Protests to continue until date given for early elections: Nasheed

Yesterday’s large anti-government protests ended peacefully in the early hours of the morning, and look set to continue for a second day.

Demonstrators danced into the night as a bodu beru band played, and were joined by a number of elderly women. Police kept a low profile.

Amid the yellow banners, capes, badges and bandanas of former President Mohamed Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) supporters, were a noticeably large number of the formerly politically un-engaged, most of them young. Many said they were joining or had already joined the MDP, and there were reports that the party had temporarily run out of application forms.

“We never used to discuss politics around the dinner table,” one yellow-shirted demonstrator, previously unaffiliated with any political party, told Minivan News. “But after I was beaten [by police] on Wednesday, my whole family – sisters, cousins – have joined the MDP.”

Former President Mohamed Nasheed took the podium shortly after midnight, stating that all-party talks were scheduled for Sunday to decide a date for an early presidential election. He said he was confident a date would be set before Parliament resumed on March 1.

Nasheed – who said he was forced to resign under duress in a bloodless police and military coup d’état February 7 – said people had stood up against the 30 year regime of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom because of the inhumane treatment people suffered at its hands and had witnessed, a day after the first democratically-elected government was overthrown, a brutal police crackdown on the people who protested against the coup.

“I was repeatedly asked to unlock the arsenal and if so the mutinous police officers would have been easily arrested. But I was not elected to hurt the people of this country,” Nasheed said.

Nasheed explained that for a while after the coup he was “unable to get out of Muleeage [the President’s residence]” and was not able to call anyone to explain what had happened.

“The international community had not received word of the coup as I was unable to leave Muleeage,” he said. “It took some time for them to realised that the information they had been receiving was not genuine, and by then some had urged us to join this illegal government. But I have now informed them of the real situation.

“The coup leaders did not conceive of or anticipate the people’s reaction to the change in government,” Nasheed added.

They believed, he said, that they could consolidate their hold on power “by arresting me after the coup and beating members of the MDP and the Maldivian people into submission.”

He added the public, who had been “nurturing the country on the path to freedom”, were not willing to recognise as legitimate a government they did not elect.

The “peaceful political activity” would continue until a date for early elections was announced, Nasheed said, urging people to return the following day.

“People can swim, play sports, music and give political speeches here. Our aim is to gather people from all over the nation,” he said.

Following talks with India’s Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai on Thursday, Nasheed said Dr Mohamed Waheed’s government was supposed to announce early elections on Friday night, after which other parties, MDP and Nasheed were to welcome it.

The announcement did not come, except for a vague press conference by new Attorney General Azima Shukoor. The all-party discussions have been set for Sunday.

MDP’s President, former Fisheries Minister Dr Ibrahim Didi, said that Maldivians had voted for the MDP’s manifesto for five years, “and hence the rule of this party should remain even now. That is why we are pressing for an election and by the grace of God it will be achieved.”

Dr Didi claimed that Ahmed Thasmeen Ali’s Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DRP), the second largest party in the Maldives and the subject of an acrimonious split with Gayoom’s Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) last year, had “given the green light” for early elections.

A statement on the DRP website said the party “welcomes and supports this important initiative because we value the importance of strengthening the democratic foundations of the Maldives and the restoration of peace and calm amongst our people. We believe this initiative would help to further strengthen the role of independent institutions in the Maldives and prevent serious distruptions to economic development and prosperity.”

“In supporting this initiative the DRP is willing to participate in a dialogue among all relevant political parties regarding the holding of early elections as stipulated in the roadmap. The DRP would also extend its cooperation in carrying out any necessary amendments to the constitution in order to facilitate such an election.”

Dr Mustafa Lufty, Chancellor of the Maldives National University, former Education Minister and one of the founding members of President Waheed’s Gaumee Ittihad Party (GIP), also addressed the crowd.

“Pointing a gun at the head of our beloved president and forcing him to resign is the same as pointing a gun at all of us,” Luftee said. “If we give up now generations to come will have to live at gun point.”

“I came here today because I could no longer bear this travesty.”

“This has been carefully planned. One plan was to force Nasheed to resign and if he did not, then the arsenal would have been opened for the opposition. That would have meant major bloodshed and military rule – they would have kept the country under such rule for a long time. Nasheed was wise enough to step aside and save the country from a massive tragedy.

“The second plan was to arrest Nasheed when he resigned, which would prompt his supporters to take matters into their own hands giving an excuse to beat them down. They would have charged us under terrorism.

“Freedom is a god given right of every human being and must not be violated under any circumstances,” he said.

Mathai had endorsed a ‘road map’ backing early elections “as soon as feasible”, and said at a press conference that MDP had as a result been “reconsidering” Friday’s demonstrations.

In a statement yesterday from the President’s Office, Dr Waheed said he was “disappointed” with Nasheed’s decision “to go ahead with his demonstration in Male’ today despite assurances and promises that were given to the Indian Foreign Secretary Mathai yesterday that it would be cancelled and a smaller meeting will be held in its place.”

Dr Waheed said MDP’s claim that he had not respected agreements reached in the Indian-mediated negotiations was “a completely untrue and irresponsible suggestion”.

“I can understand whilst it is easy to march your forces to the top of the hill, it is much harder to march them down again. I also understand that at this critical juncture in our country’s history that showing strong leadership can be challenge. But I’m hopeful that Mr Nasheed can show the good judgement in the future that will be necessary to make the road map a reality. It’s the very least that the people of the Maldives deserve,” he said.

Meanwhile, a member of yesterday’s crowd told Minivan News that he was “proud of everyone who came today in spite of intimidation by the military and the PPM rumor mill warning of large-scale violence. Not to mention whatever lies the media axis of evil is spewing. A lot of people were apparently scared off.

“A friend I met there who had sat in the square with Anni in 2005 said he didn’t think we’d have to do it all over again. I always tell people that the post-2003 pro-democracy movement separated the conscience-challenged cowards from those who value justice and were willing to fight for it. People are clearly not scared anymore.

“It wasn’t that long ago that they got the courage to paint their houses yellow in defiance of Gayoom. Today they are willing to wave a yellow flag under a military government.”

Time lapse footage of the crowds:

Bodu beru in the evening: