“Make them accountable”: young Maldivians talk democracy at documentary launch

Six local students – part of a nine person delegation that earlier this year visited key political institutions in the UK – were today invited to share their experiences and views of challenges facing the Maldives’ parliamentary system when compared to its counterparts around the world.

“In many other countries, if there is a hint of a scandal about an MP they will resign or find themselves pressured out,” said one of the female delegates. “Here, many take the attitude of ‘I don’t care’. We need to make [politicians] accountable.”

It was a response met with genial laughter during a discussion event held in the conference room of the Trader’s Hotel in Male’ this afternoon – a good natured meeting that at times seemed to belie the frank concerns raised by the young delegates.

Accountability was just one of the issues concerning democratic development noted by the six-person panel, who all spoke at the launch of a new documentary of their experiences at the ‘UK Youth Exchange’.

The project – run in conjunction with Democracy House and the British High Commission in Colombo – saw delegates travel to major UK cities to meet senior political figures and NGOs in order to better understand issues of democratic development across the Commonwealth.

The participants included Mohamed Axam Maumoon, Aishath Loona Moosa, Shahaadha Ahmed, Sharoona Adil, Shinah Saeed and Abdulla Shahid. The trip was also attended by Ibrahim Nawaf, Hassan Qassan and Muhaisina Hassan, who were not present at today’s launch.

The corresponding documentary titled ‘A study tour to London’, which is aimed to be aired and local television as well as across social media platforms at a later date, detailed a ten day visit to the UK cities of Bristol and London to experience UK and Commonwealth democratic institutions.

Participants also took part in workshops with the British Youth council, Young Muslims Advisory Group and the Commonwealth parliamentary association, as well as joining in “parliamentary-style” debates with UK school children.

Having since returned to the Maldives, the delegates raised concerns over the lack of a sense of ownership of the country, the limited educational opportunities outside of Male’, and gender inequality.

Another issue raised concerned civic education in areas such as privatisation, taxation, and public healthcare with the launch of Aasandha scheme earlier this year.

One of the participants highlighted problems with infrastructure development, bemoaning a seeming lack of public ownership among Maldivian people. He believed this had resulted from a lack of discussions and opportunities for the public to have their say in advocating how state developments were being decided.

“The youth here also have no dialogue with authorities,” he said. “No one feels the country belongs to us, be it land or infrastructure. There needs to be greater sense of ownership and responsibility.”

Other delegates raised fears over discrimination, particularly towards women working at the country’s resorts.

“There is a lot of discrimination here. It is seen as unacceptable for women to work at resorts. Why? Why should this be the case? There are lots of opportunities here,” she added.

Another delegate noted the need for reform of the country’s curriculum during the event, especially in order to take into account the changes the country had undergone since its first democratic elections were held back in 2008.

“All Maldivians should know about democracy. We need civic education,” he said.

The delegate queried how the entire country was being educated, criticising a lack of focus on critical thinking in areas such as privatisation, taxation and healthcare.

“Many people still don’t know what taxes are. What benefits there are from tax. What universal healthcare is. I could go on,” he added, to the amusement of the audience made up partly of dignitaries representing both the government and key civil society organisations including the UN and local media.

As part of the UK visit, two other participants talked of their experiences “shadowing” UK parliamentarians, claiming the country appeared to have a much stronger level of youth involvement within local governance.

“Here in the Maldives there is no youth involvement. The youth is seen as representing 18 to 35 year olds,” said one of the delegates.

“In other countries, youth are seen as representing the ages between 12 and 21, but here our parents require us to concentrate only on our studies, they do not see us as being mature enough [for politics],” they added.

The participants also spoke of the custom UK MPs had of visiting their constituencies to meet with the people they represent.

“I highly doubt MPs are visiting their constituencies here,” one of the delegates added.

“Different cultures and religions”

Among the dignitaries at the launch was Vice President Mohamed Waheed Deen, a resort owner and philanthropist, who thanked the British High Commission project for allowing the Maldivian delegates to “explore different cultures and religions in the cosmopolitan city of London.”

“You would be great teachers to our politicians,” he claimed in a speech addressing the concerns raised by the six delegates.

“These messages should go to our real politicians. I’m not a real politician. But I wish today that more MPs were here. I’m informed they were invited. It’s important to listen to people. The government are the servants of the people.”

Deen claimed that politicians in the country were failing to listen to the voting public, while he also bemoaned the attitudes in the country that blamed young people and gangs for crime and murder without considering factors leading them to commit such acts.

“The problem with leaders is we try too hard to stay in power, but we often forget about our successors,” he said. “We don’t create leaders for tomorrow.”

The vice president said he aimed to do his utmost to take each of the delegates’ concerns and address them in the cabinet, pointing especially to the need for political sciences, civic education programmes and an understanding of the country’s constitution.

“Otherwise, what are we teaching?” Deen asked, this time without laughter from the gathered audience.


Failure of judiciary, JSC and parliament justified detention of Abdulla Mohamed, contends Velezinee in new book

Former President’s Member on the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) Aishath Velezinee has written a book extensively documenting the watchdog body’s undermining of judicial independence, and complicity in sabotaging the separation of powers.

Over 80 pages, backed up with documents, evidence and letters, The Failed Silent Coup: in Defeat They Reached for the Gun recounts the experience of the outspoken whistleblower as she attempted to stop the commission from re-appointing unqualified and ethically-suspect judges loyal to former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, after it dismissed the professional and ethical standards demanded by Article 285 of the constitution as “symbolic”.

That moment at the conclusion of the constitutional interim period marked the collapse of the new constitution and resulted in the appointment of a illegitimate judiciary, Velezinee contends, and set in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to President Mohamed Nasheed’s arrest of Chief Criminal Court Judge Abdulla Mohamed two years later.

Nasheed resigned on February 7 after mutinying police and military officers joined forces with opposition demonstrators, who had been accusing Nasheed of interfering with the ‘independent’ judiciary in his arrest of the judge, and demanding not to be given ‘unlawful orders’.

The Commonwealth-backed Commission of National Inquiry (CNI) report found that there was no evidence to support Nasheed’s claim that he was ousted in a coup d’état, and that his resignation was under duress and the events of the day were self-inflicted.

“The inquiry is based on a false premise, the assumption that Abdulla Mohamed is a constitutionally appointed judge, which is a political creation and ignores all evidence refuting this,” Velezinee stated.

“Judge Abdulla Mohamed is at the centre of this story. I believe it is the State’s duty to remove him from the judiciary. He may have the legal knowledge required of a judge; but, as the State knows full well, he has failed to reach the ethical standards equally essential for a seat on the bench.

“A judge without ethics is a judge open to influence. Such a figure on the bench obstructs justice, and taints the judiciary. These are the reasons why the Constitution links a judge’s professional qualifications with his or her moral standards,” she states.

The JSC itself had investigated Abdulla Mohamed but stopped short of releasing a report into his ethical misconduct after the Civil Court awarded the judge an injunction against his further investigation by the judicial watchdog.

“There is no legal way in which the Civil Court can rule that the Judicial Service Commission cannot take action against Abdulla Mohamed. This decision says judges are above even the Constitution. Where, with what protection, does that leave the people?” Velezinee asks.

“The Judicial Service Commission bears the responsibility for removing Abdulla Mohamed from the bench. Stories about him have circulated in the media and among the general public since 2009, but the Commission took no notice. It was blind to Abdulla Mohamed’s frequent forays outside of the ethical standards required of a judge. It ignored his politically charged rulings and media appearances.

“Abdulla Mohamed is a man who had a criminal conviction even when he was first appointed to the bench during President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s time. Several complaints of alleged judicial misconduct are pending against him. The Judicial Service Commission has ignored them all. What it did, instead, is grant him tenure – a lifetime on the bench for a man such as Abdulla Mohamed. In doing so, the Judicial Service Commission clearly failed to carry out its constitutional responsibilities. It violated the Constitution and rendered it powerless. Where do we go from there?”

Parliament, Velezinee states, was the body responsible for holding the JSC accountable.

“The Majlis knew the threat Abdulla Mohamed posed to national security and social harmony. The Majlis was also aware of the Judicial Service Commission’s failure to carry out its constitutional responsibilities and its efforts to nullify constitutional requirements.

“Concern had been shared with the Majlis that the Judicial Service Commission had committed the ultimate betrayal and hijacked judicial independence. The Majlis failed its Constitutional responsibility to hold the Judicial Service Commission accountable for any of these actions. The Majlis had violated the Constitution and rendered it powerless. Where to from there?”

Ultimate responsibility for upholding the constitution fell to the President, Velezinee states.

“Democratic governance can only function if the entire system is working as an integral whole; it is impossible if the three separated powers are failing in their respective duties.

“Under the circumstances – once it was clear that Abdulla Mohamed was an obstruction to justice and a threat to national security, and once it became apparent that neither the Judicial Service Commission nor the Parliament was willing to hold him accountable – the only authority left to take control of the situation was the Head of State.”

With the return to power of Gayoom’s autocratic government behind President Mohamed Waheed’s “fig leaf of legitimacy”, the judiciary continued to be subject to influence, Velezinee writes.

“The judiciary we have today is under the control of a few,” she wrote.

“This was an end reached by using the Judicial Service Commission as a means. Most members of the Judicial Service Commission betrayed the Constitution, the country, and the people. They broke their oath. There is no room for free and fair hearings. And most judges do not even know how to hold such a hearing.”

“For democracy and rule of law to be established in the Maldives, and for the right to govern themselves to be returned to the people, they must have an elected leader. And the judiciary, currently being held hostage, must be freed.

“Article 285 of the Constitution must be fully upheld, judges reappointed, and an independent judiciary established,” she concludes.

Download The Failed Silent Coup (English translation by Dr Azra Naseem)


Nasheed pleaded for family to be protected in exchange for resignation, reveals SBS documentary

President Mohamed Nasheed pleaded with mutineering security forces to protect his family, in exchange for his resignation, as police, soldiers and opposition protesters assaulted defence headquarters on the morning of February 7.

The previously unheard recording, obtained by SBS journalist Mark Davis, was aired on Australian television on Tuesday night.

“While the international community deliberates on whether Nasheed resigned under duress or not, this audio recording, broadcast for the first time, may be illuminating,” says the multi Walkley-award winning journalist.

In the clip, “minutes after representatives of the opposition made their threats of bloodshed”, Nasheed agrees that he will resign as long as the soldiers protect his family.

“”No problem”, one replies. “I will protect your family with Allah’s will.”

“You should do that for me under the circumstances. I should settle this with you first, right here, OK?” Nasheed is heard to say.

“Then I’ll go to the President’s Office and publicly announce that in my view the best thing for this country right now is my resignation. Is that all right? That’s what I’ll say.”

“That was an attempt for me to get out of where I was,” Nasheed tells Davis afterwards.

“Yes, I could have held on, but that would have been at very huge cost to the country and the people. There would have been a lot of blood.”

Davis’s documentary, produced for the SBS Dateline program, also features a frank interview with Umar Naseer, Vice President of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM).

PPM Vice President Umar Naseer

In the interview, Naseer explains in English what happened from the perspective of the opposition demonstrators on February 7.

“We had a small command centre where we do all the protests. I command from the centre and give instructions to my people,” Naseer explained.

“On the protesters’ side, we were informing and educating the police and army through our speeches and television programs.”

Asked by Davis if the opposition had made any other inducements, such as promises that they and their families would be “looked after” if they switched sides, Naseer said “there were.”

“We called on army and police and said that if a person was fired from his position because of their refusal to follow an unlawful order, the opposition would take care of them,” Naseer said.

After former army officer Mohamed Nazim and dismissed police chief Abdulla Riyaz were ushered into the military base, to cries of “Nazim sir!”, Umar Naseer explained to Davis that Nazim called him seeking permission to negotiate Nasheed’s surrender on behalf of the opposition.

“It was around 7-7:30am, and Nazim – the present defence minister – called me and said ‘I’m inside the Defence Headquarters, can I talk on behalf of the opposition?’ I said ‘You can talk, but don’t agree to anything without our authority.’”

“I had told Nasheed to resign, and that I was afraid for his life – because if Nasheed came out of the headquarters, people might beat him on the streets,” Naseer said.

Nasheed should now “face justice” rather than an election, Umar Naseer told Davis, “And I think he will get a prison term of 10-15 years.”

“You don’t give up easily. You’ve got the guy out of government now you want to see him in prison?” Davis responded.

“We want to see justice served,” Naseer replied. “He is seeking an election because he wants to get away with this sentence. I have no doubt that Mr Nasheed will be out of Maldivian politics for a long time. We want to make sure of that.”

In the documentary, Nasheed presses for an early election date as “the only way to stabilise the country”.

However it was “not so simple, according to newly appointed President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan,” says Davis.

“People are not convinced at the moment that we could hold free and fair elections today. Partly because there are so many deep divisions. The conditions are not right for an election just now,” Dr Waheed tells Davis.

At one point Dr Waheed’s answer to a question from Davis is interrupted by an individual later identified as Dr Ananda Kumarasiri, a 30 year veteran of the Malaysian foreign service and Buddhist author, who told journalists he was “just a friend passing through”.

“If I may inject, from the video tapes, I do not see how my colleague has got this impression that there was a coup. If there was a coup then [it would show] from the tapes… from the evidence,” Dr Kumarasiri says.

Davis observed that Dr Waheed’s “attempt to project an independent image was not helped by the advisors that now surround him.”

Nasheed appears upbeat in the Dateline documentary, describing the takeover as perhaps “a blessing in disguise.”

“The criminals are now obvious. The pictures are there. The people are identified. We are now able to reform a very, very brutal police, because we now understand who is who. and what everyone has been doing,” the former President says.

“We don’t give up. We’ve won against odds before. I’ve fallen many times before but I’ve been able to get back up, and start it all over again. I don’t see any difference now.”


‘Island President’ wins People’s Choice award at Toronto International Film Festival

“The Island President” was awarded the Cadillac People’s Choice Award for Best Documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), one of the world’s five most prestigious films festivals.

The award was delivered in a uniquely democratic fashion, voted not by critics but by festival audience members who attended the screening. The film was one of 25 submissions in the documentary category.

Director Jon Shenk has previously won awards for his documentary films, notably “Lost Boys of Sudan” and “Smile Pinki”; the latter received an Oscar in 2009.

A government official who met Shenk during his time in the Maldives in 2009 said the government knew he was a successful director, and hoped for a positive response.

The official noted that the Maldives is known internationally for tourism and climate change, but hopes that this award will bring more awareness to areas such as North America.

State Minister for Tourism Mohamed Thoyyib called the documentary a “big achievement for the Maldives”, promoting the destination to audiences in North America who were previously unaware of the country’s “pristine, clear waters, white beaches, and beautiful fish.”

Thoyyib added that in spite of its title the documentary was not about President Mohamed Nasheed but rather about the issues facing the Maldivian people. The film raised awareness of global warming, portrayed and promoted “the unique ” Maldivian culture and language, and illustrated government transparency, said Thoyyib.

“No scene was created or scripted, some reviewers even noted that the film’s most unique aspect was that it shot real events on a level that had never before been achieved in the Maldives, or within other governments,” Thoyyib said.

Thoyyib noted that the Maldivian government had benefited a great deal from the film, but had not spent money on its production.

“There is a lot to be achieved directly and indirectly when something positive happens,” he said, adding that tourism revenue was likely to increase. “But this doesn’t solve the issue. The President will keep on raising his voice on global warming.”

Funding for the documentary was provided by the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, ITVS, Impact Partners, Sundance Documentary Fund, and Atlantic Philanthropies.

Minister of Tourism Dr Mariyam Zulfa said that the President had gained the attention and support of the international community before the film was produced. “The under water cabinet meeting that the President hosted in 2009 generated a lot of interest in the Maldives as an eco-destination,” she said.

Zulfa expects the film to have a positive impact on both tourism and eco-awareness. “Generating interest in the Maldives is always a good thing. We are adopting green standards and reducing waste, and are always open to new ideas from the international community,” she said.

The documentary was also screened at the exclusive Telluride Film Festival in Colorado earlier this month. Hollywood Reporter named “The Island President” one of the festival’s “Top 12 films to know”.

In the coming months, “The Island President” will be soliciting distributors for viewing in cinemas and on public television. The film already has a contract with the US’ Public Broadcasting Service, which had helped fund the project, and will be aired on US television next year.

A screening of the documentary is scheduled for the Maldives later this year.


Maldives documentary makes waves at Toronto and North American film festivals

The Island President, a Hollywood-style documentary film featuring President Mohamed Nasheed, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) today in Canada.

A grant-funded project, the film is one of the first to bring the Maldives’ fight against climate change to the international movie-going audiences. Starting with Nasheed’s initial vow to make the Maldives carbon-neutral, the film documents the president’s efforts to make climate change an important issue for politicians around the globe.

“The ability to sustain human life here is very fragile,” Nasheed says in the documentary. “The most important fight is the fight for our survival…. There is impending disaster.”

The film culminates in Copenhagen, where world leaders met in December 2009 for the United National Climate Change Conference. Although the summit was later reviewed as a failure, it did mark the first time that leading world powers agreed that the issue needed to be addressed.

Actual Films, an Oscar and Emmy-winning American documentary film company based in San Francisco, contacted the Maldivian government in early 2009 and asked for permission to film President Nasheed, members of the government and others as they prepared for the Copenhagen summit.

Director Jon Shenk, who directed the 2003 documentary “Lost Boys of Sudan”, followed Nasheed closely during his first year in office. Shenk told the Los Angeles Times that the documentary team hoped Nasheed would give a personal edge to a groundbreaking environmental and political topic.

“He was willing to be out there and say what a lot of politicians are afraid to say, which intrigued us,” said Shenk. “Climate change is so difficult to grasp and so difficult to generate world momentum around, but there are real people who are going to be affected really soon.”

The film looks inside previously unseen recordings of the Maldivian government’s preparations for the summit, and delivers behind-the-scenes footage from the event itself.

The filmmakers report having an unprecedented level of access to a head of state. Shenk said Nasheed’s candid behavior as a politician was a significant factor in the film’s success.

Nasheed said he was surprised at the film crew’s level of interest in his policies. “We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into at the start,” said Nasheed. “I thought they just wanted to do a longer interview than normal and would leave after a few days. I didn’t expect them to stay for a year!”

The Island President was screened at Colorado’s Telluride Film Festival (TFF) earlier this month, and made it’s debut in Canada yesterday at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Reviews about the film vary from enthusiastic to technically critical. David D’arcy’s review on Screendaily.com calls the film “more entertaining and less didactic that An Inconvenient Truth,” and praises the filmmakers for making “visual richness” out of a contradictory story.

Reel Film Reviews criticises the movie’s length, but appreciates the content and leading man. “It’s ultimately Nasheed himself who compensates for the movie’s uneven atmosphere, as the remarkably even-tempered politician comes off as a tremendously likeable and engaging figure who seems universally beloved by his people (and with good reason).”

The review concludes that the film is “a stirring piece of work” that highlights an important issue.

President Nasheed delivered the keynote address on climate change yesterday at TIFF. Nasheed also attended a meeting on the possible Legal Form of New Climate Agreement yesterday, hosted by the Mary Robinson Foundation-Climate Justice (MRFCJ) at the Grantham Research Institute for Climate Change and Environment in London.

The Island President was produced by Richard Berge and Bonni Cohen. Actual Films have spent over two years and $1.5 million in grants making the film, which is due to be aired in the Maldives in early 2012. Reports state, however, that the film does not yet have a domestic distributor.