Unsurprising developments: Malé and the atolls

The UNDP last week confirmed what most in the Maldives are only too aware of, that the lives of those in the capital Malé bear increasingly little resemblance to those in the outer atolls.

The country’s second Human Development Index report revealed the Malé area to have achieved a ‘highly developed’ score, while the rest of the country lagged behind in the middling bracket.

“Where one is born within the Maldives determines many of the opportunities and choices available to a person,” concluded the report.

While the UNDP will meet with relevant stakeholders in the coming weeks in order to discuss the implementation of policies that might bridge this divide, the government pushed ahead with plans which many feel will only exacerbate the problem.

Recent developments promise only bridge the divide between the  the capital’s two largest islands, however, with the construction of the Malé-Hulhule bridge a prominent part of the government’s flagship plan to expand the reclaimed island into a ‘youth city’ of 50,000 people.

Meanwhile, responses to proposals for special economic zones in the country have ranged from skepticism to alarm as the country seeks to make itself attractive to foreign investors once again.

“What I see is that three quarters of the population would probably move to the capital and the rest of the country will be taken over by the corporations,” predicted Salma Fikry, a long-time campaigner for decentralisation.

“Everything is moving towards that direction and the Maldives will lose a lot of their culture – a lot of their lifestyle – these things that make us Maldivian,” she said.


Both Fikry and the online social movement the Rajjethere Meehun Party (RMP) have described the UNDP’s findings as “unsurprising”.

Citing the failures of successive governments to foster sustained development in the atolls, Fikry noted that the lack of political will for such projects had deep historical roots.

“The whole point of decentralisation is scary for the Maldivian government because they like to keep people dependent, they like to think of themselves as doing people favours,” she said.

“It’s very deep-rooted – the government in Malé has feared that the southerners and the northerners might revolt against the government because this has happened in the past.”

The most notable instance of separatism in the country came in the late fifties as the country’s three southernmost atolls seceded from the nation to form the United Suvadive Republic, with a lack of central government assistance being cited as a major reason for the breakaway.

While the short-lived republic was forcefully brought back under the authority of Malé in 1963, the issues appear to remain, with both Fuvahmulah and Addu City councils complaining of a lack of government support in local development.

Fuvahmulah Island Council recently blamed the Ministry of Health for dangerously under-resourced health facilities – an accusation repeated in Kulhudhuffushi this week, and Addu City Council has recently resolved to develop its own guest house tourism industry.

The concentration of the country’s dominant tourism industry has remained in the central atolls despite the government’s initial tourism master plans envisioning an even spread after the initial clustering around the capital in 70s and 80s.

Last week’s UNDP report cited the presence, or the absence, of tourism as a major contributor to to human development levels in the country’s disparate regions.

Despite the development of numerous regional airports, just under 40 percent of the country’s tourism capacity is located in Malé’s Kaafu atoll, with a recent survey showing that 85 percent of the country’s 1 million plus annual visitors reach their destination in less than hour’s journey from the capital.

Addu atoll – the country’s second most populous urban area – currently hosts just 3.6 percent of the country’s bed capacity, while at the opposite end of the country, residents of the only atoll in the country without a resort – Haa Dhaal – recently launched an online campaign calling for equitable development.

Special Economic Zones

The Special Economic Zones bill – recently introduced to the People’s Majlis – has been touted as a way to incentivise foreign investments, reduce the country’s reliance on tourism, and bring rapid development to the Maldives.

Proposals for nine economic zones throughout the atolls, which will include generous tax breaks and relaxed government oversight, have been greeted by many with caution.

Speaking after the launch of the UNDP report last week, Governor of the Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA) Dr Azeema Adam said that, with these incentives, the only benefits that the zones could bring would be local jobs.

“In the special economic zones, developers have the right to bring any amount of expatriate workers as well, so we might be able to generate jobs, but if those jobs go to expatriates we are not going to reap the benefit of such development activities,” said Dr Azeema.

Added to the absence of local expertise in relevant industries, the MMA governor said that serious questions should be asked about the benefit to local people – a point seconded by the RMP.

“On first read, it sounds like a monster in the making,” said the group. “The picture we get is is a scary one. Huge corporate agendas that could overtake all local ownership as well as national ownership of the Maldivian archipelago.”

Minivan News was unable to obtain comment from the Ministry of Economic Development or the Local Government Association at the time of publication.

Both the RMP and Fikry noted that, once an area is allocated as a special zone under the bill, all areas under the jurisdiction of local councils can be taken over.

“Is that really what we want in the long term – do we really want to be under a special zone superintendent by giving away our right to participation in our own development and governance?” asked Fikry.

Both suggested a better option for local development might be to allow for fiscal decentralisation as envisioned in the 2010 Decentralisation Act – whose provisions have yet to be fully enacted.

Failure to fully devolve the powers outlined in the landmark legislation has prompted Addu City mayor Mohamed Soabe to describe the legislation as “just for show”, while Malé City Deputy Mayor Shifa Mohamed has accused the current government of attempting to destroy decentralisation.

This week’s UNDP reports noted – when conducted on an optimal scale – decentralisation can have “positive effects” on human development.

However, with local councils rendered impotent by a dependence on central government finance and the relentless expansion of the capital, neither Fikry nor the RMP are anticipating any surprising developments soon.


Government seeks to “revert back to centralisation”, says MDP

Threats to disband Addu City Council are “impossible” and show lack of “political understanding” the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has said.

The statement follows warnings from President of Local Government Authority (LGA) and Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim that the council could be disbanded if it did not cooperate with the government.

The six member council was one of two administrative divisions – along with Malé City – designated as cities in the 2010 Decentralisation Act.

Both are dominated by the opposition MDP, with all six of Addu’s council seats being won by the party in recent local elections.

Speaking at a government coalition campaign rally held in Addu’s Hithadhoo island earlier this week, Nazim said that residents did not cooperate with the government and that this can create problems, local media reported.

“Action may have to be taken against them, and could lead to dissolving the council”, he was quoted as saying.

Speaking at the same rally, President Abdulla Yameen remarked, “while the MDP may say that they would hold the government accountable if they win a majority in parliament, they would in reality create problems for the government.”

In response to these comments, the MDP have released a statement characterising Nazim’s “unlawful threat” as a “warning to stop the empowerment and development of Addu City citizens.”

The opposition party accused the government of attempting to dissolve the Addu City Council in order to revert the country to autocratic rule.

“However, the people of Addu City have always shown that they will not bow to such dictatorial actions,” the statement read.

Spokesperson Hamid told Minivan News that the threats made by Nazim were impossible, and a sign of the government’s “desperation” and lack of political understanding.

“Decentralisation is very much welcome and they have tried to revert back to centralisation” he added.

As part of its Majlis election campaign, the MDP has pledged to amend the Decentralisation Act in order to empower local councils. Former President Nasheed has said the party’s aim was to secure financial independence for local government.

“We want each council to conduct business transactions using the island [to generate income] for establishing sewerage and water systems, build roads or even construct a harbour or do work needed for the school – we want to find a way for you to undertake these efforts on your own,” said Nasheed last month.

Budget for Addu

Prior to Nazim’s remarks, President Yameen told residents in Hithadhoo that the 2014 state budget comprised of developmental projects that would solve the problems in Addu City.

Speaking at a parliamentary campaign event held on Tuesday (March 18), the president said that apart from the projects that will be run via the state budget, he had also planned other developmental projects for Addu by obtaining funds from other sources, reported Haveeru.

“According to my information, 50 percent of the finance needed to deal with the land erosion problem has been arranged by the Saudi government. We have written a proposal to Kuwait Fund to attain the remaining 50 percent funds as loan aid,” Yameen was quoted as saying.

In addition, Yameen said that work on building the Islamic Centre in Hithadhoo will commence in June this year.

If the public wanted to see these plans completed, the governmental coalition would need to acquire the parliament’s majority, Yameen said, calling upon the people to vote for candidates representing the government’s Progressive Coalition.

Shortly after this year’s budget was proposed, Addu City Mayor Abdulla Sodig suggested the financial difficulties facing his council were a result of the failure to implement the Decentralisation Act properly.

“Right now decentralisation in this country is just for show,” Sodig told Minivan News in December. “The government and Majlis need to resolve these issues if the citizens are to benefit from decentralisation in a meaningful way.”

Under the landmark legislation, the LGA is tasked with monitoring councils, ensuring standards, improving technical capacity, and coordinating with the central government.

The LGA board consists of a cabinet minister appointed by the president, a member appointed from the MCC, four atoll councillors elected from among members of atoll councils, a representative from civil society appointed by parliament, a member of the general public appointed by parliament, and a member elected from the Addu and Malé city councils.


Political turmoil and lack of cash challenging supply of drinking water to islands

Islands are hoping for a reprieve to water shortages as the dry season ends, while political turmoil stalls drinking water supply projects.

The Maldives’ Disaster Management Centre has said long-term strategies are being developed to address ongoing drinking water shortages affecting 117 inhabited islands this year alone. The focus comes as some local authorities raise concerns over the level of financial support set aside to assist with dwindling water supplies.

Disaster Management Centre Project Officer Hisan Hassan told Minivan News that in just a “short space of time”, the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) had moved to refill public water tanks on 86 of the 117 islands that have raised concerns over water availability.

Local authorities in Addu Atoll have said that as the country’s “dry season” – resulting from the north-east monsoon – draws to an end for this year, heavier rainfall is expected to partly alleviate short-term pressures on island water supplies. However, the same authorities stressed that finance remains a key challenge to ensure water demand can be met in the future through projects like desalination plants and collection tanks.

Looking beyond the drinking water shortages that have arisen during the first four months of 2012, Hisan Hassan claimed a cabinet paper was now being prepared to outline longer-term measures for managing water supplies across the country. He said that the paper focuses on dividing the country into seven administrative regions that would take a more localised approach to shore up water supplies. An emergency operation had already been established to collect information from local islands on the current scale of water supply issues as part of this new focus, according to Hassan.

With a further 13 islands said to be facing uncertainty over their remaining reserves of drinkable water, the Disaster Management Centre said budgetary issues were a strong concern in dealing with possible demand surplus.

Hassan said that with the the country’s south-west monsoon wet season commencing this month, heavier rainfall was expected to be seen in the next few days on a number of islands dealing with low water supplies.

“Met Office predictions have suggested we will see heavy rain in the country’s north and south atolls,” he said. “We do not have confirmed information on this, so we will checking these weather patterns to see if the rain will replenish supplies.”

Minivan News reported last month that in the country’s southerly Addu Atoll, an estimated 90 percent of the local population were reliant on rainfall to bolster their drinking water supplies. Numerous islands in the atoll are said to experience severe supply issues for drinking water annually as a result.

Tsunami impact

Hisan Hassan claimed that the issue of island water supplies had been an ongoing problem for the Maldives since 2004, when a large number of islands were affected by the December 26 tsunami that devastated the wider South Asia region.

“What has happened was that after the tsunami in 2004, 80 percent of islands including the country’s resort properties were flooded with salt water,” he said. “This salt water contaminated ground water, which is the main source of drinking water for many islands.”

From a meteorological perspective, Met Office Deputy Director General Ali Shareef said that the levels of rainfall during the first four months of the current year had been below the national average for the period.

Though unwilling to speculate whether the patterns were part of a trend, Shareef claimed that similar below average rainfall had been recorded over the same period of time in both 2011 and 2010. He added that temperature – another issue likely to impact water consumption – was found to have been consistent in recent years.

The Met Office said the issue of rainfall was just one of a number of factors that had compounded water supply issues of late.

With a growing national population, Shareef said he believed that another concern was over the capacity of the nation’s water collection tanks, which he contended were increasingly struggling to meet demand.

“The water shortages are not completely based on the amount of rain. This year’s [average] rainfall is just about higher than in 2011,” he said. “We may also need to look at how consumers in the country are using their water supplies.”

Addu Atoll is one area that has experienced ongoing problems with maintaining drinking water levels. A number of islands in the atoll such as Feydhoo and Hithadhoo have requested assistance in boosting their supplies.

Addu City Mayor Abdulla Sodig said that in addressing these concerns, some local resort properties, as well as the MNDF’s southern command had been “very supportive” during the last few years in helping to maintain water supplies to the region.

“The MNDF have been very supportive since day one. We have also been getting support from certain resorts that have actually been supplying free water,” he said.

According to Sodig, with the 2012 dry season now having officially passed, an anticipated increase in rainfall was expected to alleviate present concerns about water levels.

“We’re getting enough rain now and I think the problems [with water supplies] will be solved for the moment,” he added.

Looking ahead to the next year, Sodig claimed financial support was proving to be the key challenge in ensuring sufficient supplies of drinking water to the public.

“The regional port here for example has a desalination plant that can distribute water. The MNDF also has one as well, though this is smaller in capacity,” he said. “There are enough desalination plants here to produce water, so the challenge remains a financial one. At present we are buying water from desalination plants at Rf90 per tonne (US$6).”

Sodig alleged that despite providing financial support back in 2009 and 2010 to aid water supply efforts , the Disaster Management Centre had not been providing as much economic assistance of late.

He added that last year, the government had initiated a multi-million dollar water management and sanitation project in collaboration with a foreign infrastructure specialist.

According to Sodig, the potential benefits of the project are expected to be seen in the next few months through the provision of water supplies directly to homes on the island of Hithadoo.

He raised concerns about the long-term viability of the part government-funded project, due in part to political uncertainty following the controversial transfer of power on February 7.

“Right now the project is trying to get a loan from a UK-based company,” he claimed. “However, this has been withheld due to the political situation here.  The loan will not be handed over until elections are held.”

Asked about the challenges facing the government in addressing the country’s water supply shortages, President’s Office Media Secretary Masood Imad requested Minivan News contact the local water board.

“If you were in another country, you wouldn’t contact the White House or Buckingham Palace about water shortages,” he said.


“Sword of Damocles” hangs above Nasheed: European parliamentary delegation

The European Parliament’s Delegation for relations with South Asia has expressed “deep concern” at the deterioration of the situation in the Maldives.

“The European Union had deployed a team of experts to observe the first democratic Presidential elections held in the country in 2008; a sword of Damocles now hangs above the winner of these elections, with his arrest warrant already issued on unspecified grounds,” said a statement from delegation chair Jean Lambert.

“We understand a number of MPs and local councillors have also been detained or are in hospital following continued police violence,” Lambert added, further noting that several EU countries have issued travel advisories for the Maldives as “public resentment and violence are now spreading well beyond the capital.”

Urging Maldivian security forces to act according to their position and the law, the Lambert regretted that “credible signs [of establishing a National Unity Government] have yet to be witnessed.”

The situation in the Maldives has also turned up in the Australian parliament, in reference to Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s own assumption of power from Kevin Rudd. Gillard’s office had prepared an acceptance speech two weeks before Rudd was deposed as leader of the party.

“While the new leader of the Maldives says he did not bring about the coup, reports have surfaced that he was involved in coup preparations that began weeks earlier,” said opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop.

“Does the foreign minister agree that the new leader should tell the full truth about his involvement in the coup?”
Rudd, who is now foreign minister and participated in the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAGS)’s urgent teleconference on the Maldives’ situation, reminded parliamentarians that “much is at stake” in the Maldives.

“Those opposite seem to think that this is a trivial matter, when hundreds of people are being beaten in the streets,” the foreign minister said.

“Those opposite trivialise the fact that hundreds of people have been arrested, that hundreds of people have been subjected to violence in the streets of the capital city of Male and on top of that, that we are likely to have seen the forced removal – under threat of armed violence with guns – of a democratically elected head of state.”

Rudd said he had spoken to the former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, three nights ago and had been involved in moves to send a Commonwealth mission to Male to establish whether the coup occurred through violent means.

“If so, the necessary course of action would be suspension from the Commonwealth. We take these matters seriously,” Rudd said. “As foreign minister of Australia I do not regard them as trivial.”

In recent days the UK and Germany have also indicated that an independent investigation into the nature of the power transfer would be necessary to “consolidate [the new government’s] legitimacy.”

The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs has said it remains “too early” to judge what conclusions its Heads of Missions (HoMs) will draw from their visit to the politically turbulent Maldives.

Amidst calls from member states like the UK and Germany to hold an “independent inquiry” into the circumstances that saw President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik come to power last week in an alleged “coup d’etat”, the EU said it has not reached a decision on the current government’s legitimacy.

“The EU has not taken a definitive position on the events leading to the transfer of power, so we would wait for the conclusions of the investigation,” said a spokesperson for the Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton.

“In the meantime, we look forward to the establishment of a unity government, to dialogue among all political forces and for all parties to refrain from violence.”

In an interview with AFP news agency President Waheed gave assurances that he would welcome the visit of a nine-member Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) to ascertain details of the transfer of power in the country.

Several international human rights groups have nonetheless questioned the legitimacy of President Waheed’s government, which has faced widespread civil unrest and allegations of supporting violent crackdowns on members and supporters of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) by security forces tasked with securing the public.

Yet in an interview with The Australian newspaper this week, President Waheed called for Australia to support the legitimacy of his government amidst “untrue” claims he had come to power in a “coup”. He also pledged to push ahead with attempts at further democratic reform.

EU fact finding

According to the spokesperson for High Representative Ashton, last weekend’s visit of the HoMs was planned before the presidential turnover.

“However, in the current circumstances, the main focus of the mission is to assess the situation and meet with all major political parties, civil society and key institutions,” they stated. “It is yet too early to judge what the final findings of this HoMs fact-finding mission will be.”

When asked about allegations and reports emerging from across the country about violent crackdowns by some security forces and figures posing as police in areas like Addu Atoll, the EU said it would again be awaiting findings from the Maldives’ Human Rights Commission before making any statements.

“We welcome the role of the Human Rights Commission and other mandated bodies to investigate any possible wrongdoings by the government institutions,” added the bloc spokesperson.

Amongst criticism from a number of human rights organisations regarding the nature of the change in power, the UK Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission insists that establishing the legitimacy of the Maldives new government is not just relevant, but crucial to any resolution of the current unrest.

Commission Deputy Chair Ben Rogers said that any government hoping to be recognised as legitimate ultimately requires a people’s mandate.

“I believe Dr Waheed should hand over power to the Speaker and an interim government, and then fresh elections, with international monitors, should be held in three months,” he said. “In the meantime he should guarantee Mohamed Nasheed’s security and liberty, and the safety and freedom of other MDP members.”

US talks, IPU walks

Foreign diplomats have so far backed the plans forwarded by Waheed, who claims he is trying to form a national unity government ahead of the 2013 presidential elections.

On a visit to Male’ over the weekend, United States’ Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake encouraged the coalition of “former opposition” political parties affiliated with the new government to “work with all parties to reform and improve the capacity of the judiciary, the police and the election commission to maintain a democratic transition.

Nasheed’s supporters have rejected Waheed’s government as a legitimate ruling body and have refused to participate in its administration.

Challenged by a foreign journalist over the legality of the transition, Blake stated that America’s commitment was to the new government of the Maldives.

“The United states remains committed to working with all Maldivian people to ensure a democratic and prosperous future for this important friend of the United States,” Blake said.

However, he added that there were “some questions regarding the transfer of power” and suggested that an independent Maldivian commission be formed to investigate the issue, before arriving at conclusions.

In a more aggressive move, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), a close affiliate of the United Nations, is sending an urgent mission to the Maldives to address concerns over the reported beating and detention of lawmakers.

“I am very worried about recent news alleging harassment and beatings of members of parliament and the continued detention of one of them,” said IPU President Abdulwahad Radi in a statement yesterday.

MDP Parliamentary Group yesterday released a statement categorically describing the beatings and in some cases detention of 10 MPs by security forces on capital Male’. Accompanying photos lend credibility to the claims.

Urging authorities to exercise “restraint”, Radi advised that “inclusive political dialogue” was the only solution to the current crisis. “It is essential that an atmosphere of non-violence, restraint and stability be established,” he said.

Radi further requested Maldivian officials to respect their parliament’s mandate while assuring that the IPU mission would meet with “all political actors concerned” with the country’s crisis.

The IPU, a conglomeration of 159 member countries founded in 1899, connects elected representatives from different nations and regions.


SAARC to dark: Violent social divide in Addu as uncertainty grips southern-most atoll

One of society’s biggest fear factors is uncertainty, and in Addu it appears to be fueling a violent social divide in the isolated MDP stronghold – the second most heavily populated area in the Maldives after Male’ and the scene of the SAARC Summit in November 2011.

On Saturday several members of the international press flew to the southern-most atoll to investigate claims of firey protests, beatings and unjustified arrests. While the torched remains of every police building and most courts between Gan and hithadhoo are proof that destruction of public property – and many legal records – has taken place, the back-and-forth ‘whodunnit’ accusations color fears of revolution with a strong shade of small-town politics.

“The police’s personal property, their computers, was burned inside the stations,” observed Alif Fahumy Ahmed. “This isn’t necessarily political.”

On Wednesday night police stations and court houses in six southern atolls were torched after police violently cracked down on a Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) march in the capital Male, in which thousands marched in support of ousted president Mohamed Nasheed.

Nasheed’s decision to order the detention of Chief Judge of the Criminal Court on January 16, in an attempt to push forward judicial reform, prompted three weeks of opposition-led protests with a nightly attendance of 200-400 people, culminating on Tuesday in what many have called a military coup.

While the southern protests were said to be the work of MDP supporters, in Addu, which claims a majority MDP population, people have begun slicing and dicing the duty.

“Maldivians are a very innocent people, but this violence was brought by MDP,” said Ani Luthfy, who yesterday organised a ‘protest for safety’ in Addu, with the rapidly-formed and ‘non-political’ Addu Alliance.

The placards that greeted journalists included “Ex-President was not coerced into stepping down” and “Violence and conflicts won’t help resolve our ecomonic problems”.

“Addu MDP [Councillor] Hussein Shahid gave 30 young people alcohol and when they were drunk he led them out to do the burning,” he alleged, adding that MDP activists have acted like “hooligans”.

Police meanwhile yesterday reported the arrest of MP Moosa Rasheed, Addu City Hithadhoo Medhu Dhaairaa. His arrest reportedly followed an investigation into a spate of attacks in Addu City that occurred on February 8, following a brutal police crackdown on protesters in Male’. Police say that he was arrested lawfully, under a warrant issued by the court and in consideration of various evidence including video footage and eyewitness accounts that connected him to that night’s incidents.

According to police yesterday, tensions escalated in the islands after rumours of serious injury and the death of former President Mohamed Nasheed at the hands of security forces on Wednesday reached the islands.

Luthfy said, “we have a motto: live and let others live.” He said the alliance would continue to protest until Addu was “100 percent safe”, a point in time he defined as “When the police have taken all MDP who are in hiding.”

Meanwhile Muaz Saleem, a prominent MDP supporter on Hithadhoo, said the group “was just going in front of Gan police station to express our concerns” on Wednesday.

“Who knows if police may have started [the fire]? They left before people went in, where was the tear gas? We strongly believe the opposition encouraged people to start the violence, it was a plan. ”

A former member of Hithadhoo council, who requested anonymity and did not wish to discuss his resignation last year, suggested the opposite. “The funniest thing is that the mayor [MDP member abdullah sodig] hasn’t issued a statement about this,” he said, estimating the damage at Rf200-300 million (US$13-20 million).

Sodig has been in hiding since he was attacked Wednesday evening.

The former council member confirmed that many have followed Sodig’s lead. “Because of this protest most people are on a wanted list, ” he explained, suggesting that to some extent the list was justified: “There are CCTV camera tapes with evidence.”

Amid speculation, police have taken action. MDP supporters said they have been targeted by police and military forces, who were deployed to Addu after Wednesday. They claim the “hit list” has been drawn up by members of opposition parties Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and Dhivehi Rayyithunge Prty (DRP), and that those individuals are assisting security forces to beat and arrest MDP members – often without evidence.

One 22 yr old man, who claims not to have participated in any recent gathering, said he was handcuffed and pepper sprayed in his eyes and genital area along with 40 other people. ” because of the violence, they said, I was a terrorist. They said we had dstroyed everything.” he added that some members of the detained group were told to take off their shirts and were taken to a separate area of the burned Gan police station “to be beaten. I could hear the shouting, and cries.”

Minivan News received unconfirmed reports that the Elections Commission’s SMS service – which allows people to send their national ID number and find out what party they are registered to – was being abused by groups of police aided by opposition supporters, to ‘hunt down’ MDP members.

While sources claim the attacks are directed at MDP, their stories suggest that the security forces are not operating with a political-or evidence-based motive.

Two young men interviewed, one of whom sported a bruised right eye, denied being part of any political party. Another said he wasn’t even part of the protest. Yet none would give names “because it might not be good, they said if I talked about what I saw they would come back.”

Muaz Haleem’s wife said the violation of her right to privacy at home, and the lack of an explanation, are her biggest concerns.

She reports seeing several policemen run into her home with raised batons yelling an unfamiliar name. “I said it was the wrong house, wrong name. But they pushed me down and said, ‘now we want Muaz ‘ and began beating him and dragging him out of the house.”

“I asked about the court order, and they said, ‘What court order? You guys burned down the court house. What rights do you want?'”

She explained that her neighbors have been far from helpful – in fact, they were part of the problem.

“Most people on the other side of the road are PPM (Gayoom’s Progressive Party of the Maldives). Mr Hamid was out there directing the whole thing, pointing at the house and everything.”

The family of Mohamed Saeed, whose detention has been extended by 15 days, said they too had not been informed of Saeed’s arrest, and that their neighbors are only cautiously supportive.

“They ask for news, but they are afraid to help because they could also be taken,” his wife explained.

Saeed is one of approximately 80 men who are still being held in the remains of Gan police station, reportedly in terrible conditions.

“He has asked to go to the hospital but they say they have no vehicle,” his brother in law said.

Others, such as Haleem, appear to have been detained on an aggressive whim, in retaliation for the destruction of police property.

“They gave me a cup for tea and then struck it down. They just dumped people in the courtyard of the station amid the broken glass and burnt debris, and pushed me down to the ground for sleeping,” he said. Haleem currently has a swollen left wrist and cuts where he claims the handcuffs were squeezed closed.

While Haleem believes the security forces are targeting MDP members, he suggests that their motive is more personal than political.

“It looks like there is a massive financial factor,” he said. “We have had the trust of the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) for ages in this country, but under Nasheed individual police have shown they are motivated by something. I don’t have proof, but that’s what I strongly believe.”

He further explained that “The opposition has fewer numbers, but now that they have the security forces with them, they can act.”

Meanwhile most who claim to support the current government are consistently saying “It’s not the opposition, and they’re not beating people. The police have just asked the public for assistance,” explained a former councillor.

No members of opposition parties have been reported beaten, arrested, or detained.

Meanwhile, the arrival of the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) has triggered some over-excitement. One MDP member yesterday informed the author that the police had lied to HRCM about the whereabouts of a detainee, and that HRCM was arguing with police over the matter.

HRCM’s delegation in Addu later stated that the detainee had been released from the hospital by the time HRCM had gone to look for him, and that he is now at home.

As high level delegations hold conference with President Dr Waheed and former president Nasheed, and HRCM surveys police operations in Addu along with the Police Integrity Commission (PIC), police and military appear only watchful. Still, the tense mood is palpable.

“We are not safe because we don’t know when again it will start,” said one man outside Feydhoo’s smoldering court house.

Ahmed said he had no confidence that the political issues in Male will be quickly resolved: “Things in Addu have calmed at the moment, but they may continue once HRCM and the reporters leave.”

It remain to be seen whether similar violence and revenge attacks will grip Male’, once the international community departs and visiting foreign journalists run out of stories.

The 'Addu Alliance' greeted foreign journalists, in support of Dr Waheed's government.

Indian Ocean ferry service and renewable energy investment among key SAARC agreements

The 17th SAARC Summit concluded today with the signing of the ‘Addu Declaration’, containing a number of key agreements affecting the region.

One of the most significant for the Maldives was a commitment to ensure that final preparations for an Indian Ocean passenger and cargo ferry service were completed by the end of December.

In a press conference following the closing ceremony, SAARC Chairman President Mohamed Nasheed pointed out that this development would allow someone to cheaply travel from Kulhudhuffushi in the country’s north to Colombo or Kochi in as much time as it would take them to reach Male’.

Other agreements included the strengthing of the SAARC Secretariat, the establishment of a South Asian Postal Union, and intensification of efforts to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade and reduce the sensitive list.

During the Summit, India had announced its intention to reduce its sensitive list for Least Development Countries (LDCs) from 480 tariff lines to 25, with zero customs duty for those items removed.

An unexpected commitment was an agreement in principle that SAARC countries would spend an “appropriate proportion” of their national income on renewable energy technologies.

The percentage would be determined by energy authorities and finance ministers in each country, but Nasheed said that if investment reached even one percent it would create the world’s largest market for renewable energy technology overnight.

No agreement was reached regarding the possibility of installing a human rights mechanism in SAARC, however Nasheed said the matter had come up as dear to several SAARC leaders, who had spent time in jail and faced torture over their politics.

“I don’t think they will stop talking about human rights,” he said.

The Heads of State also agreed further measures to combat maritime piracy in the region.

“When the next season of pirates drift into the Maldives, we must be able to deal with them,” he said.

“It is not a matter of stopping them, but what we do with them after we capture them,” he said, noting that the Maldives currently had 37 in custody.

“They have no ammunition on board by the time they reach the Maldives, and no passport or identification papers, so we can only treat such a person as a refugee adrift.”

Observer statements

During the closing ceremony observers from eight countries made statements in support of SAARC, reaffirming various commitments in the region.

The Australian representative observed that Australia was united with South Asia not just through sharing the Indian Ocean, but through a shared love and appreciation of cricket – 80 percent of the market for which was based in South Asia.

Australia pledged an additional AUD$20 million over two years, extending its support for infrastructure development to AUD$40 million over six years, and announced 297 scholarships to South Asian countries in 2012.

China meanwhile announced an additional donation of US$300,000 to the SAARC Development Fund.

The European Union welcomed steps taken at SAARC to move beyond trade to also cover political issues, such as counter terrorism.

The former “complexity” of SAARC had compelled the EU in one instance to decommit funds allocated for developing standards, the representative noted, but highlighted a €6.5 million commitment in civil aviation cooperation.

Iran noted its shared linguistic heritage with South Asian countries and raised the possibility of tourism cooperation.

Japan meanwhile thanked the Maldives for its contribution of 69,000 tins of tuna following the earthquake in March, and pledged broad support around the region. Particular emphasis, the representative said, included stability in Afghanistan, democracy in Pakistan, peace and security in Nepal, disaster preparedness in Bangladesh, and democracy consolidation in Bhutan and the Maldives.

The representative from the Republic of Korea noted that it was only in the last 50 years that Korea had transformed itself from a recipient of donor aid to an OECD country, and announced that the country intended to triple its overseas development commitment by 2015.

The representative from Myanmar/Burma announced his country’s desire to promote trade with SAARC countries, given its proximity.

The country was in the process of transitioning from a military government to a democracy, he claimed, appealing for the “understanding and support of the international community.”

The United States representative reiterated Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s ambition to help establish “a new silk road” in South Asia, which would in turn address insecurity and extremism plaguing the region.

The US was very encouraged by the bilateral talks and trade agreements negotiated between India and Pakistan during the SAARC Summit.

At the same time, the US urged the need for greater transparency and accountability of government “in the pursuit of better government.”

Parallel ‘People’s SAARC’

The parallel ‘People’s SAARC’, a collective of South Asian civil society organisations, meanwhile observed that the Summit was taking place “at a time when South Asian states are beginning to look inwards to realize the region’s immense political, economic, and diplomatic potential.”

“While the agenda of economic and social development might have moved up as a priority item for the SAARC countries, South Asian states continue to veer towards their aspirations for superior military might, prompting them to divert resources from developmental goals.”

The parallel SAARC urged leaders to close the income gap by dropping “wasteful” expenditure of further militarisation, institute a regional human rights mechanism protecting the rights of migrant workers, and create and independent climate commission.

“We would also like to see the establishment of a regional monitoring body with a mandate to assess the compliance of the member states in installing, safeguarding and institutionalising democratic governance.”

“SAARC should encourage member states to adopt competent and credible constitutional, legal and administrative framework to end all forms of discrimination, displacement, deprivation and the deeply rooted culture of impunity to secure a better future for the billions on inhabitants of the region,” the statement read.


Retreat for leaders’ spouses held in Fuvamulah

A Maldivian musical on water and a cultural village perched high on the beach were the highlights of the spousal retreat held in Fuvamulah today.

Fuvamulah, co-host of the 17th SAARC summit along with Addu City, has been the venue of activities for the SAARC Festival since the start of November.

These have included a kite festival, bashi competition (a game played exclusively by women using a badminton racket and tennis balls), and the ‘Cricket 20Twenty Cup Tournament’ among seven SAARC member nations. Beach volleyball and futsal tournaments meanwhile took place in Addu City.

“We are very happy to be part of this SAARC summit as this will open Fuvamulah to the world. Our famed thundi (southern beach) and the beauty of this island will be visible for all to see” said Ali Zaeed, Fuvamulah Councillor, ahead of today’s events.

Fuvamulah is located in the south of Maldives near Addu City, which together makes up the Southern Province. Fuvamulah is both an atoll and an island and is geographically considered to be one of the most unique islands in the Maldives, with two fresh water lakes and beaches lined with black stones, white flat pebbles, white sand and rocks located on different sides of the island.

“Indian prime minister Mr Manmohan Singh’s wife and Sri Lankan president’s wife along with spouses of foreign ministers present…is expected to come to Fuvamulah in the afternoon tomorrow” said Zaid last week. Though preparations for the spousal retreat were in full swing during the week, Zaid expected the preparations to be completed on schedule.

The spouses flew into Fuvamulah on the day that the first scheduled flights started in the newly built domestic airport.

A musical

200 secondary students performed a welcome dance near the tarmac of the domestic airport. A rehearsal of the events took place on Tuesday with first lady Laila Ali in attendance.

The dance choreographed by Munko featured a traditional dance to the song ‘Rashu Vehi’ (Island environment). The song is the first three couplets of an old Fuvamulah poem extolling the virtues of the island and its uniqueness.

After arrival the spouses proceeded to the biggest lake in Fuvamulah ‘Bandaara Kulhi.’ A newly built platform offered a splendid view of the lake where a romantic Maldivian musical was displayed.

“Performers in 11 boats in traditional attire, will depict a love story, which will show a couple falling in love, the pain of separation, before finding each other again,” said Mifraah (Mifu) Abdul Muhaimin, Fuvamulah coordinator for the official event, speaking to Minivan News last week.

“Fuvamulah has been isolated for very long, so once the hero leaves, he can’t come back easily,” Mifu said.

Coordinating rowing boats for a performance was not an easy task, though the performers from all walks of life, and ages were very enthusiastic about the musical. Though the one thing they all have in common is that they know how to swim, essential for a performance over water.

The musical takes inspiration from the story of Dhonhiyala and Alifulhu, Maldivian equivalent of Romeo and Juliette.

The soundtrack was a fusion of Maldivian songs and old forms of poetry. Among them Raivaru, a form of poetry that takes place as a dialogue between two or more people and that was used in the past to woo prospective partners.

Apart from the hero and heroine, the performers on the other boats showcased Fuvamulah handicraft, like rope weaving, weaving thatch, and making kasabu (the neckline of traditional Maldivian garment made using gold stitches)

“We have made sure that we use traditional garments and authentic stuff for all the events,” said Mifu.

Cultural display

The southern beach of Fuvamulah was the last stop for the spouses. The wide beach famous for its beauty is made up of small flat white pebbles in contrast to the white sandy beaches commonly found in Maldives.

The cultural village is on the high end of the beach with eight thatch roof huts that depicts Maldivian life of yesteryears.

“We did a lot of research to get the authentic look of each hut,” said Ali Amir, who did the concept and design of the village. MNDF created the village based on a detailed sketch of the village. Research consisted of reading what little written account was available and in reference to oral history.

“We talked to elderly people in this island. This required a lot of patience as some of them are very old and sick in some cases, so we had to meet them at times convenient to them” said Amir.

The antique furnishings inside the huts, like ashi (bench beds), swings and a 200-year-old farivalhu (container decorated with lacquer work used to serve food) among others, were sourced from different houses in the island.

The village consists of hut of fisherman, farmer, blacksmith, island chief, edhuruge (house of the only teacher) and places like a boat building hut, a yam storage place and hut of a Vaaruveriyaa (governor from central government). The latter vaaruveriya was the person charged with governing individual islands for a brief time in history until Maldives became a republic in 1953.

“The sultan would send an edict to a person he chooses appointing him as the Vaaruveriya of that island” said Ali Didi, the consultant for the project and Fuvamulah island’s resident history expert.

From that moment the Vaaruveriyaa would take charge of the running of the affairs of the island and trade from the comfort of his own house. All produce of the island, be it vegetables or fruits from trees in islander’s own backyard, had to be presented to him.

“He would not have a fixed income, but would get to keep 1/10 of all items he trades,” Didi explained.

“Most of us live in a concrete jungle now, it’s a respite to go back to the days of the past, and see the simple life again” said Amir.

The retreat come to an end with evening tea served Shiranthi Wikremasinghe, soaking in the simplicity of Maldivian lifestyle in a cultural village in one of the most beautiful spots in a unique island atoll.


Scale of the SAARC Summit

Addu’s new convention centre, purpose-built for the SAARC Summit, looms out of a deserted patch of swampy marshland in Hithadhoo like some kind of spaceship, thoroughly incongruous with the background.

When Minivan News first visited yesterday, a large crowd of local residents stood by the road leading to the giant building, staring at it dumbfounded as if waiting for extraterrestrials to emerge.

Past the polished lobby, the cavernous chamber inside is warmly lined with wood and resembles a modern concert hall. Opposition media outlets have ungenerously suggested the structure is sinking into the swamp, while assorted government officials were quick to attribute this to political jealousy.

Addu is a fiercely independent atoll, neglected by successive governments following an abortive attempt to secede from the Maldives alongside Huvadhu Atoll and Fuvahmulah as the United Suvadive Republic in 1959. This was brutally crushed in 1962 by then-President Ibrahim Nasir using a gunboat borrowed from Sri Lanka, and the entire island of Havaru Thinadhoo was depopulated and its inhabitants dispersed, killed or imprisoned.

The presence of the British airbase at Gan ensured steady employment, English proficiency and free medical treatment. Even today a disproportionate number of the country’s most successful businessmen are from Addu.

The departure of the RAF in 1976 hit the atoll’s independence hard, and the tourism boom beginning to take hold in other parts of the Maldives was slow to develop in Addu despite the presence of an airport and some of the country’s best dive spots.

President Mohamed Nasheed’s decision to declare Addu Atoll a city prior to the local council elections, the declaration that it would be hosting the SAARC Summit, and the building of the convention centre has played to the atoll’s independent sentiment and given it unprecedented political recognition.

There are 30,000 votes in that sentiment – and an additional 8000 with the opening of the new airport at Fumuvalah, a single-island atoll and the country’s most isolated, surrounded by rough and inhospitable seas.

As a domestic political strategy, SAARC appears to be working. Driving along the link road from Gan to Hithadhoo yesterday, Minivan News observed amid the country flags of SAARC nations an abundance of yellow buildings, the colour of President Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

A local woman, sweeping up weeds with a rake under a large billboard, described her work as a “national duty”. The billboard read: “Thank you President Nasheed, you led us to believe in dreams.”

Development after SAARC

Speaking to Minivan News in between juggling mobile phones, Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem observed that conferencing and event tourism had “huge potential” in the Maldives, given the country’s already “five star personality”. It would shift the Maldives from its reliance on beach and sun tourism, he suggested.

There were, he noted, some “tabloid” opinions about the centre, but said there was already interest in the tender for running the centre post-SAARC and the construction of a nearby hotel from hoteliers around the country and region.

“The infrastructure has been developed and people have been trained to run this kind of event,” he said.

SAARC dignitaries have been staying at the upmarket Shangri-La Villingili resort, while journalists around the world from London to Bangladesh have taken over Equator Village, the former RAF Sergeant’s mess, moaning about the sporadic shuttle bus and opportunistic US$10 taxi fares.

The locals have meanwhile launched a campaign of parades and evening entertainment, with music performances and enough fairy lighting along the link road as to give the place a festive feel. Participation was initially muted, acknowleged one official – “everyone still seems surprised. It hasn’t sunk in yet.”

Among the most successful local operations is the Hubasaana 2011 Arts, Crafts and Food festival, which has set up stalls at major venues and been doing a brisk trade in T-shirts, local handicrafts, and peppery Adduan short-eats and banana-leaf wrapped medicines all made by local producers. Trails of foreign journalists crunching their way through packets of homemade spicy gulha are a common sight.

Stalls have been selling local foods and handicrafts to visitors

SAARC Summit

The key day of the Summit is November 10, the opening ceremony during which SAARC heads of state will give their address. During the two-day Summit all traffic in the atoll will be stalled, divers pulled out of the water, and travel on the link road restricted. Last night checkpoints backed up as police logged the registration of every passing vehicle.

During the presence of the world leaders mobile communications around the centre will be jammed; foreign journalists became flustered after being told they would be unable to take laptops or phones into the convention centre during the opening and closing ceremonies due to tight security.

Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem told Minivan News the most important objective of the Summit was to improve and promote trade in the region, and remove existing barriers and impediments: “only three percent of trade among SAARC countries is regional.”

“We should adopt SAFTA (South Asian Free Trade Area) as soon as possible,” he said.

Economically, the Maldives is most concerned about developing ferry transport connections with countries in the region, reducing its dependence on air travel, and on the climate change front, “promoting renewable energy investment”.

Naseem also raised the prospect of introducing a human rights mechanism into SAARC, but acknowledged that it was ambitious and that SAARC had “an embedded system.”

There was, however, “a lot of good will on all sides”, he said. SAARC would be a success “even if we can agree on the issues to be solved.”

For Addu, the outcome of SAARC has already been assured.


Foreign dignitaries arrive as Addu prepares for largest event in atoll’s history

Foreign dignitaries and heads of state from around the region have begun arriving in the Maldives for the 17th Summit of the South Asian Association For Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

The main Summit will run over November 10-11, however Minivan News understands that most of the talks between leaders will take place in the preceding days, together with the key decisions.

Leaders of all SAARC countries – including Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan – have confirmed their attendance, according to the Maldives’ Foreign Ministry, while President Nasheed has already departed to oversee the remaining preparations.

In addition, ministers from Australia, Japan and China will join the Summit as observers. The Maldives’ former envoy for South Asia, Fathimath Dhiyana Saeed is serving as SAARC’s Secretary-General.

Media coverage of the event across the region has sharply increased with the departure of national leaders from their home countries.

One particularly anticipated event is the meeting between Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and his Indian counterpart Dr Manmohan Singh, with Pakistan’s Business Recorder reporting that the meeting “on the sidelines” has been finalised for the 11th by the Foreign Office of Pakistan and India’s External Affairs Ministry.

According to the Recorder, the pair are due to discuss resuming dialogue between the two countries, as well as trade concessions. The two leaders also met earlier this year in Mohali on the eve of Pakistan-India cricket World Cup semi-final.

The Hindu reported India’s Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai as stating that topics of discussion between the two leaders would concern “the quick return of the military helicopter that had strayed into Pakistani territory, the in-principle decision by Pakistan to give most favoured nation (MFN) status to India and the visit of a Pakistani Judicial Commission to Mumbai.”

Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, is meanwhile due to depart Dhaka on the 9th, arriving at 3:30pm on the Wednesday, reports the Bangladeshi media.

Sheikh Hasina is due to have a bilateral meeting with Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh at Dr Ali’s Restaurant on the Shangri-La Villingili Resort, reports Bangladesh’s Daily Star newspaper, and will later attend a state banquet on Hulhumeedhoo.

Bangladeshi officials outlined key topics at the Summit as revolving around poverty alleviation, economic cooperation, the SAARC Development Fund, food security, connectivity, energy and climate change, with four regional agreements: Rapid Response to Natural Disasters, Seed Bank, Multilateral Recognition of Conformity Assessment and Implementation of Regional Standards as likely to be signed during the event.

Security at the event will be tight, with all traffic in the atoll restricted to military-run vessels. Joint Inter Agency Taskforce Commander Hassan Ziyad has observed that many of the leaders attending are “considered high risk even in their own countries,” and that respective domestic security threats are being taken into account by SAARC security forces.

All attending countries are providing security measures. Indian surveillance aircraft and navy vessels are patrolling the areas around Addu City and Fuvahmulah, while Sri Lanka has deployed six teams of sniffer dogs.

In India, the Hindu has meanwhile reported that a parallel “People’s SAARC” would be held in Thiruvananthapuram, in which political leaders would share the podium with “historians, writers, human rights activists and representatives of people’s movements”, during a two-day meeting of social action groups beginning on November 8.

“It will also focus on trade and livelihood issues, women’s role in people’s movements, de-militarisation and de-nuclearisation, natural resources and people’s movements and rebuilding the labour movement in the region. Other major concerns and topics to be discussed include exclusion, discrimination, oppression and tolerance, syncretism and secularism,” the Hindu reported.

Organisers of the parallel summit were reported as stating that “SAARC has comprehensively failed to take up issues confronted by the people of this region, which is home to the largest number of the world’s working poor.”

The Maldivian government has touted the SAARC as revitalising the southern atoll, highlighting its potential for development and putting it forward as a flagship for its ambitions to decentralise the country and take the pressure off Male’ – the most densely populated 2.2 square kilometres in the world.

Addu was granted the status of city in the lead up to the local council elections earlier this year, a move which met with heated disagreement from political opposition groups. The new city voted overwhelmingly for the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), with the party winning all council seats in both Male’ and Addu.

The MDP claimed victory after winning the major population centres, while opposition claimed victory in overall numbers of councillors elected, with strong support across many of the country’s less populated islands.

Addu’s new council meanwhile plans to use the Rf 115 million (US$7.4 million) convention centre, a two-storey building of glass, wood and marble with a capacity of 3000 today unveiled as the ‘Equatorial Convention Centre’ with the main convention hall dudded ‘Bodu Kiba’, to transform the atoll from a quiet place to a hub of business and tourism.

“We have some representatives talking to businesses in Singapore and Malaysia about hosting events here,” Sodiq told Minivan News.

“We will be soliciting bids to find the right event manager to look after the convention center as well. I think there are people interested in what Addu has to offer, and I’m sure we can get a market for it.”

This evening almost 1000 students are expected to turn out to march on the streets of Addu to mark the Eid al-Adha holidays, while bashi’, futsal and beach volley tournaments are due to take place, reports Haveeru.

Entertainment, music and cultural activities will take place through the week.

Minivan News reporters will be stationed in Addu reporting on the SAARC Summit November 7-12. 150 foreign reporters from around the region are expected to attend the event.