Comment: Government of the people, by the people, for the people…

The type of government that a nation consents to has a profound influence on its people and their quality of life. In the writings of early historians, Maldivians were depicted as “a most gentle people.”

Less than forty years ago, when a tourist visiting Male killed his girl-friend, practically the whole population of the island stopped their work and went to pay their respects. People were genuinely moved with sympathy for a victim of violence. “We were in deep shock. We were stunned really,” one man recalled.

How things have changed.

A single day’s headlines now expose the darker reality of this ‘Sunny Side of Life.’ A sixteen year old boy is murdered in a public park while law enforcement agents are busy arresting people for the crime of being “in possession of a cursed chicken.” A 65 year-old man is killed for his meagre pension money.

Meanwhile, the police pepper spray, beat and arrest people with impunity and young children are given guns to hold and admire as a tactic to enhance the profile of the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF).

Yes, change is inevitable. However, it is important to ask why such a fundamental change has occurred in the psyche of the whole nation in a 30 year time-frame. There might be many contributing factors but one of them stands out.

The style of governance under Gayoom’s regime affected the attitude of the whole nation. The violence, torture and lack of regard for other people’s dignity that characterises his regime, is unfortunately colouring the mind-set of ordinary citizens. The recent shameful episode of three policemen and an MNDF officer robbing expatriate workers makes sense in this dog-eat-dog society which is frighteningly becoming our reality. And why not? When ‘the best and the brightest’ of a country usurp power by pillage and brute force, the masses have no reason not to emulate their example. Exposure to violence desensitises us and reduces our sense of humanity.

There are a plethora of practical and philosophical reasons why the Maldives should embrace democracy at this stage of its development. One outstanding reason is the failure of the ‘Unity’ government that has emerged following the coup, which is neither a united nor a legitimate government. It is a loosely held conglomerate of ambitious individuals vying for power. The last thing on their minds is the well-being of the citizens. The sudden increase of police numbers, promotions and bonuses, in a period of economic recession, is testimony to the fact that the limited resources of the country are being squandered for the self-serving obsession of holding on to power.

Journalists, politicians and individual citizens discuss the execution of the coup that brought this regime back to power. While there is no doubt that a coup took place, and a legitimate, democratically-elected government overthrown, it is simply too generous to accept that a successful coup has been executed. A coup is not simply the acquisition of power. It also entails the maintenance of power by providing a functioning system of governance that would enable the usurpers to achieve legitimacy, at least through longevity.

What is obvious now is that the coup was a botch-up of gigantic proportions. The perpetrators of the coup underestimated the resilience of the people, ignored the determination of the MDP and assumed that Nasheed would walk away quietly and the rest of the population would return, sheep-like, to the conditions prior to the 2008 elections. However, three years of freedom from police persecution and terror has prompted a paradigm shift in the psyche of the nation. The coup government is struggling and is in a state of limbo. Their recent dealings with political activist and lawyer Mariya Didi and Chief Superintendent MC Hameed, Head of Intelligence of the Maldivian Police Service (MPS), have demonstrated the inadequacies of the regime in dealing with people who cannot be frightened into submission.

The regime has also made it clear to the general public that they are not capable of anything other than knee-jerk reactions. Meanwhile the people suffer as they watch the drama unfold and the numbers of political detainees continue to increase.

This failure to consolidate power is partly because autocracy of any form is an anachronism in the 21st century. Traditional respect for authority and the unquestioning subservience of citizens to those in power are fast disappearing. This is an age of social media and instant dissemination of information. Syria, Egypt and Libya provide clear evidence of how autocratic governments all over the world have been under increasing pressure. The type of Machiavellian political philosophy that advocates the suspension of common-place ethics from politics is out-dated and irrelevant in the 21st century, as is the Hobbesian interpretation of the social contract that people should submit to the authority of an absolute sovereign power.

Yet, these ideas form the political creed of the current regime in the Maldives; a cynical, out-dated creed that ignores the human potential for growth, both morally and intellectually. Thus, all autocratic governments, as the one that the old dictator has ‘gifted’ to the Maldives for a second time, are preoccupied with the business of propaganda, creating their own versions of the truth in an increasingly information-rich world.

Ruder Finn, the PR company employed by the regime to sanitise their record of human rights abuse, is not a new phenomenon, but the effectiveness of this huge monetary investment in disinformation, remains to be seen. Dr Hassan Saeed may indeed be destined forever to keep ‘applying lipstick to hideous pigs,’ as Yameen Rasheed so aptly puts it. However, the regime would be ill-advised to believe that the rest of the animals on the farm are impressed by the propaganda of Snowball and Napoleon.

It is generally agreed that the stability of a government is directly related to the economic well-being of a nation. What is less well understood is the fundamental human need for justice, order, goodness, and unity. In his hierarchy of needs for self-actualisation, Abraham Maslow defines these as ‘Meta-needs’, crucial qualities that help people to develop to their potential.

Where is justice when power is acquired and sustained by force? Where is order when the roads are filled with disenfranchised protesters and thousands are demanding that their right to vote be taken seriously? It is laughable to expect the nation to be united when the ruling hierarchy itself is divided by their personal agendas and are incapable of investing energy in the well-being of the people. The previous democratic government was much maligned for detaining a judge who was regarded as corrupt and morally questionable. While this may have been ‘impolitic’ in the cut-throat business of staying in power, it is a refreshing sign that the people’s government had the moral fibre to act decisively in a question of right and wrong, rather than be intimidated by political expediency.

But why democracy?

Winston Churchill’s words that “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried” have often been used as an apology for democracy. It seems to suggest that democracy is the best of a bad lot and we may as well make do with it because nothing else works any better. But modern research and experience seem to suggest otherwise. ‘The Spirit Level’ written by researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett is based on a variety of cross- country comparisons. They argue that greater equality does not only produce better outcomes for the poor.

“Equality,” they point out, “is better for everyone,” including the rich and the elite of the society. Their well-evidenced thesis shows that unequal societies suffer from more insecurity and status-related fears, which permeate through the whole society, destroying the positive influences of community living and lowering the spirit of the poor and the rich alike.

Although it is simplistic to assume that democracy provides a totally equal society, empowering the people of the country to decide the direction of their government and its policies are crucial pre-requisites for a healthy and inclusive society. The good health of a society is of huge benefit even for the rich as it provides a stable, educated and flexible workforce capable of keeping up with the demands of a constantly changing world.

Thomas Paine, in his treatise Rights of Man points out that representative democracy is the most inclusive and the fairest form of government. Three centuries later, this claim still holds good. Democracy opens the door for the utilisation of everyone’s energy, ideas, creativity and intelligence for the well-being of the whole population. Conversely, the raison d’etre of any autocratic government, as with the regime currently in power in the Maldives, is the preservation of their own privilege and exclusivity.

It is not a historical accident that the democratic movement, especially since the coup, has resonated strongly with the combined voices of women and the youth of the nation. Any successful society in the 21st century must address the needs of these two powerful, but traditionally over-looked groups. Islamic fundamentalism has been legitimised in the Maldives by the coup of February 7 which saw the regime’s cynical manipulation of a small group of radicals to overthrow the democratic government. The inclusive nature of democracy is also the only response to the mindless, patriarchal and antiquated agendas of these individuals who consolidate power and maintain their own personal self-esteem through the subjugation of such groups as women and youth.

As a form of governance, democracy has the added advantage of allowing a safe and disciplined transfer of power. Autocratic rulers, who invariably need to abuse basic human rights to stifle opposition and to stay in power, inevitably carry with them increasing political baggage. Just as with Gaddafi in Libya, Assad in Syria provides a contemporary example of an autocratic ruler who has little to gain but much to lose by relenting to the demands of those who see that his days are numbered. The only option open for him is to fight to the bitter end.

The fact that Gayoom has initiated a court case against an 82 year-old Maldivian historian who claimed that there were 111 custodial deaths in the 30 years of Gayoom’s rule is a timely reminder of how insecure autocratic rulers feel as they come to the twilight years of their political careers. The costs of this predictable path of action are staggering in human, social and economic terms; not just for the perpetrator of the crimes, but for the nation as a whole. Democracy, where the head of a government is decided by the consent of the majority of the people, is the only way of avoiding such a political quagmire.

Ultimately, however, it is a question of governance. In this context governance describes the methods a government use to ensure that citizens follow its processes and regulations. Good governance, like good parenting, is not simply a set of rules to achieve compliance through fear and punishment. Good governance is underpinned by a strong set of moral and social imperatives. It relies heavily on a series of ethical and social requirements such as justice and a shared vision by all its constituents. As abusive and violent parents enslave their children in a vicious cycle of similar behaviour, oligarchic systems of governance which portray that ‘might is right’, have a hugely negative and vicious impact on the citizenry.

Just as thirty years of life under Gayoom saw an increasing number of Maldivians lose their innate sense of fairness and compassion, Waheed’s recent sanctifying of the MNDF has ramifications for the type of society we live in and will continue to live in.

What the country needs is healing, justice and the voices of its populace to be heard. What is on offer is more imprisonment, more thuggery and more money being wasted in white-washing these actions. For many people, including large segments of the police force, MNDF and ordinary citizens, there is something extremely obscene in the disparity between what the country needs and the oppressive responses of the regime.

Maldivians have the courage and maturity to take risks and grow as a nation. The only way forward now is through an early, democratic election, before the powerful tentacles of autocracy reduce the country into another abyss of hopelessness, as it did for thirty years under Gayoom. History does not have to repeat itself.

Democracy is premised on the understanding that human dignity is an inherent right. But with the exception of a short period of three years under a fledgling democracy, generations of Maldivians have grown up and grown old with the belief that life is an inevitable submission to force, brutality and loss of dignity. Violence begets violence. It is an insidious force which destroys the very foundation of nationhood: justice, trust and compassion. To live wisely, the nation must attend to the welfare of all its citizens, not just a privileged few. The rule of the few must end. Government should be of the people. It should be by the people. And most importantly, it should be for the people.

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]


Comment: Let them eat cake

As the world watches the escalation of violence in the Maldives, the media, both nationally and internationally, has focused on the major characters in this unfolding drama. A corrupt government headed by an aging dictator was, for a short period, defeated by a popular movement led by a relentless activist, recognised for his fearless and uncompromising struggle to change the system.

However, the old regime was returned to power by the coup on February 7, barely four years after the previous government was established through a popular democratic movement. This is the stuff of Hollywood movies, but the script is still being written…

Democracy or Oligarchy? The dictionary definitions of these conflicting ideologies do not clearly reflect the real reasons behind the political struggle and the recent coup in the Maldives. It is not primarily a drama of personalities, as some of the media interviewers have portrayed it. It is a struggle between an oligarchy doggedly maintaining its privileges and a growing number of Maldivians who refuse to be beaten or intimidated into submission. Baton clashes with belief. Power clashes with powerlessness. And most importantly, privilege for the few clashes with justice for all.

For centuries, pre-eminence in government has been synonymous with privilege in the Maldives; and the privileged few used their power to do little other than to preserve their position and lifestyle. Gayoom, who was educated in the Middle East, came to power with such promise of change, but managed only to perpetuate an Arabian Nights style of governance.

Under him, the Maldivian government continued to be inward looking. The rule of the privileged few continued to be the norm. Thirty years of exploitation and repression under Gayoom left the country economically and emotionally bankrupt. The social results of this are seen in the plethora of problems that the Maldives faces today. One outstanding example is the neglect of the atolls- the economic backbone of the country.

While members of the privileged oligarchy lived the lifestyle of the rich and famous funded by the country’s earnings and the aid that was poured into the country to assist its development, there was a deliberate neglect of the islands outside the capital Male and their need for education, health care, and employment. This neglect led directly to the beleaguered state of Male today. Thousands upon thousands of Maldivians go to live in Male, to work and educate their children. Today, Male is one of the most crowded and polluted cities in the world. Privilege, married to self- interest, leaves long, dark shadows.

Privilege also goes hand in hand with exclusiveness and a strong sense of entitlement as evidenced by Gayoom’s regime. State money that was the right of all citizens was spent on personal aggrandizement. ‘Theemuge’- Gayoom’s presidential palace- and the millions of public money spent on it, is a symbol of corruption and excess that will stay with us for many years. However, the platoon of luxury yachts and the lifestyle enjoyed by his family and friends were not seen by them as a result of embezzlement, but a reflection of what they were justifiably entitled to.

Such self-deceit went further. Just as the colonial powers and the Christian missionaries of the past justified their dealings with the indigenous people of the colonies as humanitarian and ethically sound, the regime justified its way of doing things as enlightened and for the public good. For years, the old regime has argued that the Maldives was not ready for Democracy; this became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This style of archaic thinking assumes that change for the better can only happen when it follows a time line that suits those who are opposed to any change which threatens their privileged lifestyle. The return to that regime suggests that Gayoom is of the belief that the country will not be ready for such a change in the life time of his children either! The truth is that any major progress in human history, such as the growth of Islam in its early years, the development of the parliamentary system or the emancipation of women in the West, is achieved with pain and commitment. When the oligarchy takes the moral high ground, it asserts that the ordinary public is at a lower level of evolution- incapable of rational or intelligent behaviour. Will the regime now destroy the schools, keep economic power in the hands of the few, and then tell the many that they are too ignorant for Democracy?

“Let them eat cake” is a well-known quotation possibly misattributed to Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI, whose regime was toppled in the French Revolution. The queen, who had indulged in a lifestyle of huge affluence was told that the peasants had no bread; bread being the staple food of the French peasantry and the only food they could afford. The queen’s reply illustrates her lack of understanding of the predicament of the poverty-stricken population.

Privilege is characterised by this sheer obliviousness to the concerns and opinions of the less fortunate. Thus the February 7 coup in the Maldives is not merely the effort of an old regime to reinvent itself, but it is a deliberate and belligerent signal that the privileged regime and its supporters can do what they please regardless of what the ordinary citizen feels. It is an overwhelming show of strength: they can depose a legitimately elected president, they can beat people, including elected representatives, on the street and they can wipe the slate clean for those who have stolen from the country or committed grave crimes against the Maldivian people. It is a show of huge indifference.

There is nothing that testifies to this attitude more than the employment of Abdulla Riyaz as Police Commissioner and Hussain Waheed as his deputy. Even the least informed of the Maldivians understand that these people were the driving force behind the horrifying escalation of police brutality under Gayoom.

An oligarchy, such as the one in power in the Maldives, is unable to sustain itself on its own. Maintaining antiquated rules of behaviour and supressing the beliefs of the populace is increasingly difficult in the age of the internet and social networking. Unholy alliances have to be made and the regime under Gayoom relied on the police to stay in power.

In the minds of many Maldivians, the name Gayoom is synonymous with police brutality and torture and ill treatment of political prisoners. It is not surprising that the most committed detractors of Gayoom’s regime and its scarcely disguised puppets in the present administration are those who have been at the receiving end of the inhumane treatment. In the short period of time when Maldives was ruled by a democratically elected president, this reliance on the police to enforce compliance disappeared. It is possible, given time, it may have changed not only the way the people perceive the police, but also the way the police saw their own place in the community – perhaps as the caretakers of a more humane and compassionate society.

However, the February coup has introduced a more sinister note into this unholy alliance between those in power and those who help uphold this power through the use of fear and force. This time, the allegiance of a number of police and military has been purchased. It is not difficult to conceive of a future Maldivian police force, with shifting allegiances and well-honed negotiating powers, cutting the best deal for themselves. Less obvious, but yet more insidious, is the effect of using the police to uphold the rule of the few. T

The Maldives is a small country, and much of its social functioning is based on connectedness; the type of face to face relationships which unite and hold small communities together. Senior police officers, bribed by a handful of rich supporters of the regime, have ordered the juniors officers to beat their sisters, brothers, uncles and aunts. These are ordinary people who have little to gain by the power-play of their superiors.

Recent events in the Maldives also highlight another of the problems that privileged oligarchies have to address. No modern oligarchy has managed to completely obliterate social mobility. The ambitions of small groups of people who fight their way up the through private enterprise have to be addressed. The nouveaux riches of the Maldives have reached a stage where some of them are starting to question years of hard work which has not afforded them the privileges and influence to which they have aspired. Although oligarchies, such as the present regime, do not welcome new blood with open arms, they do manipulate it.

The coup represents an outcome of synchronicity – where the needs of the oligarchy and the aspirations of a small group of rich resort owners struck a meeting point. When in power, the Maldivian Democratic Party introduced a system of taxation that did not please some of the wealthy resort owners as well as low end tourism that would open up the industry to ordinary Maldivians. These efforts by a people’s government to improve the lot of the ordinary Maldivians were a huge threat to a small group of the rich who have enjoyed a monopoly of wealth alongside their friends in the regime.

The possibility of a law that would ensure that tourism profits in fact trickled down to the local economy by putting it through local banks, was another affront to some of the powerful resort owners. Like the members of the regime, they too have an interest in maintaining the status quo, so that both sides can continue building their own empires, be it based on power, money or influence. In aligning themselves with a cruel regime, they have tarnished their own names and become traitors to their nation.

However, oligarchic governments are also invariably threatened by a more fundamental force that is not so easily manipulated. This is the inevitable state of conflict which ensues between the power of the few and the needs of the many. Eventually, the down -trodden simply refuse to be part of the narrative and mythology perpetuated by the privileged few.

Some of the greatest upheavals of human history are testimony to this simmering sense of resentment. The French Revolution, The Russian Revolution, and the Chinese Revolution are all well documented examples of how the masses revolt against such inequalities. Inevitably the people find their voice in the figure of an individual who is prepared to be the punching bag of the powerful bureaucracies. A brown man with spindly legs wearing a dhoti makes an appearance. A black man insists that he wants his children to be judged by the strength of their character and not by the colour of their skin. An old woman refuses to sit at the back of bus and decides to break the law. An Anni appears…

Justice is a powerful threat to privileged oligarchies. Some two thousand years ago, Aristotle argued that the ordering of a society is centred on justice. No oligarchy has yet managed to convince the under-privileged majority of a nation that what is justice for the minority is also justice for the masses. And justice matters. The fundamental search of the human spirit is not, as advertisers would have us believe, to holiday on ‘the sunny side of life’. Nor is it money. It is a search for the confirmation that each individual life has meaning and each individual has a right to live in dignity. This is the point of civilised society. This is why, justice is central to the smooth functioning of any society. This is why one of the most enduring symbols of the anger against the coup of February 7 is a T-shirt that simply asks, “Where is my vote?”

This is why injustice penetrates deep into the human psyche. There is nothing that unites people more than a shared list of grievances. In more recent years, Martin Luther King Junior echoed these sentiments when he argued that, “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” Indeed, we need to worry when law and order have been unable to function effectively in the Maldives for over thirty years, due to the self-interest of a small minority of people.

Democracy or Oligarchy? This is no longer a political question. Nor is it an issue about two strong individuals. It has become a moral and ethical judgment that every Maldivian has to make. We must decide whether we are brave enough to choose ‘the road less travelled ’, make mistakes, take risks and grow towards maturity as a nation, or continue to be bullied by an oligarchy which, by its very definition, is focused on its own survival at the expense of the population.

The rest of the world also has to make a decision; the well- known words of Edmund Burke are hugely relevant to the situation in the Maldives: “All that is required for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing.”

It is time for good men and women, both nationally and internationally, to stand by the Maldivian Democratic Party and help write the script for a new and more enlightened age of Maldivian history.
The time for action is now.

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]