This article originally appeared on Patch.com, a US-based community news portal. Republished with permission.
When I stepped off the dhoni, or water taxi, onto the streets of Male, I was deafened by the unexpected silence.
Any other night in the capital city in the Republic of the Maldives, taxis and little gas scooters would be zipping down the main road, darting between pedestrians and disappearing down narrow streets toward the center of the island.
The island of Male is only two square miles and there are more than 100,000 permanent residents living in high, cramped apartments. Considering those numbers, there should have been Maldivians everywhere.
But there were no taxis, no scooters, and the only pedestrians were those who arrived with me on the dhoni. Everyone was in the town center for anti-government rallies organized by the youth in the capital.
I live in Imperial Beach [in the US] and am a regular contributor to Imperial Beach Patch, but for the last month I’ve been teaching English in the Maldives.
This is an account of a walk through anti-government protests I witnessed in Male’ last week.
Throngs of young dissenters, backed by the former ruling party the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (the Maldivian People’s Party, or DRP), had massed in the center of the island calling for President Mohamed Nasheed to step down.
The crimes protestors accused him of were numerous, from allowing ‘Western’ influence to permeate the traditional Islamic culture to allowing the rufiya, the Maldivian currency, to devalue.
The price of food and drinking water rose 20 percent over the course of the past two weeks, and whether all this could be blamed on President Nasheed seemed irrelevant.
This was the final straw for many young Maldivians. Enthusiastic calls for his resignation came like it has for other countries that recently experienced climbing food prices and instability around the world.
As I moved toward the city’s center, columns of Maldivian police in full riot gear jogged past, taking positions at major intersections and government buildings.
A long line of officers sat atop a stone wall outside the Grand Friday Mosque, their feet dangling like boys fishing off a pier. Riot shields were propped against cracked coral walls, batons hung from belt loops and tear gas canisters were strapped securely to the men and women of the city’s law enforcement.
Overlapping shields kept new protestors out of the intersection dissenters made their main soapbox. The previous night’s protests ended with the use of batons and fire extinguishers.
As a result, the police came under heavy criticism. To stem further controversy, the police decided they would only use high-pressure hoses to disperse the crowds once the morning light came.
The silence faded as I navigated between tall, colorful apartment buildings toward the city center. In the distance, I could hear chanting, yelling, sirens. With every few feet, the shouts became more intelligible and intense.
Men and women, predominantly young but of all ages, filled the intersection. A small group of men sat atop a flatbed truck flanked by speakers who shouted into megaphones, calling to the crowd in Dhivehi, first with a long stream of propaganda, then with back-and-forth chants. “Down with Nasheed”, and “Allahu Akbar” echoed off surrounding buildings as Maldivians threw their fists into the air with each chant.
Signs depicting the current president dressed as the pope bobbed among the throng, and crumpled paper copies of US dollar bills flew high into the air. Teenagers ran around in masks bearing Nasheed’s image, with blood running down from the vacant eyeholes.
It seemed like the entire island showed up.
A young Maldivian who approached me said they were upset about the spike in food and water prices. I told him I understand that, but asked what the crowd wanted the president to do to solve the problem.
After a moment of silence, the young man said, “We want him to hear us.”
The two-step of propaganda followed by chanting continued for an hour, with an occasional break in the propaganda to take time to sing the Youth Song, a Maldivian song of unity and inspiration. Everyone knew the words, and for a moment the mood shifted from that of a tense protest to that of an outdoor festival.
Shortly after they finished the song a student from my English class recognised me and struck up conversation.
Excitedly, he pointed to a group of men seated on the street. They were dissenting members of parliament, he said, and had been out there since the start of the protests. I was surprised by how vulnerable these politicians made themselves.
Minutes later I was interviewing a tall, steely-eyed parliamentarian, Ahmed Nishan of the DRP.
A circle of protestors formed around us to watch our conversation and attracted the Maldivian national news, who recorded part of our interview.
I asked him several times what his party thought the president could do to fix the problems created by the rising cost of food globally.
Each time I was met with a reiteration of some unrelated talking points.
After asking the same question as many different ways as I knew how, he finally told me his party and the youth didn’t have a solution — they just wanted the president to know how they felt, and are demanding a solution.
Nishan ended our interview by starting a raspy chant, calling once again for President Nasheed to step down from his position, even going so far as to call him a demon.
I rejoined my student following the spontaneous interview. He had received a call from another student, saying he saw me on the television during the interview. I laughed, surprised as he was concerning the events of the evening.
My student and I left the main mass of the protest to have a quick cup of coffee, during which we discussed Maldivian politics and possible solutions to the problems the protestors had with their current government.
Before long, we heard screams from the streets.
Members of the MDP were showing up in columns, out to oppose the DPR youth gathered in the intersection. After a tense standoff between the parties, members of the DPR rushed MDP supporters.
The crowd behind the DRP lurched forward in a great stampede. From the flanks, high feminine screams rang out and men toppled to the ground as others trampled over them. The brawl continued for several minutes, clearing after the retreat of the MDP supporters.
By now it was 2:00am. and the final boat back to my island was leaving in half an hour. I thanked my student for staying with me during the protest, and left the crowd to return to the dhonis.
I thought about all I saw, replaying the night in my head as the dhoni bobbed back toward my island.
In the real world, rarely can black and white lines be drawn to separate the good guys from the bad. In Syria and Libya as it was in Tunisia and Egypt, the population is oppressed and the government is corrupt. Those lines aren’t difficult to define.
In this tiny island nation, there were no lines, only vague demands and complaints with no solutions being offered from either of the two major political parties. Rising food costs were fuel to adversarial fire that had been burning for years between the MDP and the DRP.
The fight was more about power and less about solving problems. I wondered if this was the necessary endpoint of adversarial, two-party politics; a game of king of the hill while the world burns around the players.
Graig Graziosi is teaching English in the Maldives.
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