elected to local councils.
Thasmeen and his wife, Maduvari MP Visam Ali, left the protest before the march to STELCO began.
Apart from MPs of the DRP, Imad Solih, vice-president of the Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) and Maavashu MP Abdul Azeez Jamal Abubakuru addressed the crowd.
The protestors condemned the government’s decision to raise electricity prices, the formation of utility companies and the appointment of “drug users” as its managing directors.
Moreover, DRP MPs alleged that electricity subsidies – “a failed innovation” – were awarded solely to supporters of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).
An audio clip of President Mohamed Nasheed assuring citizens during a coalition campaign rally that the price of an electricity unit would not be raised was played throughout the protest.
The clip was followed by a recording of President Nasheed stating that a government would lose its legitimacy if it broke the promises it made to get elected.
While the DRP faced off with riot police in front of the children’s park next to STELCO, a group of MDP supporters gathered behind police lines, calling on DRP Leader Thasmeen to “pay your debts to the government”.
Settling outside the children’s park in front of riot police protecting the STELCO building, DRP MPs Ali Waheed, Ahmed Mahlouf, Ilham Ahmed, Ali Arif, Ali Azim, PA MP Abdul Azeez and DRP Vice-President Umar Naseer took turns addressing the crowd from the front pickup.
Police repeatedly urged protestors to vacate the area as they were blocking traffic and disturbing the peace.
“Staying here in violation of our order is illegal,” they warned. “The Maldives Police Service will take [legally sanctioned] action against those who stay here.”
However, the warnings were met with heated words from the DRP MPs, who said the citizens behind them were exercising a constitutional right to freedom of assembly and would not leave before the president either lowered electricity prices or resigned.
Meanwhile, Umar Naseer called on the assembled police officers to join the protestors: “Even if only the police that are here join us, we can topple the government tonight!”
“If the government decides against discussions and negotiations tonight, remember that we not discuss anything anymore!” warned Ali Waheed. “If you play with us tonight, we will bring four people to every one here tomorrow night.”
Deputy DRP leader Ibrahim Shareef told Minivan News today it was not the party’s policy to try an overthrow the government through force.
“I don’t know what he said. Our party policy is to engage in peaceful protest when dialogue fails. We will not overthrow the government through force,” he promised.
Almost three hours later, police turned the water hose first on the front pickup and the DRP MPs.
After water bottles and other projectiles were thrown, police used teargas and charged the crowd, which included a bevy of middle-aged women and children, with shields and batons.
In the aftermath, Minivan News journalists observed that the megaphone and speakers on the DRP front pickup were damaged, while the front windshield was smashed.
DRP MPs Ali Waheed, Mahlouf and PA MP Abdul Azeez were lying prone upon the ground.
A woman fainted and was carried inside STELCO, while ambulances arrived to take the injured to hospital.
Camera crews and journalist from all three local television stations filmed the police charge.
Shareef claimed the situation only became violent “when MDP activists wearing black shirts began to cause havoc from behind the police line. Then police started to use teargas and water cannon simultaneously.
“They targeted our sound system and the pickup where the DRP MPs were standing. They were quite badly hurt. One PA MP fainted and had to be taken to hospital, and Ali Waheed suffered cuts and bruises.”
Shareef said the party “did not know what really happened. We heard a glass panel at STELCO was smashed, but it could not have been DRP members because we were behind the police lines.”
A statement issued by police on Friday reads that force was employed to disperse the crowd after protestors broke through police lines and “attacked police officers.”
It adds that STELCO was “an important institution that provides a basic service” and the gathering posed a danger to public safety and threatened the peace of a residential area.
Moreover, it notes that the regulations on freedom of assembly prohibited gatherings after midnight.
The regulations enforced by presidential decree under the previous administration also makes it illegal to protest outside the presidential palace and other designated spots.
The statement claims that the protestors damaged STELCO property and climbed over the fence into the children’s park.
“In addition, when the crowd was dispersed, some people in the area attacked the Henveiru police station and smashed its window,” it reads. “And a number of police officers sustained injuries, while some had their heads smashed, when rocks and other objects were thrown at police.”
Local daily Haveeru reports that 16 police officers were injured in addition to 13 others who were taken to hospital.
While a number of protestors were taken into custody, said police, no one apart from a minor suspected of smashing the Henveiru police station window was arrested.
The statement goes on to condemn the actions of protestors “led by honourable members of parliament” in attacking duty officers, breaking through police lines and “obstructed the legal duty of police”, adding it was “regrettable” that force had to be used after repeated pleading and warning was to no avail.
It concludes by urging those who organise protests to abide by regulations and conduct themselves peacefully.
The protest continued on Friday night with a smaller crowd but was called off at around 11pm after giving the government “until Thursday” to find a solution.
A group of people reportedly threw rocks at the DRP supporters near the tsunami monument. DRP leaders claimed they were paid Rf50,000 to disrupt the rally.
President welcomes drop in temperature
President Mohamed Nasheed yesterday welcomed the DRP’s decision to suspend its protests against hiked electricity tariffs for one week to allow the government to resolve the issue.
A statement issued by the president’s office yesterday offers President Nasheed’s “sincere thanks” to DRP Leader Ahmed Thasmeen Ali for the party’s decision to cease its protests “to cooperate with the government’s efforts.”
It stresses that a special taskforce was formed last week to assist in the awarding of subsidies following the introduction of fuel surcharges by the State Electricity Company (STELCO).
The president said in his weekly radio address on Friday that the government would resolve the issue to ensure that citizens would not “face too much hardship” in paying electricity bills.
While STELCO has been an efficiently managed state-owned enterprise until the 2000s, the company’s shortfalls and debts was “a loss to the government and the people.”
The government anticipates that all state-owned enterprises would be able to compete in the market place as a viable and sustainable business.
“The government will always cooperate with opposition political parties on any issue that would improve public welfare,” the statement concludes.
The government hiked electricity tariffs for the Greater Male’ region in November as part of a tariff restructure.
At the time the government argued that granting over Rf100 million in annual subsidies to STELCO was “subsidising the rich and poor alike.”
Moreover, it was revealed that STELCO faced a loss of Rf547 million (US$43 million) in 2008 and was operating at a daily loss of Rf320,000 (US$25,000).
Concurrently with the raised prices, the government introduced “targeted subsidies” to poor income families through the National Social Protection Agency (NSPA).
In his weekly radio address on Friday, President Nasheed said a proper mechanism for awarding electricity subsidies has not yet been established.
He added that efforts were underway to resolve the issue so that citizens would not have to “bear such a burden”.
President Nasheed noted that subsidies would also be awarded in the atolls and “not just in Male’.”
Moreover, as a result of direct government subsidies in the past, state-owned enterprises were “not at all responsible.”
“So the change we made is to help citizens directly, not the company,” he said.
However Shareef noted that during the last 30 years the previous government “only had to subsidise STELCO in 2006-08 when the price of fuel skyrocketed, but now it is half the price of what it was in 2008. Otherwise, it was making a profit.”
The current programme of subsidies was encouraging begging, and stripping people of their dignity, Shareef claimed.
“People don’t want to have to ask for a subsidy,” he said.
President Nasheed claimed the crux of the matter was difficulty in ascertaining deserving and eligible recipients for subsidies.
“I know the process of clearing this up has been going on for a long time,” he said. “However, God willing, it will be completely resolved in the coming week.”
Meanwhile, three people were taken into custody at a DRP demonstration in Addu yesterday following the Southern Utility Company’s decision to introduce fuel surcharges.
While the protestors damaged the Southern Province Office, the three men were arrested after they attacked police officers during the protest.