Comment: Maldivians in 2014 – What are we?

This article first appeared on Dhivehi Sitee. Republished with permission.

“I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market place, by Allah. There is a market for selling humans. Allah says I should sell. He commands me to sell. I will sell women. I sell women.” – Abubakar Shekau

It took these words by Nigerian ‘theologian’ and leader of Boko HaramAbubakar Shekau—spoken in a video tape released weeks after the group kidnapped over 200 young girls from their school on 14 April—to shock a couldn’t-care-less world into action.

After mostly ignoring the news of the girls’ tragic fate for two weeks, Shekau’s words finally galvanised powerful countries into sending their experts to join the lethargic Nigerian government in its search for the girls. And, in what appears to be the most important sign that the 21st Century world is paying attention, the kidnapped girls now have their own hashtag #bringbackourgirls.

Shekau’s words appal me and they most likely appal you, but his is not an unusual view in today’s many radicalised societies. Would those outraged by Shekau, for instance, be shocked to learn that such views are more likely than not shared by a substantial percentage, if not the majority, of the Maldivian population of today? Consider the following:

Two days ago, on 11 May, most local news headlines carried the story of a 14-year-old girl who has given birth, for the second time in her short life. The first time she was only 12. The child-mother as well as her two children are currently under the protection of the Gender Ministry, and the accused is under 15-day remand. He is said to be 53 years of age. According to newspaper reports, at the time the child gave birth, the man was being investigated by police for allegations of blackmailing and threatening her.

What do Maldivian people think of the event? Following are translations of a large number of comments that appeared below the news published in Dhivehi on four popular online news outlets: Sun.mv Haveeru Online, mvyouth.mv and CNM.mv. As a measure of their popularity—Sun has close to 44,000 Facebook Likes, Haveeru over 48,000, mvyouth.mv more than 26,000 and CNM almost 30,000. The comments appeared from the time of publication of the news on the various outlets on 11 May till 1:00 a.m local time on 13 May 2014.

Sun.mv was the first to publish the news. By 1:00 a.m 13 May, it had gathered 40 comments in total. Several looked for the right authority to blame—parents, the Gender Ministry [which is mandated with child protection], the government, drugs, society at large, etc.? Some made no sense. Only five (12.5 percent) clearly empathised with the girl and was openly supportive of her. In contrast, 16 out of 40 (40 percent) was overtly critical of her, deeming her an adult, a slut or a criminal or all three. Here are the comments:

Do children give birth? A miracle (liked by 233, disliked by 34)

Can you first define what you mean by ‘children’? Are there children who can give birth? (Liked by 104, disliked by 13)

Do children give birth? Hehehe It says children give birth (liked by 107, disliked by 18)

What do you mean [abused by] ‘a person in position of trust’? Who in what position is that? In what capacity did he do it? Need an answer. (Liked by 96, disliked by 3)

Please. Do children give birth! (Liked by 68, disliked by 9)

Hahahahahahahahahahahaha LOL…sss…I am in bits laughing…it says a child has given birth a second time…look you idiots…what you are saying is the same as saying a chick has laid an egg…if a child gives birth it would be the biggest miracle the world would ever see…people who look at science, study science a bit more to understand what a child is…we, however, will not prioritise science in anything, Insha Allah..the reason is that to everything that is said in the right religion revealed by Allah we Muslims say – Sami’una Wa’athauna (have listened and obeyed)…then, na-na-na-na (Liked by 84, disliked by 6)

Can a child give birth? In that case this five year old of mine can also give birth…scary (Liked by 68, disliked by 10)

Whatever she is called [child or adult] she is liable for Hudd [punishments]. It’s not relations, it’s fornication (Liked by 39, disliked by 7)

Children giving birth is a sign of Armageddon (Liked by 25, disliked by 7)

It’s OK to do DNA testing when girls want to save themselves from blame. But, apparently, it’s not OK to do DNA testing when a husband wants to find out whose child his wife is having. A miracle. (Liked by 17, disliked by 5)

These are children even when they begin and end a year by giving birth!!! Let me tell you something, Gender [Ministry]! Even if young, these people who are giving birth know what they are doing is wrong. Fornicate and call it rape!! Rape is done by violently forcing supplication. Rape is what happened on the bus in India! Take that! Arrest that woman and the man and punish them as due, I say. (Liked by 43, disliked by 23)

Pakaas…oh, these goings on…laughing so much my head’s splitting (Disliked by one, Liked by none)

You people, do not go near fornication. It is the dirtiest of sins…repent fast, and fear Allah (Liked by one, disliked by o)

Once a girl has her period, she is an adult according to Islam… (Like by 5, disliked by 0)

Apparently the one who gave birth and the child she gave birth to are both children. Two children. When will they grow up? (No likes, no dislikes)

I think the Maldivian constitution should be amended to change the age of a minor to below 25. Then all children will be having babies…what is this 18 years that’s brought in to decide a child…if things continue like this, by the time someone is old enough to marry, they would have 4 children, won’t they?? (No likes, or dislikes)

Haveeru published the article a short while later, and had a total of 20 comments by 1:00 a.m. on 13 May. 11 of them — 55 percent — regard the girl as being the ‘criminal’/’sinner’ and deem her deserving of punishment.

What this proves is that the female human being gives birth not just over 18 years of age but also at 12 and 14! This reveals that a human being can reach puberty and become an adult even at 12 and 14! (Liked by 120, disliked by 27)

Haveeru should publish a picture of the arrested man. Isn’t that how we’ll know who it is? (Liked by 105, disliked by 5)

This child’s parents, are they neglecting her? (Liked by 87, disliked by 3)

This child needs to be lashed. This has happened a second time because it [lashing] wasn’t done the first time. (liked by 73, disliked by 34)

If she isn’t 18 despite having given birth twice, she must be dealt with as a child as the law says. According to how magistrates in courts interpret the law, they cannot authorise such children under 18 years of age to marry…now there are [people] under 18, carrying three children, begging near the Market area…If courts applied ‘Islamic community principles’ and the main principle of the current Constitution when interpreting law, such matters would not be going from bad to worse…! Note: The chapter on Interpretation in the Maldives Constitution says that its main principle is Prophet Mohammed Sunna and the Holy Qur’an…! If these things are to be confused and convoluted it would bring great tragedy upon the nation. (Liked by 54, disliked by 8)

As long as it remains an illegal act to marry that woman even if she goes on to have 5 children before the age of 18, those people who destroyed Allah’s law and made and implement their own are as sinful as the man who did the deed. (Liked by 108, disliked by 12)

What’s the agenda behind using a certain type of photo? Don’t have the guts to call fornication fornication. Why not? ‘Don’t judge’ is the policy these days. Remember the scenes from ‘Anbaraa‘? Don’t you see reports of how girls are running away from their parents? Don’t you hear about the way girls are itching to marry drug users? (Liked by 133, disliked by 26)

Hasn’t achieved much really. [If she had] given birth one after another, now that would have been an achievement… (Liked by 16, disliked by 1)

Who is to take responsibility for this, Human Rights, Gender Ministry, parents, society, or the child when she is 18. Is it still not time to wake up. Certainly, it is a question to ask that has there been a solution despite the crime being repeated. These things can be solved only by Islamic Shari’a (Liked by 8, disliked by none)

‘the child who has been a victim of repeated sexual abuse’ — Haveeru has not written this news correctly…You must reveal whether this girl became pregnant both times as a result of rape or by fornication. In spreading news and information let us give priority to accuracy… (Liked by 10, disliked by 6)

That’s a joke..!!! 10, 15 days on remand…why arrest…let him stay home :)

mvyouth.mv published the news roughly the same time as Haveeru. By 1:00 a.m. on 13 May, there were three comments. Two of the three saw the girl as having done wrong. The third, while identifying the man as a criminal, called for the harshest forms of punishments possible for all criminals. All of them are translated below:

How the headline should be written, A Maldivian woman has fornicated twice by the time she turned 14. Why are you trying to hide the truth. You can’t confuse the truth. Remember that the only people who get confused are those who try to confuse the truth. (Liked by 10 people, disliked by 3)

This has to be stopped even if it is by sealing the place with mercury (Liked by 4, disliked by 0)

It would be a good sentence to pass for the male organ of people who commit such crimes to be cut off. That is — hands of those who steal are cut off, therefore penises of people who fornicate with children must be cut off! That’s the end of that! (Liked by 13, disliked by 3)

CNM.mv a recently established online publication with a rapidly increasing readership led with the headline: “A ‘small’ [“minor”?] Maldivian girl has given birth a second time”. Why was small in inverted commas? Was it the paper’s stance that she is not that small after all, you know, given that she had given birth twice and all that?

22 hours after publication, there were two comments:

Do not believe that a child can give birth…

Very sad news…I call for heavier penalties for child abusers like this.

Such harsh views as expressed by many in the translated comments above would have been unlikely in the Maldivian society of even a decade ago. Unfortunately though, today it is more the norm than shocking. A substantial percentage of the Maldivian population believe that a girl becomes a woman as soon as she hits puberty; that she should then be made to marry so that she can avoid the sin of fornication; that it is possible for a child to consent to sex with an adult; that anyone who has sex outside of marriage whether they are forced to or underage, should be punished with a hundred lashes in public.

A large number of the world population currently expressing their sadness for the plight of the Nigerian girls via hashtags and other such modern means is also likely to be aware of the plight of the 15-year-old Maldivian girl who was condemned to a 100 lashes for fornication. A popular petition did make the rounds after all. Following the international ‘outrage’, her punishment was suspended. For now. But, as can be seen from the commentary translated above, the radicalisation of Maldivian society continues unabated. Meanwhile Maldives remains top of the world’s most desirable tourist destinations. It is only when the Shekaus begin to reign that worldwide virtual ‘outrage’ translates into something even resembling action.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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Comment: Putting democracy on a firm footing

First, it was the symbolic cut in salaries for junior ministers. Then it was the move to replace monthly salaries for local council members across the country with sitting-fees – pending parliamentary approval. The more recent one is the shutting down of the Maldivian Embassy in Dhaka as part of the substantial 40 percent slash in the Foreign Ministry’s budget.

President Abdulla Yameen has proved that he means business when it comes to economising on government expenditure. As a former Finance Minister, he made no bones about pledging to cut down on government-spending in a big way during the closely-fought presidential elections last year. None can thus complain that they were not forewarned.

Whether the nation is on the right economic path will take time to evaluate. For now, for a variety of reasons, including government initiatives of every kind, the US dollar – the nation’s fiscal life-line – has become relatively cheaper. This could encourage the Yameen leadership to attempt more important and equally genuine reform measures on the economic front.

Before the Yameen leadership, the short-lived Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) government had taken bold moves to initiate across-the-board ‘economic reforms’, as had never before been attempted. Going by successive voter-behaviour since, the huge slash in government employee strength and salaries was not as unpopular as had been thought.

Despite programme-based differences, the MDP and President Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) have shared an overall common approach to economic reforms. When conceding the election last year, Nasheed promised his cooperation to President Yameen for all policies and programmes that are in the greater interest of the nation.

The MDP has not since criticised, nor even commented upon, the fiscal measures of the new government. It is thus for President Yameen to take the MDP on Nasheed’s word and to initiate a ‘policy consensus’ to the nation’s problems – starting with those on the economic front. He too has begun well by reiterating that his government’s programmes would be meant for all Maldivians without party-bias.

Re-visiting democratisation

If the economy is one area where there seems to be an overall consensus of some kind, political populism still seems to be having an occasional say. The fragile economy is unable to withstand the pressures that are alien to larger and stronger economies for which the IMF model had been built, for Third World nations to follow without adapting to local demands.

Worse still may be the case of the democratisation process in the country, which was a straight import of a template, text-book model. None at the time considered the wisdom of such mindless aping of the West because that was what was better known. That was also the only scheme acceptable to those demanding multi-party democracy of the western model, wholesale.

Maldives and Maldivians had the option of choosing between two broad western models, namely the presidential scheme and the Westminster parliamentary form of government. The nation chose the former, but with institutions and priorities that were originally adapted with the parliamentary model in mind. This has produced a jinxed system, which has to be exorcised of some misunderstood and at times misinterpreted elements from the immediate democratic past if democracy has to take roots.

While the current Maldivian system provides for dynamism, it’s only a part, a tool. Democracy is more than the sum of its parts. For them to juxtapose well, they need to be crafted in ways they were intended to serve the greater cause of democracy and nation – and not necessarily in that order. Rather, that order, the nation itself has to prioritise, and in ways that they all dovetail well into one single piece called ‘democratic experience’, as different from democratic-importation.

Having lived an isolated life owing to geography and topography, not only Maldives as a nation but also Maldivians as islands, that too under a one-man system, either as a Sultanate or as a relative democracy in the twentieth century, the nation and the people need to give themselves time to assimilate democratic values from elsewhere and tone them ways that becomes acceptable and adaptable under Maldivian circumstances.

That way, the upcoming five years are crucial to Maldives as a nation in terms of democratic experience than maybe even the first five – which was full of experiences, mostly of the wrong and/or misunderstood kind. The nation needs to re-open itself to democratic discourse and debate without such dissertations and dissections getting in the way of normal life and livelihood of the people, and politics and public administration by the Government, political parties and leaderships.

The Maldives has to open a new page in democracy, and the initiative for the same rests mainly – though not solely – with President Yameen and his ruling coalition. He cannot keep the rest out of it for reasons already explained. They cannot escape ‘accountability’ either, as the less-emotional parliamentary polls and their results have shown, since.

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Comment: September 28 could be the Maldives’ last chance

I was the little girl who lived in the same block. We played cricket together, stabbed banana trunks with home-made spears and baked cakes in recycled butter tins. I remember times when he carried me on his back, remember times when he dressed up in his colourful shirts and reeking of ‘atharu’ (perfume), went out on his evening sojourns. He was a Don Juan, tall for his age, with laughing eyes and thick, wavy hair. Girls could not resist him and he could not resist trouble.

He was only five years older than me, but when I met him on that unforgettable day, several years later, there was an eternity of age and distance separating us. What was left of his hair was falling in untidy strands round his dirty shirt-collar. He was obese, embarrassingly so. Myself, sanitised by three decades of the good life in the West, jumped to conclusions. Too much grease, too little care…

Then, tears welled up in his eyes. They cascaded down his unkempt face. He shook. He stuttered.

I was utterly unprepared for my first experience of talking face to face with a victim of the regime: the horror of solitary confinement, the nights in the lagoons, the near-drownings, the chains, the mental and physical torture, the bodily deterioration, and the ensuing mental breakdown of those who displeased the dictator. In subsequent years I was to listen to numerous such narratives with a common theme, a callous disregard for people and the violation of human life and dignity as evidenced by the killing of Evan Naseem.

I am convinced that a relapse into the darker days of our history, by an election win to the Gayoom/Yameen regime, will set in motion a greater level of atrocities than was my generation’s heritage. We were sheltered. We were politically naïve. We did not question.

Today, there is huge opposition to the regime. They are articulate, determined and unprepared to put up with the whims of a regime struggling to come to terms with the realities of the 21st century. If the regime is reinstated, it would cope with this opposition in the way it’s accustomed to. The level of atrocities will rise exponentially. Our country and our heritage will finally and unequivocally decline and settle into a corrupt and violent police state. The events of February 7th, 2012, and the wave of state condoned violence which followed, should be a real reminder to us to reflect and cast our votes wisely.

Those of us who remember the way we were, the Maldives of old, must approach this second round of the presidential elections with our eyes wide open. There are ethical and practical issues that we should consider.

Over 30 years of Gayoom’s rule made sure that generations of young people grew up with nothing to aspire to. While it is clichéd to say that the youth is the future of a nation, there is no denying that the physical and mental health of this group is the best indicator of a nation’s economic and human potential. Over thirty years of neglect has left Maldivian youth hopeless and alienated. Is it any wonder they flock to the MDP? They see the alternatives: unemployment, drugs, corruption, drugs, nepotism, drugs, a police state, drugs…

It is a matter of public knowledge that among large numbers of the youth population, drug abuse is a way of life and young gang members are hired to do the dirty work of the adults. Again and again one hears the accusation that this is a deliberate strategy – bread and circus – in a different and more insidious guise. It is the application of a philosophy as old as the Romans, but it is not often that a society turns inwards to deliberately create an underclass. People of my generation, who have known better days, have a part to play in making a political decision that would stop the perpetuation of this cruel indifference.

Another pressing concern of the nation is the dysfunctional judiciary. Easily accessible news headlines speak for themselves: ‘Judiciary’s Angst on Reform’, ‘Maldives’ Judiciary- Unreformed and Unrepentant’, and more recently, ‘Maldives Supreme Court Judge Ali Hameed with Russian and Sri Lankan prostitutes’. How can we forget that it was three decades of authoritarian dictatorship that totally vitiated the judiciary?

Gayoom’s iron fist still controls the judiciary. It is inconceivable to think that a return of PPM would lead to any positive improvements in a justice system that is so corrupt that it is destroying the moral fabric of the Maldives.

The most telling comment one can make about the Gayoom/Yameen regime, however, is its sense of entitlement. The extravagant and ostentatious life styles exemplified by Theemuge and the flotilla of yachts that Gayoom used are also symbolic of their belief that governance is a free ticket to have it all, at the expense of others; what is in the state coffers is theirs by right. Entitlement, elitism, privilege are words that summarise their philosophy of governance. Conflict of interest is not a concept that is in the handbook of these Feudalists.

The regime is also infamous for its unbroken network of patronage; patronage and fear being the bedrock of its present power. The failure of PPM to produce a clear election manifesto on time highlights this attitude.  Why write down promises for people to check and analyse when the intention to act on them is not there?

Entitlement seems a soft criticism. So what if some people think they are born to rule? But in the case of the regime, Gayoom and Yameen, this belief has become the fundamental driving force of their entire existence. Greater than their belief in capitalism, greater than their belief in democracy, greater than their belief in the Maldives, they simply believe they are born to rule – and that they MUST rule. If they cannot rule then they are no one. Within the Gayoom political tribe there is no existence without rule. They must rule to exist.

Narcissism is an evil sickness. It is this evil sickness that explains so much about the Gayoom coterie.

It explains why they have no detailed policy. They don’t need one; they are born to rule. It explains why they use corrupt means; when you are born to rule the end justifies the means. It explains why they will use violence; when you are born to rule then others have no rights, and must not share in the right to rule. It explains their vitriolic and personal attacks on their opponents, particularly of a religious nature; when you are born to rule, those who oppose you are unworthy of, not just humane, but human, consideration.

Gayoom’s sense of entitlement clarifies many seemingly strange actions and beliefs.

It is an understatement to say that what Gayoom/Yameen and PPM stand for is fundamentally detrimental to the Maldives. The abbreviation itself is a perverse contradiction of the truth. There is nothing progressive about the type of governance they will bring. Burma, under the clutches of a military dictatorship is making tentative steps towards democracy. Even China is beginning this process by introducing elements of freedom into their economic program.

Those who vote for the return of the regime must consider the fact that it is a vote to move the nation backwards, towards a dictatorship and a style of government that is not viable in the 21st century. In Gayoom’s era it might have been viable. For fifty years, we saw the same style of rule in Africa and Central America in the form of violent, bloody dictatorships. But things are changing in these countries. Can the Maldives let itself be turned into a 20th century Trujilloistic dictatorship just because the regime believe they were born to rule?

Apart from the moral reasons to avoid a return of the regime, there are practical reasons why we should not let that happen; the most important being our self-interest.

For its economic existence, the Maldives relies on its middle class, its business class, not on five or six big wealthy families, but on hundreds, perhaps thousands of small entrepreneurs. In every society these business people form the basis of the economy and the economy is the foundation on which society is formed. This middle class grows out of today’s youth. No modern society can exist without a vibrant, healthy, youth demographic being allowed to thrive.

Throughout the western and eastern worlds, countries are bemoaning the fact that their ‘youth’ are no longer able to be their future workforce, their future entrepreneurs, their future taxpayers, or their future heads of families. Societies rely on their youth to take over the burden of care for the old and the education of the young in the future. Here in the Maldives, the Gayoom/Yameen regime has targeted this group as their sacrificial lambs. They believe only in themselves.

Whilst I would like to think that no right minded person could ever support the regime with its horrifying track-record, I know this is untrue. There are some reasonable people who support them. Some of these do not receive bribes or inducements. Some of them are not under threat. Why do they support such a blood thirsty regime? I think the answer is simple. They believe that with the reinstatement of the old regime, the old economy will resurrect itself and they will prosper.

This is not so. Under a new Gayoom/Yameen dictatorship, the economy will move backwards.

Nepotism will prosper again. In a tightly controlled dictatorship, only family and close friends can be trusted. The rich and the elite who have everything to gain from the status quo will be rewarded, thus stifling innovation by the large majority of ordinary people. Much of the nation’s wealth will shift off shore.

No society can exist like this. The Gayoom/Yameen regime is so blinded by its own vision of their family’s right to rule that they are prepared to rule over a nation that has been deliberately disintegrated back into feudalism; so long as they rule it.

I find it a delicious irony that in the first round, large numbers of us have already voted in favour of ‘Aneh Dhivehi Raaje’, and the old dinosaur, the dynasty dreamer, is plodding behind to catch us with nothing new or appealing in his box of tricks. There is a famine of details in their policy documents. Produced four days before the presidential election, it did not show any budgetary provisions for its promises.

Perhaps the Adhaalath Party would pray for wells of gushing oil to finance Yameen’s plans, or faithful elements in the police and MNDF would come to the rescue, should the peasants complain! A leopard cannot change its spots, or perhaps more appropriately, a crow, cursed or otherwise, cannot change its raspy call to anything more endearing. A Gayoom/Yameen regime will uphold the same values that have already caused irreparable damage to the social fabric of our nation.

It will be business as usual. They have already proven to us that they are capable of doing awful and destructive things to this country and its people. We are yet to recover from thirty years of cruelty, abuse of the nation’s wealth, nepotism, lack of equitable development on the islands, and their frightening disregard for the plight of our youth. If the regime is given the mandate to govern again, even the most determined of our nation will not be able to pick up the pieces and rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes.

Prison did not kill my friend; he died of ‘natural causes’. But prison did kill him. I have lived long enough to appreciate that death has many faces. It is not simply a final breathe. It is also a slaying of the spirit, a denial of dignity and a hiatus of hope. To me personally, my childhood friend remains a symbol of this nation: betrayed, neglected, justice denied and potential unachieved.

September 28th may be the country’s last chance.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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Comment: Changing cheerleaders into leaders

Less than 48 hours is left before the ballot boxes open. On Saturday (September 7), the Maldives will choose its next president. The personalities and policies of four presidential hopefuls may differ from each other, but all do share one thing in common – they are all men.

And where are the women? They are standing behind their men.

Though no woman has a spot in the presidential race – dominated by four male candidates and their running mates – women have undoubtedly become an inextricable part of the elections.

As campaigning intensified over the past months, women and girls have been busy sewing more flags than they can count, cooking massive pots of Bondibaiy (sweetened rice) and spicy fish to quench the hunger brought on by mass rallies, and walking day and night to knock every door in order to win votes for their candidates.

Women are  also seen taking the front line at every political demonstration or march around the island – donning blazing yellow burqas, glittering pink t-shirts, or bright red blouses – colours synonymous with their candidate’s parties. Without the female presence, political events would have neither the same magnitude nor diversity as currently seen.

Participation of women of all ages is a highlight of this, the second ever multiparty presidential elections to be hosted in the country.

Out of all the major political parties contesting in this year’s elections, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) stands out in particular for the scores of women that are participating in party’s events.

“Women have become a very important part of our campaign. Women are mostly involved in door to door campaigning – talking to the people, collecting crucial information we need for policy making and campaigning.” says Aminath Shauna, leader of MDP’s youth wing. “Most of the patch agents and campaign team is largely women.”

The MDP is contesting to regain power, following the controversial end to its three year old government after the resignation of former President Mohamed Nasheed on February 7 last year. The party vehemently contends that Nasheed was forced to resign in a coup.

In the wake of Nasheed’s resignation, massive protests led by his supporters against the new regime were suppressed using force and dozens were severely injured in the process – many of them women and girls.

A peaceful sit down demonstration by MDP female supporters outside the President’s Office was dispersed with water canons, while several women were beaten on the southern atoll of Addu – where women took the streets to protest against what they call a “coup government”.

Woman injured during a police crackdown of pro-Nasheed protests in Addu

But, since February 7, female supporters of Nasheed have braved their way against pepper spray, batons and water cannons and continued to take lead in an army of yellow supporters, determined to fight till end to bring Nasheed back to power.

Shauna believes that this unwavering support by women is a result of policies adopted by the MDP’s short-lived government which mostly “benefited women”.

“If you look into the social protection program over 100,000 people directly benefited from it. It was largely spent on elderly, single parents who are mostly women. Also programs such as Hunaru [vocational education] and Second Chance program [rehabilitation and reintegration of inmates] largely accepted by women because, although women do not bring income to the family, its women who make household decisions and look after the elderly parents, take them to hospital and look after the children. So the person who really understood and felt the benefits of these programs were women,” Shauna observed.

During the campaigns, two out of four presidential candidates have  announced women specific policies; including daycare centres, flexible working hours, online jobs and reserved seats, among other things.

Though MDP claims to hold the policies benefiting women, the party is one of the two that has not prioritised a policy towards achieving gender equality and improving women’s rights- one the  few remanining development goals the country has so far failed to achieve due to widespread violence against women and  low representation of women in political and economic life.

Second is Jumhoory Party’s Gasim Ibrahim. The party speaks of introducing a pregnancy allowance and ensure gynaecology services on every islands as policy on women. For a party backed by Islamist party Adhaalath which believes in strict enforcement of Sharia and patriarchal dominance within public and domestic spheres, having no progressive policies on women is unsurprising.

But why does MDP, a party which asserts to be an alternative to the rest, holding egalitarian and moderate views does not have a policy specifically aimed at women? The party has never been recognised for its suitable policies for women. In fact, MDP’s record of gender policies during its short-lived three year term does not score well either.

Take the issue of domestic abuse and gender-based violence in the country. With every one in three woman estimated to be a victim of physical or sexual abuse, it is one of the biggest challenge women face across all islands. However, Nasheed’s government and its parliamentary group failed to step up in bringing any necessary legal reforms while its rivals were instrumental in drafting, promoting and passing domestic violence and child abuse legislations.

Unemployment among women is double that of males, however, no day care centres, flexible working hours or economic policies specifically targeted to reducing female unemployment were introduced. Research suggests reasons behind female and male unemployment differs with young women finding more difficult to find work due to early marriage, household responsibilities, societal attitude.

Maldives holds the record of one of the highest divorce rates in the world with almost every one in two marriages falling apart. This often leaves women struggling to raise children under extreme financial hardship. The single parent allowance, despite the temporary relief it brings, is merely a band-aid solution for these families. Economic emancipation remains unachieved.

Meanwhile, women also continued to remain as a minority at state decision making level under Nasheed’s era. Any point in time, Nasheed’s cabinet were dominated by men and his female appointees made up less than a quarter of all political positions.

His party followed same track, or even worse.

Currently, women hold 5 seats in 77 member parliament and only 57 out of 1091 local councils.

MDP secured full seats in the city councils of Addu and Male’ – two of the most populated areas – but none of them were sadly women. The party did not take any public initiative in encouraging female candidates to these elected posts. They simply embarked on making laws, building cities and running the state without an equal say of women who make up half of the country.

But perhaps, this elections is a harbinger for change.

This week, Nasheed sat down with women to listen to their woes. He promised that his economic and social policies are targeted, though not directly, towards addressing the most serious problems women face. Including housing, jobs, education and healthcare.

However, he stopped short of promising women an equal representation in his government or party.

Several women are throwing their support behind Nasheed because they also believe in the values of equality and justice he preaches. Perhaps, it needs to be put into practice a little better.

A good place to start would be within the party itself.

Mariyam Zulfa, who served as Tourism Minister during last months of Nasheed’s rule recently gave a subtle warning to MDP’s main rival, Abdulla Yameen of PPM.

“Yameen please don’t have your eye on 2018, thats gonna be a year for women, we have waited patiently enough, like Hillary Clinton,” she posted on Facebook.

This status echoes an important message – MDP women are ready  to climb to the top rung of the political ladder.

But, amid an environment of highly competitive and machiavellian men jostling for power, women often find themselves at crossroads. Whether to challenge the male dominance and risk losing or just be happy with the little voice she has. Choosing the latter also makes it easier to juggle the personal life often sacrificed by women pursuing a career.

MDP Youth Wing leader Shauna at an anti-coup protest

Shauna is one the few young women who has bravely made it to the top tier of MDP, and she shared the challenges women face on the field.

“One of the reasons why we do not see women in elected posts is because women do not have access to campaign finance. We do not see many women in government senior posts because simply there is not policy that promotes it – working hours are not flexible for women with families, senior posts mean a lot of time and commitment. Working environment and hours do not give this women any flexibility. Harassment exists at all levels in the Maldives and there must be an end to that for more women to take up senior posts.” she explained.

These are problems can be resolved by changing  MDP’s current gender mainstreaming policies to a more direct women empowerment strategies such us quotas for women, setting up a budget for funding female candidates, running political leadership training programs. When more women take part in decision making, the diversity of opinions and ideas leads to better results in developing the country.

MDP also has continued to voice against rising extremism and the resulting backlash in women’s role in public life.

“There is also a movement towards conservative Islam that is a threat for women in politics and social sphere.” Shauna observes. “If there is no counter movement to conservative views of Islam, I do not think we can have a female president anytime soon.”

There is no better way in countering extremism than encouraging those subjugated by it to be free and exercise their power. Several women have already put their faith and support behind the party. It is time for Nasheed and his party to return the favour and let women have the equal space they deserves.

Should MDP hesitate, it is bound to create rifts through its existing female support base. But for now, women cheering for Nasheed seems to have his back.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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Comment: The unfortunate reality of an island airport

Milton Friedman, one of the most influential economists of 20th century, once said “If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in 5 years there’d be a shortage of sand”.

While it has been proved time and again that Governments have no business being in business, the issue is still widely debated and will probably linger on in eternity. However, in the Maldives, this issue of state ownership of businesses takes a totally different dimension. When Mr Friedman made this, now legendary, comment he referred to only the inefficiencies in decision making and economic management that most governments and politicians are riddled with. In the Maldivian context, one has to take into account the mala fide intent as well as narrow self-interests of people in the government as well.

An unfortunate example of how the Government of the day not only destroys value but systematically works against the interest of the people is our prized national asset – Ibrahim Nasir International Airport.

Caught in the middle of political wriggling and costly lawsuits, politicisation of the airport by everyone across the political spectrum and the mullahs typifies all that is wrong with our economy, our businesses and our government.

Ever since the ousting of GMR, whatever progress that had been made at the airport is now being undone – reversal of employees benefits such as employee insurance which was given by GMR to stalling of development works at the airport are just a few examples.

I have been told of way too many stories of flight delays due to systems outages, long unmanageable queues and leaking roofs to be convinced all over again of the Government’s inefficiencies in managing enterprises.

But I do not intend to focus on Government’s inefficiency in managing our national airport in this article. I would rather highlight the systematic manner in which the current Government seems to have taken control of the airport to serves its and its cronies’ own narrow self-interests rather than let it be run in a professional manner that is best for the passengers as well as the nation.

First, Dr Waheed’s government wanted to create a new airport company (MIAL) to take over management of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport with a new MD and a new Board of Directors with the intent of setting up tight control on the airport management. When the AG advised them of legal impossibilities related to this action, he appointed the same set of cronies to the MACL board to ensure he controls the board and all important commercial decisions at the airport.

Of course, at the time of cancelling the agreement, Government did say that new and professional management will be brought to manage the airport within 3 months and there will be no political influence in managing it going forward. Whatever happened to Dr Waheed’s ideas of ‘professional management’, Dr Hassan Saeed’s idea of ‘internationally experienced  foreign CEO and CFO’ and Sheikh Imran’s ‘national consultations for deciding the future of the airport’.

On political appointees and lack of professional management, it is interesting to note that Dr. Waheed’s political appointee as the MD of MACL– Bandhu Saleem has at least started making some noises around what are all the challenges that are facing the airport – lack of funds, no master plan and hardships & sacrifices for 3-4 years in each phase of airport’s development. He said these things in an interview to a local daily and what is most painful is that whatever he said only highlights the stupidity of the decision to oust GMR.

If it was that easy for a government company to get US$350 million funding for the airport, then why would anyone anywhere across the world privatise airports in the first place?

And by that logic, even Dr Waheed would have got his US$500 million loans from China and US$350 million grant from Saudi Arabia for budgetary support by now surely? As for the master plan for development, it was to be announced within 3 months of GMR’s ouster and we haven’t heard a word from anyone on this yet. There are bigger battles for all the politicians to fight, within themselves, in two months.

It’s clear by now that all these lofty promises always sound good to the general public and Bandhu Saleem’s game plan seems to be the same for now, even though reality it is most important to first take care of the basics. I have been told by sources that in one of the first meetings that he called after moving to his office at the airport, his authority was challenged and thwarted directly by the attendees. He intended to undertake frivolous discussions on the “Vision & Mission” for the airport when all the other attendees didn’t even have permanent contracts or medical insurance covers, something that they enjoyed under GMR management.

While airport’s development by MACL is an elusive dream that may never see the light of day, the fear really is that since it is back under MACL (effectively government) control, systematic corruption will rise like never before. What is most interesting for us to note is that all of these moves to take control of the airport operations come at a time when the Presidential elections race is heating up by the day.

Campaign funding is the need of the hour and we know that most elections are won or lost on the level of funding that is available to a candidate. With his allies deserting him thick and fast, what may still keep Dr Waheed in the hunt for the election is the money that his cronies are willing to bet on him while he is still in power.

It is well known that the likes of MVK Shafeeg and Najah have their eyes set on more airport concessions. MVK Shafeeg has been funding most of the anti-GMR protests and has been providing campaign funding aggressively to Dr. Waheed’s coalition.

So, I’ll not be surprised if we see MVK shops coming up in duty free section of the airport soon. A refurbished and world class duty free offering was one of the best things that GMR had done at the airport. MACL’s previous MD Mafooz had publicly stated that duty free is one of the best profit earners for the airport. It will only be in return for securing his campaign funding that Dr. Waheed’s government will allow MVK to get duty free shops at the airport for peanuts.

After all, securing massive amount of funds may be half the battle won in the presidential race of September 2013.  Whatever happens to the airport and its development after that can be put on the backburner like it had been for each of the last 25 years – except for the two when GMR managed it!

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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Comment: Decision on US base may have to wait

Notwithstanding the recent media leaks on a ‘US military base’ in Maldives, a decision on whatever that facility be, may have to wait until after the parliamentary polls of May 2014, not stopping with the presidential elections due in September this year.

In effect, this could mean that a national debate, and more importantly a parliamentary vote, will be required before any government in Male – this one or the next – takes a decision, though none is now in the air even a month after a section of the local web media went to town on the ‘leak’ and subsequent reports in the matter.

For starters, it may be too premature, if not outright improper, to dub the emerging relations as ending in a military base for the US in the Indian Ocean Archipelago.

The two governments have stuck to the position that the ‘Status of Forces Agreement’ (SOFA), with the US claiming it to be a general agreement for extending training facilities by the American armed forces. According to the US, similar agreements already exist with over 100 countries.

Maldives Defence Minister, Col Ahmed Nazim (retd), too has said that they were not contemplating any military facility for the US but only for the latter extending training to his nation’s personnel.

He has since gone to town, declaring that the leaked document was ‘not genuine’ and that they had shared the original one with the President’s Office, the Attorney-General’s office and the Maldivian customs – and would do so only with the Security Services Committee, not Parliament’s Government Oversights Committee, where the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) incidentally is in a majority.

Bringing parliament into the picture

For now, the lid has been placed on the issue after Attorney-General Aishath Bisham clarified that handing over any region in the Maldives for the setting up of a foreign military facility of whatever kind would require parliamentary clearance with a simple majority.

In doing so, the Attorney-General cited the advice given to the incumbent government of President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, by her predecessor Aishath Azima. According to her, Azima had advised the Defence Ministry as early as March 21 that parliamentary approval would be required for any agreement of the kind with the US. Bisham said she stood by her predecessor’s position in the matter. The media leaks appeared a month later.

As may be recalled, the law providing for prior parliamentary clearance for agreements of the nature came into being when Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) leader Mohamed Nasheed was President in 2010. That was when the Nasheed government was keen on signing a construction-cum-concession contract for the Male international airport with India-based infrastructure developer, GMR Group.

The deed was done, but not without high drama and controversy both inside and outside parliament.

Between the executive and the legislature in a democracy, both sides blamed each other for ‘colourable exercise’ of respective powers in the ‘GMR deal’ but none questioned the subsequent application of the new law to new agreements of the kind.

The US-SOFA deal cannot be exempted either, unless parliament were to do so. However, given the present political calculus and electoral calculations, no political party or leader may have the will to move forward in the matter, inside parliament or otherwise,.

As may also be recalled, after much drama and bilateral tensions, the succeeding government of President Waheed cancelled the GMR contract. The decision has since been upheld by the mutually agreed-upon arbitration court in Singapore, which is also looking into the compensation claims of GMR. The Maldivian government argues that the contract was ab initio void, and has cited the existence of the law requiring previous clearance for transferring possession of a ‘national asset’ to foreign parties, as among the reasons.

The law came about at a critical juncture at the birth of the GMR contract. A day after the Nasheed government announced the formal decision in the matter the opposition-majority parliament hurriedly passed the law, pending the unanticipated reconstitution of the board of the Male Airport Company Ltd (MACL), after the existing one was unwilling to sign on the dotted line.

President Nasheed returned the bill to parliament promptly, under the existing provision. Left with no option but to assent the bill after parliament had passed it a second time, with equal hurry and vehemence.

As is the wont in many other countries, the Constitution provides for any bill passed by parliament a second time becoming law automatically, if within a stipulated period the President does not give his assent. In the Maldives it is a 15-day window. However, the MDP government got the GMR contract through before the lapse of the 15-day period, and President Nasheed too gave his assent to the said bill within the stipulated time, if only to avoid arguments about the untenable nature of his continuance in office under controversial circumstances of the kind.

From ACSA to SOFA…

Apart from SOFA, the US has signed another 10-year agreement, titled the ‘Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement’ (ACSA), which it claimed had been done similarly with over 100 countries. The ACSA, signed ‘on a bilateral basis with allies or coalition partners that allow US forces to exchange most common types of support, including food, fuel, transportation, ammunition, and equipment.

The agreement does not, in any way, commit a country to any military action. Some would argue that SOFA is an extension of ACSA, but some others also point out that not all countries that have signed ACSA are targeted by the US for signing SOFA.

In the case of Maldives, in 2009, when MDP’s Nasheed was the Maldivian President, his Defence Minister of the day, Ameen Faisal was said to have discussed an ACSA with visiting US Ambassador Patricia A Butenis.

According to Wikileaks, sourced to US Embassy message of October 7, 2009, “He also reiterated the Maldives’ interest in establishing a USN (US Navy) facility in the southernmost atoll. He thanked the Ambassador for US security assistance…”

In the present case, Maldivian media reports, claiming access to unauthenticated draft of SOFA, said that the agreement outlined “conditions for the potential establishment of a US military base in the country”. The draft, obtained by Maldivian current affairs blog DhivehiSitee, “incorporates the principal provisions and necessary authorisations for the temporary presence and activities of the US forces in the Republic of Maldives and, in the specific situations indicated herein, the presence and activities of the US contractors in the Republic of Maldives”, the Minivan News web-journal said in the last week of April.

Under the proposed 10-year agreement outlined in the leaked draft, Maldives would “furnish, without charge” to the US unspecified “Agreed Facilities and Areas”, and “such other facilities and areas in the territory and territorial seas? and authorize the US forces to exercise all rights that are necessary for their use, operation, defence or control, including the right to undertake new construction works and make alterations and improvements”.

The draft also says that the US would be authorised to “control entry” to areas provided for its “exclusive use”, and would be permitted to operate its own telecommunications system and use the radio spectrum “free of cost”.

Furthermore, the US would also be granted access to and use of “aerial ports, sea ports and agreed facilities for transit, support and related activities, bunkering of ships, refuelling of aircraft, maintenance of vessels, aircraft, vehicles and equipment, accommodation of personnel, communications, ship visits, training, exercises, humanitarian activities”.

The contents of the leaked draft has remained uncontested – maybe because it is an American template that has been leaked – and provides for US personnel to wear uniforms while performing official duties “and to carry arms while on duty if authorised to do so by their orders”. US personnel (and civilian staff) would furthermore “be accorded the privileges, exemptions and immunities equivalent to those accorded to the administrative and technical staff of a diplomatic mission under the Vienna Convention”, and be subject to the criminal jurisdiction of the US – and not the Maldivian laws, with a preponderance of Islamic Sharia practices.

The draft exempts US vessels from entry fee in ports and airports, and personnel from payment of duties even for their personnel effects brought into Maldives.

The draft also stipulates that neither party could approach “any national or international court, tribunal or similar body, or to a third party for settlement, unless otherwise mutually agreed” over matters of bilateral dispute flowing from the agreement. This would obviously cover “damage to, loss of, or destruction of its property or injury or death to personnel of either party’s armed forces or their civilian personnel arising out the performance of their official duties in connection with activities under this agreement”.

Sri Lankan precedent on ACSA

In recent years, ACSA became news in neighbouring Sri Lanka at the height of ‘Eelam War IV’, when the government of President Mahinda Rajapaklsa signed one with the US in seeming hurry. President Rajapaksa was away in China when his brother and Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa signed the ACSA at Colombo in March 2007, with Robert Blake, who was the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives at the time.

It is believed that the US intelligence-sharing, helping Sri Lanka to vanquish the dreaded LTTE terror-group, particularly the ‘Sea Tigers’ wing, followed the ACSA.

At present, questions are being asked within Sri Lanka if the current US ‘over-drive’ over ‘war crimes and accountability issues’ relating to Colombo at UNHRC may have anything to do with Washington’s possible desire to sign up for SOFA or such other agreements.

However, there is nothing whatsoever to suggest that such may have even be the case. It is however to be presumed that the US may not be exactly happy over Sri Lanka getting increasingly involved in China’s sphere of influence, what with President Rajapaksa visiting Beijing almost every other year, and signing bilateral agreements in a wide-range of sectors, as he has done less than a fortnight back.

A section of the Sri Lankan media in the immediate neighbourhood has since claimed that MDP’s Nasheed would take up the issue with Colombo and New Delhi. Otherwise, President Rajapaksa’s ruling front partner, Minister Wimal Weerawansa, head of the National Freedom Front (NFF), a shriller breakaway faction of the one-time Left militant, now ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ Janatha Vimukthi Peramana (JVP), is alone in his condemnation of the US move in Maldives. The Sri Lankan Government and polity otherwise have refrained from any reaction – so have their counterparts in India.

Politics of silence?

If partners in the Maldivian government and also the opposition MDP seem to be maintaining relative but calculated indifference to the leaked document, it may not be without reason. The Wikileaks’ indication of the predecessor Nasheed government’s willingness to sign ACSA with the US and then Minister Faisal’s interest in the ‘US setting up a military facility in the southernmost atoll’ may have silenced the party to some extent.

The Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), which in its earlier, undivided avatar as the Dhivehi Progressive Party (DRP), put Maldivian sovereignty and national security as among the major causes for its opposition to the Male airport contract with the GMR.

Post-leak, media reports have quoted second-line MDP leaders in the matter. The party’s international spokesperson, Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, said that the MDP had heard of the proposal – supposedly concerning Laamu Atoll and the site of the former British airbase on Seenu Gan in the south of the country.

“We are wondering what our other international partners – India, Australia, etc – think of this idea,” Ghafoor said.

Other party leaders too have reacted cautiously, linking their undeclared future decision in the matter to the views of the Indian neighbour and regional power, whose security interests too are involved.

It is not only the opposition in the Maldives that has maintained silence over the proposed agreement with the US.

Ruling front partners who prop up the Waheed government inside the Cabinet and more so in Parliament have also avoided direct reference to the US proposal, at least in public. The president is not known to have commented on the subject, as yet. When the SOFA leak appeared in April, President’s Office Spokesperson Masood Imad said that he had texted President Waheed, who had no knowledge of any agreement.

The Defence Ministry also had no information on the matter, he said. At the time, Imad would not comment on whether the government would be open to such a proposal.

Subsequently, Defence Minister Nazim clarified that no decision had been taken in the matter. There thus seemed to be an attempt to show up the SOFA initiative, if there was any on the Maldivian side, as that of the Defence Ministry.

It is not a new process in the Maldivian context, as in most other nations, specific initiatives of such kinds are often moved only through the departments or ministries concerned, and the rest of the government is involved, at times in stages.

The Nasheed government’s certain initiatives in similar matters too had followed this route, in relations to China, it is said. In this background, Defence Minister Nazim’s delayed clarification that the Government had shared the official document with the relevant authorities and that the “leaked agreement was altered and shared on the social media” should set some of the concerns on this score to rest – at least for the present.

However, as the SOFA leak says, “The proposed agreement would supersede an earlier agreement between the US and Maldives regarding “Military and Department of Defense Civilian Personnel”, effected on December 31, 2004.

PPM’s founder, who had also founded the DRP, was Maldivian President in 2004. Hence possibly the reluctance of the PPM to keep the ‘US issue alive’, over which the Gayoom leadership had taken on the Nasheed government, on the ‘Guantanamo prisoner’ issue, for instance.

The issue involved the transfer of a Chinese prisoner of the US from the infamous Guantanamo Bay facility in Cuba, to Maldives, but domestic opposition flowing from the nation’s Islamic identity (however moderate) stalled the process.

After Diego Garcia…

A SOFA agreement for the US with Maldives acquires greater significance in the current context of the nation having to possibly the vacate the better-known yet even more controversial Diego Garcia military base in the Chagos Archipelago, less than 750 km from southern Maldives’ Addu Atoll with the Gan air-base.

The 50-year lease agreement for Diego Garcia, which the British partner of the US in the NATO purchased from Mauritius in 1965 for three-million pound-sterling a year earlier, ends in 2016.

The controversy over the forcible eviction of the local population to facilitate the lease has not died down in the UK, and there are strong doubts about the likelihood of its extension, owing to a British High Court verdict, which restored residency rights to the original Chagos inhabitants as far back as 2000.

Though a subsequent 2008 House of Lords ruling has over-turned the court verdict, the Chagos have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, where embarrassment might await both the UK and the US. Whether or not the Chagos can return to their home, a 2010 British decision to declare the Archipelago as the world’s largest marine reserve and protected area could well mean that no military activity could occur thereabouts.

The controversies have not rested there, and continue to rage in court-room battles, and could become a cause for the civil society in the UK and rest of Europe. It is in this context, any SOFA agreement would trigger an interest and/or concerns in neighbouring Sri Lanka and India – not necessarily in that order – as also other international users of the abutting Indian Ocean sea-lines, which Diego Garcia and Maldives, not to leave out Sri Lanka’s southern Hambantota port, built in turn by China.

Neighbourhood concerns

Thus, US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake’s assertion after the SOFA draft leaked to the Maldivian media that Washington did “not have any plans to have a military presence in Maldives” has not convinced many.

“We have exercise programs very frequently (with Maldives) and we anticipate that those would continue. But we do not anticipate any permanent military presence. Absolutely no bases of any kind,” Blake said.

However, considering the content of the leaked SOFA draft, and/or the motive behind the leak and its timing, there are apprehensions that before long the US might demand – and possibly obtain – Maldivian real estate for its military purposes, one way or the other, and will also have protection from local court interference.

In this, the interest and concerns of Sri Lanka and India are real. Ever since the US took a keener interest in the ‘war crimes’ and ‘accountability’ issues haunting the Sri Lankan state, political establishment and the armed forces almost as a whole, Colombo has been askance about the ‘real motives’ behind Washington’s drive at the UNHRC, Geneva, for two years in a row.

The European allies of the US too are reported to have been perplexed by the American move, which they seem to feel should stop with the attainment of political rights for the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka, and not chase a mirage, which could have unwelcome and unpredictable consequences, all-round.

For India, after the Chinese ‘commercial and developmental presence’ at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port and Mattale airport, any extra-territorial power’s military presence in the neighbourhood should make it uncomfortable. It would have to be so even it was the US, with which New Delhi signed a defence cooperation agreement in 2005.

Before Washington now, Beijing was said to have eyed real estate in Maldives, and was believed to have submitted grandeur plans to develop a whole atoll into a large-scale resort facility for an anticipated tens of thousands of Chinese tourists.

Around the time, China reportedly submitted its plans, news reports had suggested that Chinese tourists, who had propped up the Maldivian economy at the height of the global economic meltdown of 2008, felt unwelcome in the existing resorts, where they would like to cook their own packed meal brought from home – cutting into the hoteliers’ profit-margin in a big way.

While China now accounts for the highest number of tourists arriving in Maldives, it does not translate into the highest-spending by tourists from any country or region. This owes to the spending styles of the Chinese and other South Asians, including Indians, compared to their European and American counterparts.

India as ‘net provider of security’

Media reports have also quoted US officials that they would take Indian into confidence before proceeding in the matter. If they have done so already, it does not seem to have been in ways and at levels requiring an Indian reaction in public.

Alternatively, the US may not have as yet found the levels of negotiations/agreement with Maldives that may require it to take the Indian partner into such confidence. This could imply that the US is still on a ‘fishing expedition’ on the Maldivian SOFA. It is another matter that at no stage in its recent engagements with India’s South Asian neighbours, Washington seemed to have taken New Delhi into confidence at the comforting levels that the latter had been used to with the erstwhile Soviet Union during the ‘Cold War’ era.

Whatever the truth and level of such ‘confidence’ on the American side, an existing bilateral agreement provides for Maldives tasking India into confidence over ay third-nation security and defence cooperation agreements that it may enter into.

As may be recalled, India rushed its military forces to Maldives in double-quick time under ‘Operation Cactus’ in 1988, after Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries targeted the country, and then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom sought New Delhi’s military intervention.

Bilateral security relations have been strengthened since, with the Coast Guards of the two countries exercising every two years together, with Sri Lanka being included in ‘Dhosti 11’ for the first time in March 2012.

However, considering the purported American vehemence on the Sri Lanka front, and Washington making successive forays into India’s immediate neighbouring nations, one after the other, questions are beginning to be asked in New Delhi’s strategic circles if they had seen it all, or was there more to follow. As is now beginning to be acknowledged, in countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal, where the Indian concerns had neutralised Chinese presence to some extent, the US is being seen as a new player on its own.

In the bygone ‘Cold War’ era, the erstwhile Soviet Union was not known to have made forays – political or otherwise -into South Asia without expressly discussing it with India, and deciding on it together.

Afghanistan might have been an exception. The country at the time was not seen as a part of South Asia, yet the embarrassment for India was palpable. But Maldives and the rest in the present-day context of purported American military interest seeks to side-step, if not belittle India.

Otherwise, if the choice for India is between the US and China, for an extra-territorial power in the immediate neighbourhood, it would be a clear one. But if that choice were to lead to an ‘arms race’ between extra-territorial powers that India and the rest of the region cannot match for a long time to come, it would be a different case altogether.

It could also lead to greater estrangement of India and some of its neighbours, who would find relative comfort in China, compared to the US, whatever the reason. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent assertion that India was in a position to be a ‘net provider of security’ in the South Asian region needs to be contextualised thus.

In this context, Maldivian Attorney-General Bisham’s assertion that any agreement of the SOFA kind with the US would have to clear Parliament assumes significance.

However, considering the general American tactic that involves economic carrot and politico-diplomatic stick at the same time, it is not unlikely that the current phase on the SOFA front may have been only a testing of the Maldivian political waters, when the nation is otherwise caught in the run-up to the presidential polls, to be followed by parliamentary elections. By then, it is likely the issues would have also sunk in on the domestic front in Maldives, for the US to take up the issue with a future government in Male.

All this will make sense in the interim if, and only if, the US is keen on proceeding with the Maldivian SOFA.

To the extent that Defence Minister Nazim has said that Maldives was only considering what possibly may be a unilateral US proposal, he may be saying the truth – and his government may not have moved forward on this score.

With most political parties in the country, then in the opposition, flagged ‘sovereignty’ and ‘national pride’ while challenging the GMR contract, inside parliament and outside, it is likely that any precipitate initiative at the time of twin-elections now could trigger the kind of ‘religion-centric reaction’ that cost President Nasheed his office in February 2012.

For now, Islamic Minister Sheikh Shaheem Ali Saeed, representing the religion-centric Adhaalath Party, which spearheaded the anti-Nasheed protests leading to the latter’s exit, has served notice. The party will not allow the Government to sign SOFA with the US, he has said.

Considering that President Waheed has bent heavily on the Adhaalath Party for support and campaign cadres in his election-bid of September this year, it is likely that SOFA discussions with the US may not proceed for now – just as it may not form part of the electoral discourse, either for the presidency this year, or for Parliament next year.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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Comment: Anatomy of a manufactured crisis

“The mass do not take their opinions from dignitaries in Church or State, from ostensible leaders or from books. Their thinking is done for them by men much like themselves, addressing or speaking in their name, on the spur of the moment… ” – John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

As I’m writing this (13th March 2013) negotiations are underway between Male City Council, Environment Ministry and Tatva Global, with the help of Clinton Global Initiative towards a final resolution that will hopefully put Male’s waste management issue behind us. Though it would seem that the issue is simply, writing a fair and favourable contract for all stakeholders involved, the picture that emerges from media is entirely different.

The media narrative (especially in the broadcast media belonging to rich resort owning businessmen) is a simple one. Male City Council with the sole interest of obstructing proper functioning of government had deliberately halted its waste management program. At times, this story shifts towards a negligent or inefficient Male City Council.

Nevertheless, the basic premise is indubitably clear: the responsibility lies with Male City Council. While the waste management crisis is a real, concrete issue that affects many lives, this simplified story of good and evil that we are sold supports a political goal – that of constructing a people antagonistic to Male City Council, and by extension MDP, who dominates the City Council seats.

This is helped by the fact that Male Kunikoshi (waste disposal area) is subject to arson attacks whenever MDP protests flare up in the city, and media consumers are often led on to believe that such arson attacks have a relation to MDP. While it is unclear who is actually responsible for these arson attacks, the general nuisance such incidents create helps to foster sentiments that support the above narrative of an inefficient/negligent Male City Council.

When we unpack this whole series of events beginning with the budgetary issues of Male City Council, waste handling issues, and how these issues are portrayed in the media, a pattern emerges. I believe this pattern is reflected in other similar issues of the past three years, and can be used to explain the mobilisation of thousands of anti-government supporters (together with police and MNDF), which finally resulted in Waheed taking control of the executive. The significance of this pattern is the populist approach media takes, pitting the interests of a ‘people’ against a system of corruption, negligence, inefficient bureaucracy, where this system is often institutions controlled by MDP.

The result of such narrative is key voting blocs are won over to the camp who represents the interests of the said ‘people’. Understanding this pattern is key to understanding how politics is conducted today in the Maldives.

Roots of the waste management crisis

An agreement between Tatva Global, an Indian company with experience in environmentally friendly waste management, and Male City Council was signed in May 2012. Very little or no budget was allocated for waste management for the following year 2012 by Male City Council, which seems to have been on the understanding that Tatva Global would take over waste management within six months of signing.

Yet by early 2012, nine months into the contract, Tatva Global had little to show and was requesting for more time. Following the February coup, Male City Council issued a statement refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of Waheed’s government and presenting a stand of non-cooperation with Waheed’s government.

By May 2012 the conflict between Male City Council and Waheed’s government was intensifying, primarily over land and other assets controlled by Male City Council. At that time, Thilafushi was considered part of Male and under the jurisdiction of Male City Council. All waste ends up on Thilafushi either for processing or burial and is key to the waste management project.

Waheed’s reaction to the crisis was to change Thilafushi Corporation’s Board of Directors and refuse cooperation with the waste management project. Meanwhile, Tatva Global’s project itself was running into their own problems, with Tatva requesting yet more time from Male City Council, with the project already a year late.

May 2012 was also the time at which the media onslaught against Male City Council ratcheted up. Media coverage of Male City Council during May and in the following months was primarily focused on creating a narrative that attempted to portray Male City Council as extremely politicised and unable to provide basic services for the public, because of their non-cooperation stand. As part of this campaign against Male City Council, a petition with fifty odd signatures was submitted to LGA requesting to take action against Male City Council for their negligence.

By June 2012, a month into the targeted media campaign against Male City Council, Male City Council was reported as saying that they did not have the necessary funds to pursue various projects such as roadworks and waste management. Members of the City Council kept repeating that there was no budget for such projects, and they were capable of conducting only minimal ‘patch’ works, and that previously held assets for such work had already being transferred to Road Development Corporation. It would seem that the government and media were in sync, pulling the levers of finance and media against Male City Council – by transferring responsibility of roadworks from Road Development Corporation to Male City Council without giving them the necessary resources, by blocking finance, and creating a media frenzy around this issue portraying Male City Council as inefficient and negligent.

By July 2011, Waheed had issued an executive order for the takeover of Thilafushi and handed over complete control of Thilafushi and all related assets to Thilafushi Corporation. At the same time, Waheed’s Environment Minister went to press expressing the government’s intention to start their own waste management project. This completely sidelines Male City Council and Tatva Global, bringing their project to a halt.

Just a week later, Male City Council would announce that Male Kunikoshi (the waste disposal area) was full ahead of Ramadan, a peak time of the year, and they do not have the budget for the cleanup as finance was completely blocked.

From this point forth, the same pattern kept repeating – either the garbage disposal would be full and Male City Council would be forced to close the site, or an arson attack burned the garbage dump – and this continued for a full nine months.

All the while, the media unquestioningly follows the official line – Male City Council is at fault, and it is their sole responsibility. The result: public opinion, vital ahead of the election, is turned against Male City Council and MDP.

February/March 2013 would bring a slightly new twist to the whole narrative. This recent episode begins with Nasheed taking refuge in the Indian High Commission, and once again there’s an arson attack on Kunikoshi. This time however, Imaadhudheen School shuts down because of the smoke and parents protest outside Male City Council.

Waheed, seeing the opportunity to grab a few more votes, swept in with the MNDF to clean up the garbage dump.

The following video report produced by DhiTV on the day Waheed visited Male Kunikoshi is exemplary of the kind of biased, one sided, vote-seeking reports produced in our media landscape, and worth seeing just to see how an issue can be manipulated in the media:

http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=CHbsUH8h4Ps

Unpacking the Media Narrative

The first point to note is that underneath all the political rhetoric and maneuvering lies a real issue that affects many lives – the public health hazard, teachers and students being hospitalised, closing of schools, the smoke, the stench etc.

The public has a right to feel disaffected by this crisis, and is indignant and up in arms with good cause.

The second point to note is though this is a manufactured crisis; there is no inherent direction to which this raw emotional energy of the public may flow. That is to say, that it is entirely contingent, and depends on how Male City Council responds as much as to how Waheed is able to captivate and charm his way around it.

But clearly, Male City Council is at a disadvantage here, when the media gives little attention to their press conferences.

The MDP, which is ultimately implicated in all these battles, rarely seems concerned by how these issues unfold in the public imagination, and are mostly focused on other battles that they consider more significant.

It is in these circumstances that Waheed is presented as savior coming to save the public from an impending health hazard with his sleeves rolled up, literally. His words focus entirely on creating the impression that Male City Council has been unable to fulfill their duty, and that he had to ‘save’ the public from a health crisis by marching in to Male Kunikoshi with the MTCC and MNDF.

In what little facts that are in the report, we are still able to glean a few and be amazed at their glaring contradictions. For example, Waheed claims that he will clean up Male Kunikoshi by allocating a MVR 21 million budget for the immediate one time clean up, yet for all their complaints, Male City Council were given only MVR 8 million for the same job in the months before.

Had he allocated the budget earlier, could he have prevented this crisis, entirely? Yet, such doubts are easily glossed over when we are bombarded with such repeated rhetoric as “the past three years”, “irresponsible, politicised City Council” and so on. The public in its turn can only breathe a sigh of relief, a moment of catharsis, after weeks of burning stench.

From Disaffected Public to Political Subjects

This is also the same public who protested in front of Male City Council demanding a rapid solution to the waste management issue, after being tormented by weeks of smoke.

It’s important to note the changes that occur when a disaffected public (in this case Imaadhudheen parents) goes in to political action. Before engaging in political action, one has to accept certain notions, and give meaning to certain symbols in that particular situation.

To simply have a demand – stop the smoke and stench – is not enough for one to be constituted as a political subject. In this case, the choice of location (in front of Male City Council) already shows who they chose to blame in this particular crisis.

The choice to protest there shows they had already accepted the basic contours of the narrative presented by Waheed and DhiTV, which in one sense means that even before Waheed marched in to Male Kunikoshi, he had succeeded in creating a possible voting bloc. This last gesture of providing MVR 21 million in relief for the clean up was mere icing on the cake; Waheed’s chance for a souvenir victory portrait atop a garbage hill.

When we have examined this crisis closely we see how a disaffected public is created in a crisis, captured within a particular discourse, and within this system of signification how different elements cohere together and give articulation to political subjects.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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Comment:Without justice, talk of democracy is meaningless

The ambitious journey towards a modern liberal democracy that we, the people of the Maldives, embarked upon has now come to a crossroads. With the ratification of a landmark constitution in August 2008, that enshrined broad civil and political rights to its people, hopes of moving on from decades of oppression towards a free and fair society remained on course.

However, the chronicles of Maldivian efforts to sustain democracy have yet again proven to the world that democracy does not happen overnight; exactly as former President Mohamed Nasheed said – that dictatorships don’t die with the routing of a dictator.

The first few steps we as a nation took towards democracy were led by Nasheed, a determined human rights and political activist, who had been repeatedly put behind bars for his dissent towards oppressors.

Nasheed backed by the country’s first established political party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), won the country’s first free and fair multiparty presidential elections in 2008, putting an end to the tyranny of a 30 year long autocracy.

Five years later, it is daunting to note that the nation’s first democratically elected president is being tried in a court with hand-picked judges by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) – whose composition includes his key political rivals – for his desperate attempts to see through the much anticipated democratic transition.

What came forth after the usurpation of Nasheed’s democratically elected government was a practical narrative of what Gene Sharp had described in his book, From Dictatorship to Democracy: A conceptual framework for liberation.

“The collapse of an oppressive regime will be seen by some persons and groups as merely the opportunity for them to step in as the new masters,” he wrote. “Their motives may vary, but the results are often approximately the same. The new dictatorship may even be more cruel and total in its control than the old one,”

When Nasheed ascended to power, it became clear that the task of consolidating a democracy was more critical and difficult than toppling a dictator. President Gayoom was defeated in an election, but the roots of his dictatorship had taken hold within key state institutions, including the country’s judicial system.

The sustenance of certain corrupt judges within the judiciary, in the end, paved the way for the perfect opportunity to successfully oust Nasheed through a ‘judicially-endorsed’ coup, and in the long run, could deliver a verdict that would bring an end to Nasheed’s political career.

The globally renowned ‘Island President’ is being tried for the military detention of Chief Judge of Criminal Court Abdulla Mohamed.

Judge Abdulla is well known within Maldivian society for his nefarious conduct within the court room, including ordering a victim of child abuse to reenact the perversions of her abuser in front of both the perpetrator and numerous onlookers in the court room.

In another instance, the judge released a criminal who went on to murder a witness to his alleged crimes, despite repeated pleading from the police to not do so. The judge declared it was way to hold Nasheed’s Health Minister accountable.

Other astounding decisions made by this judge during his career include acquittal of several drug lords, a ruling in which he made himself the sole authority in issuing arrest warrants, and numerous favors granted to political rivals of Nasheed’s administration.

Nasheed and his government were finally forced to do something about the judge, in a desperate extra-constitutional maneuver by a Head of State to retrieve his country’s failing criminal justice system from a position of limbo.

The arrest sparked much controversy, as Nasheed’s political opponents quickly declared that he had undermined the law. Interestingly, they never saw the need to raise concern over the rights of the abused 13 year old in the judge’s courtroom, or the murdered Afshan Basheer.

Having had lost the parliamentary elections in 2009 to sympathisers of the old dictatorship, who were willing to go to any length in order to defend the old guard, recourse through the country’s legislature proved fruitless.

Nasheed’s subsequent decision to take out the judge can be deemed as a practical application of the doctrine of necessity.

Such decisions, when extra-legal actions are invoked by state actors to restore order during a constitutional deadlock, have been found to be constitutional elsewhere – first adopted in the case of Federation of Pakistan and Others v Maulvi Tamizuddin Khan [1955] PLD FC 240, and later applied in the cases of Madzimbamuto v LardnerBurke [1978] 3 WLR 1229 and Qarase v Bainimarama [2009] Fiji Court of Appeal.

However, Nasheed’s decision had dire repercussions, and he was ousted on February 7, 2012 by a mutinying police and military.

His Vice President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik – a perfect example of the tortoise who believed that he had won the marathon against the hare in a fair contest – took over power with Gayoom’s blessing.

Today, the former President is facing charges for taking on the notorious judge – charges which appear to have been fashioned to exclude him from contesting the scheduled presidential elections on September 7.

Nasheed recently sought refuge in the Indian High Commission in the Maldives to ensure his safety. During his time in India’s mission, there were rumours his trial was to proceed in absentia, grossly disregarding the principles of natural justice and the right to a fair hearing.

Meanwhile, Judge Abdulla continues to sit on the Criminal Court bench having his way with the country’s criminal justice system. The state’s judicial watchdog, the JSC – which is constitutionally mandated to hold the judiciary accountable – remains ignorant and grossly negligent in probing the contemptuous misconduct of this despicable judge.

The million dollar question was, and is – why has this judge not been held accountable for his misconduct? Perhaps the most obvious, and depressing, answer is that the delivery of justice in the Maldives is failing bitterly.

The so called independent judiciary has failed to maintain its impartiality and the confidence of the public. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), the United Nations, the Commonwealth, several judicial experts – including Professor Paul H. Robinson – and now the UN Special Rapporteur on the judicial independence have attested to this fact. Yet, no efforts are being made to reform the judiciary.

Without justice, talk of democracy is meaningless.

As put by Lord Denning – “Justice must be rooted in confidence and confidence is destroyed when right-minded people go away thinking that ‘the judge was biased’.”

In the Maldivian context, justice is rooted in one’s capacity to funnel ‘monetary-favors’ to the appropriate source, and to embrace Gayoom and his lingering culture of oppression.

Right-minded Maldivian people have lost all of their confidence towards the current judiciary. They have long since walked away from the courts, not only rendering moot their confidence (or lack thereof) in the judiciary, but also the confidence they had in the country’s entire justice system.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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Comment: Honeymoon over for Maldivians in paradise

The only time I’ve seen my father light up like the Diwali Festival was the day Mohamed Nasheed (Anni) got elected as the first ever democratically elected president in Maldivian history, after replacing the long term autocratic President, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

I was in the 8th grade and didn’t know much about politics, but understood enough to know that we somehow restored hope in our hearts. I got the feeling that everything was going to be all right… the tears of happiness  rolling down my father’s face were a testament to that.

After that, everything  changed. The police brutality, arbitrary arrests of politicians and democracy activists, disruption to media and freedom of expression, everything that we thought was so wrong, that we had to get out on the streets to change, became our past – things that we only joked about in our living rooms and coffee shops.

The conversation usually went like: “Hey, remember how Golhaa Force would drag Anni out on the streets of Male’ like he was some kind of dead animal?”

Only we didn’t know that it would happen again.We had no idea; we were so naive.

Anyway, the days went by and for some reason Maumoon was running around doing his own thing, not necessarily bothering anybody – yet – and Nasheed’s administration was busy cleaning up the mess left by Maumoon.

But given that Nasheed was in charge, as suspected he didn’t let the mess distract him, and instead he went on to revolutionise the Maldives. Health care, state transport, social security, infrastructure improvements made headlines every single day. He had built so many flats that the opposition started to call him ‘Flat Dhombe’ – a name he adopted and wore proudly. Such was life in paradise.

And then the honeymoon period ended. President Nasheed had to make some tough yet important decisions in his presidency, in order to head towards a more prosperous economy in the long run.

This meant the bank accounts of the rich and the elite of our community were going to take our hit. The government had asked for the parliament’s assistance to move forward with the bills, but half of the rich and the elite were already in the parliament. A lot went downhill after that.

The religious conservatives saw an opportunity at that point and jumped in, making the situation even more ridiculous. Gayyoom started to show up every now and then, making political statements and what not. And then we saw the opposition parties coming together, having set their differences aside.

These were some very extreme far-right minded politicians coming together with a group of Islamic radicals, which was the only thing that made sense from their partnership. Religion was the main issue of their political movement. As we understand now, that may have very well have been the turning point.

The opposition parties in the name of ’23 December Ih’thihaadhu’ – the 23 December Coalition – came out on the streets, protesting and calling for Nasheed’s resignation. Their parliament members would openly disrupt any government or MDP-sponsored bills on the parliament floor. The protesters would vandalise public property every night, and for some weird reason they targeted areca palm trees planted by Male City Council.

They would pluck the palm trees out and toss them out on the streets every night. One of those photographed destroying the trees is now the Deputy Minister of Agriculture.

After 21 days and nights of protesting and vandalising, the opposition succeeded in removing the elected president from office, by force, with the help of a rogue police mutineers.

The next day the Maldivian Democratic Party took to the streets condemning the coup d’état and everyone that took part in it.

I was there myself, with a friend of mine, a fellow activist, only to witness the horrible turmoil and the wrath of the Special Operations police brutes. They were anything but officers of law. A lot of peaceful protesters were brutally attacked by the savages. We were surrounded by chaos, and blood and tear gas canisters.

That moment I knew we had lost our country. That it was far from over, and the real struggle for democracy was yet to come.

Since then the coup government have been busy destroying everything Nasheed has built. They’ve put an end to state transport system…the universal healthcare, and everything else. They’ve set us back 100 years in our relationship with India.

Maybe they aren’t well-versed in foreign policy, but how could they possibly think that they can afford to be in bed with China after they’ve screwed over India in the matters of GMR airport and everything else that came afterwards? It would be hard for India not to take that personally.

I may not be an expert in foreign policy, but even I know that when you screw over your neighbor, it’s going to get awkward and complicated. Much like an office romance which ends badly.

Removal of President Nasheed from office wasn’t enough for the coup leaders, so they decided to prosecute him on charges of “kidnapping a judge”, to void his candidacy for the comping up presidential election.

They’ve already once dragged him to the kangaroo Hulhumale court which legally does not exist, while he was down south on the Journey of Pledges campaign in Faresmathoda.

President Nasheed was summoned to court for the second time, and the illegitimate ‘Hulhumale’ court ordered the police to make sure that he attended. But instead Nasheed has taken refuge in the Indian High Commission, taking the upper-hand in the current political situation in the Maldives, perhaps for the first time since the coup.

We are yet to find a solution and I personally don’t think that we would find one through political dialogue among the parties. It hasn’t worked before, I doubt it would work now. The only way we can move forward is to let Nasheed take part in a free and fair election this September. I think that’s reasonable.

Like many fellow Maldivians, I wish to hold that flag of red, green and white and feel proud again. But I’m afraid today is not that day.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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