Non-violent sit in protests have swept through the Maldives, with thousands of citizens deprived of their constitutional right to vote determined to shut down the country until elections are held.
“We will continue to protest until we can get an election. The protests symbolise that this country has no where to go without an election. Everything has to stop, everyone has to stop and think,” MDP MP and Spokesperson Hamid Abdul Ghafoor told Minivan News today.
Police arrived at the Elections Commission (EC) in the early morning of Saturday (October 19), forcibly preventing the scheduled election going ahead, in the apparent absence of explicit orders to do so from either the courts or the executive.
Police had also previously obstructed the run-off election which was due to be held on September 28.
Chief Superintendent Abdulla Nawaz told the press yesterday that police had “made the decision ourselves” after “seeking advice” from, among others, President Dr Mohamed Waheed and Attorney General Azima Shukoor, after the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) and the Jumhooree Party (JP) had refused to sign the final voter lists.
The Supreme Court’s guidelines issued following its annulment of the September 7 election’s first round of polling said the EC was to hold elections before October 20 with the support of relevant state institutions, EC Chairperson Fuwad Thowfeek has noted.
Non-violent direct action
At around 2:40pm on Saturday 30 protesters gathered outside of the People’s Majlis (Parliament) in Male’, and refused to move when asked to by police.
“Who made you the voice of authority to decide all we do? You can’t tell us where to sit,” protesters told the police. “You stole our vote, we won’t let you take away everything else including our freedom”.
“I am here to ask for our constitutional right to vote,” said Hassan Shah in his early thirties, refusing to budge as a policeman prodded him from behind, asking him to leave the area.
“This country is ridiculous. There is no rule of law, there is nothing but tyranny – by the police, by an unelected coup president, by the corrupt judiciary and every other principle-less person or institute. It’s time we refused to budge. I want my right to vote,” said Ahmed Amir, 29.
After laying down tarpaulins, people began to set up tables and chairs in the middle of the street. Whilst some played cards, presidential candidate Mohamed Nasheed, Speaker of the Majlis Abdulla Shahid, and MDP MP Mariya Didi sat sipping tea and eating ‘hedika’ (traditional Maldivian snacks).
Meanwhile, a smaller crowd of about 40 people gathered on Sosun Magu – a major thoroughfare perpendicular to Majeedhee Magu – and staged a similar sit-down protest blocking traffic. Signs held my protesters read ‘Where is the voice of the citizens?’, ‘Yameen is a bodu gunda (‘big thug’)’, and ‘Hurry up the election’.
By 5pm Male’ became difficult to travel around, with police and military blocking the area around Republic Square, the Supreme Court and the President’s Office, while MDP supporters blocked traffic as their sit-down demonstration swelled in numbers, blocking more junctions.
Protesters cordoned off the streets with human chains, yellow cords, ‘joalifathi’ (traditional Maldivian seats), tables, chairs, people sprawled out on tarpaulins, and vehicles including motor bikes and trucks.
“I am embarrassed by the Supreme Court. The police are in control of this country. This is a coup. We want the Majlis members to get us our right to vote. There is no hope, but we will keep trying,” said protest participant 33 year-old artist Ahmed Khalid.
By 5:24pm, small groups of people had obstructed nearly every junction on Majeedhee Magu, with tables, with the majority concentrated near Male’ city hall listening to MPs addressing the crowd and offering their encouragement.
Shortly thereafter police attempts to drive through a Majeedhee Magu intersection failed. Protesters surrounded the vehicle, with one even laying down on the road in front of the police car, forcing it to back up and detour.
“You can’t have your way all the time, baghees (traitors),” said one protester. “This is my country too. Ride over us if you dare, or back away,” said another. “You trampled our votes. Let ‘s see if you’ll dare run over us,” said a third.
Meanwhile, a 34 year-old man at the Sosun Magu sit-down protest told Minivan News, “We are sitting in ‘joalifathi’ (traditional Maldivian seats) and blocking the road as there are no more rules according to the police. We can do anything we want now according to them.”
Speaking to supporters on Majeedhee Magu shortly before 6:00pm, former President Nasheed threatened to arrest President Mohamed Waheed, Defense Minister Mohamed Nazim and Police Commissioner Abdulla Riyaz. He called on his supporters to continue to block Majeedhee Magu and shut down the city of Malé.
Groups of demonstrators began praying on the road during evening prayer times.
By around 7pm protesters on Hulhumale’ had blocked the road to the airport and the island’s main streets, reported Hulhumalé resident Mohamed Haisham. Additionally, boat services from the island had been brought to a stop as part of ongoing peaceful action planned until a new election date is agreed. Around 200 people had gathered at the terminal on Saturday evening in order to bring internal transport to a stop.
The Male’ City Council then announced on local television that it would stop services until the people’s “fundamental right to vote, a right we get every five years” is assured. Male’ City Mayor ‘Maizan’ Ali Manik said that, whilst mosques would be looked after, services such as waste management and the issuing building and birth certificates would be stopped.
At around 9pm, peaceful sit-down protests in Male’ were in full swing, with thousands of demonstrators representing all age groups – from infants to the elderly – and all walks of life sitting, laying down, playing cards, smoking sheesha, cooking food, barbecuing and listening to music across the nearly the entire length of Majeedhee Magu.
Minivan News learned that local shopkeepers and residents had donated all the food for the demonstrators. Protesters named the hotdogs being served ‘Ali Hameed sausages’ in reference to the Supreme Court judge who has been the subject of investigations for his alleged role in a series of sex-tapes.
One protester, aged 28, also shared her distress at the election delay with Minivan News, “I’m lost, I don’t think we can trust these coup leaders – this is such a mess.”
Intermittent but heavy downpours appear not to have diminished the numbers of protesters on Majeedhee Magu, with demonstrators using their tarpaulins as umbrellas.
‘Thugs’ beat up peaceful protesters in Male’
Protests resumed with the same calm, festive atmosphere in Male’ Sunday (October 20).
However, Sunday night’s demonstration took an ugly turn after “some gangs came to make chaos” by infiltrating the MDP protesters and acting a ggressively, a 26 year-old eyewitness told Minivan News.
“It was kinda heavy last night. These guys were drunk like hell or on some kind of drug like meth or something. They came into the crowd of peaceful protesters two times,” said the source.
“The first time they beat one guy up, but sadly no one did anything to stop him, the demonstrators just said ‘be peaceful’,” he continued.
“Police didn’t showed up [to stop the protesters from being beaten] because they were having their hired gangs come to heat things up, so they can then show a reason to storm in [to the crowd],” he noted.
Shortly after these incidents occurred, Special Operations (SO) police arrived arrested five men for allegedly obstructing police while they were trying to open to the roads closed by the pro-democracy supporters.
Police have claimed the MDP supporters attacked them by hurling stones, causing one officer to seek medical treatment, according to local media.
Islanders demonstrate amidst provocation
Meanwhile, from Addu City in the far south to Kulhudhoofushi Island in the far north of the Maldives, islanders have been staging similar non-violent sit-down protests.
This direct action has included ongoing demonstrations in Kumundhoo in Haa Dhaal Atoll, Rasdhoo Island in Alif Alif Atoll, Magoodhoo Island in Faafu Atoll, and multiple islands in Laamu Atoll. Protests have also occurred in the Addu City area, Thinadhoo Island in Gaaf Dhal Atoll, and Fuvahmulah Island.
On Saturday (October 19) around 600 protesters on the island of Gan in Laamu atoll began protesting in front of the island’s province offices, explained MDP activist Naeemahtha.
“We’ve padlocked the main gates of this building which has the council offices, bank, and the majority of other service providers in it. We will not budge and do not intend to go home until we are given the right to vote,” she said.
“Police turned up and tried to take away the lorry playing campaign music but protesters wouldn’t give them a chance to do so. They’ve left without the lorry now and [as of 10pm Saturday] the protest was proceeding in full swing,” she added.
“After a while, PPM activists we recognise turned up alongside SO officers in full riot gear with shields,” alleged Adham. “The PPM activists started throwing stones and tried to provoke us into reacting. Then SO barged into the crowd and roughed up protesters.”
Adham stated that six protesters were arrested and a number of others injured as the SO dispersed, though he noticed protests were continuing in multiple locations.
“The people are determined to continue protesting until we are granted our right to vote,” he declared.
“Now protests have escalated [in numbers] because it is not necessarily only MDP members participating anymore. A lot of people [now] understand that the tentacles of [former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s] dictatorship are working against democracy,” explained MDP MP Ghafoor.
“The MDP is not structured like a fighting force, by default we are non-violent. Additionally, former President Mohamed Nasheed is very much an icon and he is very patient and a proponent of non-violence,” he continued.
Ghafoor explained that the demonstrators were seeking to emulate Nasheed’s patience and non-violent approach to creating change and achieving justice.
However, Ghafoor did suggest that there was a chance that, with the JP and PPM behaving like gangs, that peaceful protesters could be attacked leading to violent clashes, Ghafoor noted. “So far we’ve been able to avoid the gangs coming against us [in large numbers] because of the sheer numbers of demonstrators.”
“There are five rogue elements working together to stop elections from taking place: the executive, 200 key people within the MPS and MNDF security forces, the JP and PPM, as well as the judiciary,” he explained. “These five rouge elements have skewed the whole electoral process and stopped elections.”
“[Additionally] the JP and PPM are not fully formed political parties because they have not been able to compete in an election, the result is what they are doing with the Supreme Court. They used this state institution to nullify the internationally endorsed free and fair election on September 7. They don’t work like political parties, they are like gangs. The don’t understand the rules of a multi-party democracy, they don’t even understand the concept of an exit poll,” he continued.
The results of September 7 first round demonstrate that the entire country is yellow, “MDP is what is holding this nation together,” he added.
Police message to protesters
Meanwhile, the Maldives Police Service has urged anyone taking part in demonstrations across the country to show consideration to the wider public when conducting their protests.
“Since impeding on the rights of others while attempting to exercise one’s own constitutional rights is not the most responsible course of action, the Maldives Police Service strongly urges all demonstrators to not conduct themselves in such a way,” read an official statement.