Opposition blames president for negative international coverage as protest talks continue

Opposition MP Ahmed Mahlouf has not ruled out future protests over living costs following a series of demonstrations held in Male’ over the last two weeks, claiming that President Mohamed Nasheed should personally take responsibility for any media attention that harms the Maldives’ global reputation as a result.

The MP’s comments follow a series of protests and gatherings held in Male’ over the last two weeks that the party said were initially organised by a non-political “youth movement”.

This movement is said to be focused on dealing with concerns at the rising costs of living and consumer goods in the country, and lead to protests that were included in a Washington Post list of the 29 largest government crackdowns of the last decade.

Organisers of the protests reportedly gathered on Friday night at the artificial beach area of Male’ for a meeting that that was described by newspaper Haveeru as an “anti-government” rally, with speeches from a number of political figures.

A police spokesperson said that the meeting was not treated by officers as a protest as it did not culminate on the capital’s streets.

After seven days of demonstrations across Male’ this month – purportedly in protest against the government’s decision to implement a managed float of the rufiyaa – police and protesters were witnessed clashing on a number of occasions leading to dismissed Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) Deputy leader Umar Naseer being pepper sprayed.

The Washington Post coverage was used by the government to allege that opposition politicians have been attempting to “mislead” international media about the protests for political gain by deliberately skewing certain facts to compare themselves to mass anti-government demonstrations in Egypt earlier this year.

Concerns had additionally been raised by some travel industry insiders that coverage of the protests had led to travel warnings being issued in Honk Kong that could negatively impact travel to the Maldives from emerging holiday markets; though these worries are thought to have subsided over the course of this week.

Speaking to Minivan News today before travelling out of the country for a week, Mahlouf said that protest organisers were expected to give the government time to respond to their concerns over the prices of goods and services before officially setting a date for any potential future demonstrations.

“I don’t think we will see any other protests this week as there are school exams coming up. I think the protesters will also give the government some time,” he said. ”People have been drawn to protests due to concerns about prices, particularly with Ramazan a few months away.

With reports claiming rufiyaa was being exchanged at a rate of Rf17 to the US Dollar – despite government setting an upper limit of Rf15.42 at present due to the recenet managed float of the local currency, Mahlouf said that the situation remained a serious matter for protesters.

“The public are also seeing seven percent of their pay go into pension schemes as well,” he said. “In general these are difficult times for people.”

In light of coverage about the protests in papers like the US-based Washington Post, fears reportedly have risen about the potential impacts on the country’s lucrative tourism market. However, Mahlouf said he rejected government criticisms that opposition groups like the DRP had manipulated the scale of the protests.

“We have tried our best to get the attention of the international media and community with these protests,” he said. “President Nasheed has a very polished reputation in the global media through his work on issues like the environment. But back at home things are different. Recent elections have shown he doesn’t have support and it is our duty to inform others of this.”

Mahlouf is himself linked with the Z-DRP faction that as last month officially spun off from the main opposition DRP in support of the group’s former leader, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Mahlouf added that while he was “sad” to see last week’s series of protests being included in a Washington Post story relating to the 29 biggest government crackdowns of the decade, he claimed that the inclusion of the Maldives in the list was the fault of President Nasheed and his policies.

“The action taken by police to disperse crowds was brutal. We were part of peaceful protests. Yet despite being so peaceful, police still decided to do harmful things to us,” he claimed.

Mahlouf said he was among a group of people including former President Gayoom’s spokesperson Mohamed Hussain ‘Mundhu’ Shareef that gathered in Sri Lanka to meet with representatives of the EU, the US and Canada to “explain everything” that had occurred at the protests from their point of view earlier this week.

The MP claimed that he remained committed to trying to address the stated concerns of protesters over the affordability of living in the Maldives.
“This issue is very serious. I was personally invited by [protest] organisers to attend and with so many people turning up – I believe it is the duty of MPs to be there in support.”

Amidst reported public dissatisfaction with government financial policy, Mahlouf last week announced plans to forward a resolution to parliament calling for a referendum to test public support for President Nasheed and his handling of the economy in light of the protests witnessed in the capital over the month.

While still committed to following through with his referendum plan, the MP said that he would first need to consult his parliamentary and party colleagues, as well as lawyers to see if he would be able to send such a motion to the Majlis.


Mahlouf plots presidential “referendum” as stats show living cost rise

Official statistics supplied by the Department of National Planning have indicated a 4.42 percent increase in the rate of inflation last month compared to March 2011, as one opposition MP plans a referendum on President Mohamed Nasheed’s leadership over the dissatisfaction with living costs.

The new figures indicate increased prices for food and drink products last month, particularly for fish, on the basis of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) when compared to 2011 and April 2010.

The release of the statistics comes as MP Ahmed Mahlouf from the Z-DRP party, a spin-off of the main opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), claimed to be ready to forward a resolution to parliament this week calling for a referendum to test public support for the current president and his handling of the economy.

Figures such as the CPI are therefore an important issue following seven consecutive nights of protests in the streets of Male’, with demonstrators announcing they were now willing to negotiate with the government.

Protest organisers have claimed the demonstrations were a non-partisan “youth movement” in response to rising living costs on the back of government attempts to effectively devalue the rufyiya.

Aside from criticising the political opposition for politicising the demonstrations in the media for their own political gain, the country’s financial authorities last week claimed that to be providing some economic support to try and stabilise prices it said that while increasing, varied significantly between different stores.

According to the latest planning department stats, the cost of food and beverages when including fish was up by 20.35 percent during April 2011 compared to the same period the previous year. These costs were also up by 10.65 percent on the same terms compared to March 2011.

When excluding the price of fish, the average cost of food and drinks last month was up by 13.07 percent compared to over the same period of time last year. On the same terms, the statistics found that food and beverage costs last month rose by 4.44 percent compared to March 2011.

When comparing the overall change in CPI between April 2011 and April 2010, increases in costs were recorded across the board with the exception of recreation and culture, which was down by 3.11 percent.

As of late month, healthcare was up by 6.25 percent, transportation was up by 8.96 percent, education was up by 16.89 percent and fish was up by 58.32 percent when compared over the same period the previous year.

Between March to April this year, the statistics showed that the costs of healthcare were up by 1.21 percent, transport was up by 6.56 percent and fish prices were up 42.07 percent. The full statistics can be found here.

Halt to protests

In light of protests last week over rising costs, DRP MP Ahmed Mahlouf told Minivan News today that the party would be postponing any further demonstrations relating until next Friday after requests from police.

In the meantime, he claimed that young people who had initially organised the protests were negotiation with members of the government, a meeting that had been organised through the police to try and find some possible compromises on costs.

“The meetings were scheduled to take place with the government at 12:00pm today though I have not been informed yet of their progress. I imagine that they [the protest organisers] would be demanding some changes to government policy,” he said. “The police have asked us to stop the protests and as some of their members supported the march, we have wanted to keep good relations with them.”

Mahlouf added that he believed there had been a reluctance among organisers to stop the protests as the government were failing to address concerns about costs and “not believing” the financial realities Maldivians were facing.

However, amidst intense media scrutiny, the opposition MP said he believed the protesters had succeeded in their aims to attempt to change government policy on the economy.

However, ahead of the next scheduled protest on Friday, Mahlouf claimed he plans to forward a parliamentary motion for a referendum on whether President Nasheed had sufficient support from the public to enact his planned reforms.

Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem last week criticised opposition parties like the DRP for “misleading” international media about the nature of the protests and failing to sit down and present their own alternatives for financial reforms in the country.