US Ambassador “alarmed” by reports of violence as MDP protests continue

US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives Patricia Butenis has said she is “alarmed” by reports of police violence during the opposition Maldives Democratic Party’s (MDP) continued protests in Malé.   Butenis claimed intimidation of protesters and attacks on journalists “threaten Maldivians’ freedom of expression and right to information, and only contributes to instability.”

MDP members have meanwhile continued their street protests for a fourth consecutive day. The MDP alleges former President Mohamed Nasheed was ousted in a coup d’etat on February 7, and have held regular protests calling for fresh elections.

Although protests have generally remained peaceful, Monday night saw violent clashes between police and protesters. Over 50 protesters have been arrested since Sunday (July 8), but only 12 remain in police custody at present. Two journalists were also arrested on Monday evening, but released after a few hours in detention.  Private broadcaster DhiTV has meanwhile alleged that one of its presenters was attacked by MDP supporters on Tuesday (July 10) afternoon, whilst the Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) appealed for media representatives to refrain from taking part in opposition protests.

“We call on journalists and the police to behave professionally as they carry out their respective, crucial functions,” Butenis told reporters at a press conference this morning.

Raajje TV has denied accusations its journalists had been directly involved in the protests, claiming that staff had conversely received “various forms of harassment and verbal abuse from the Maldives Police Service” as they attempted to cover the MDP protests held this week.

Butenis also expressed concern over the knife attack which nearly killed blogger Hilath Rasheed. He claims he was attacked because he advocated secularism.

Butenis said the government must protect protesters’ rights to demonstrate peacefully, and urged protesters to work with the state’s human rights protection mechanisms by filing police brutality allegations with the Human Rights Commission (HRCM) and the Police Integrity Commission (PIC).

Butenis also welcomed the reconstitution of the Commission of National Inquiry (CNI) to include a foreign judge and a member to represent former President Nasheed.  The CNI, which was set up by President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan to investigate the controversial transfer of power, was reconstituted following international concerns over its impartiality.

The CNI report will inform the decision on whether and when to have early elections, Butenis said, adding that the US government will keep working with President Waheed’s administration in the meantime.

The US government will continue to keep a close watch on the progress of the CNI and the now-stalled all-party talks, she said. In her meetings with President Waheed and former presidents Nasheed and Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Butenis said she emphasised the importance of the all-party talks and the CNI as a peaceful way forward.

The US government has previously pledged US$500,000 to provide technical support to the Elections Commission (EC) in order to ensure that the next presidential polls meet international standards. The US will also provide a US$20,000 grant to restore pre-Islamic artifacts in the National Museum, which were destroyed by a mob that broke into the building amid February 7’s political turmoil.

A further US$ 7million is currently in use to increase resilience of Dhidhoo and Hinnavaru Islands to climate change. The Ambassador visited Dhidhoo Island yesterday (July 10) to monitor a project to provide sustainable source of drinking water to the island’s 4000 inhabitants.

“It goes without saying that climate change is a major threat to the Maldives, so we’re partnering with the Maldivian government to create solutions that protect its islands,” Butenis said.

She will retire from her position as the US Ambassador to the Maldives and Sri Lanka in August.


US funds digital preservation of traditional Maldivian love ballad

The United States Embassy in Sri Lanka has awarded Maldives’ Hulhevi Media US$25,000 towards their project, “Research, Documentation and Preservation of the Buruni Ballad.” Over the next five months, the team will produce the first digital recording, transcription and documentary video of the traditional love epic, “Buruni Kamana Raivaru.”

The 6-hour oral history has never been transcribed. It has generally been considered the Maldives’ version of “Romeo and Juliet.”

The tragic love story of Dhon Hiyala and Alifulhu is set against a background of magic, jealousy and revenge. After rejecting the king’s advances, the heroine Dhon Hiyala and her lower-class lover Alifulhu are forced to commit suicide by jumping onto a giant, poisonous jelly fish.

Experts view the epic as more than a literary treasure; it is also a guide to cultural history. Told in great detail, the epic describes ancient Maldivian customs such as feasting, marriage, fishing, and arts.

The US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation has supported over 640 cultural heritage preservation projects in over 100 countries for the past 11 years, donating approximately US$26 million to these endeavors.

“Heritage is a reminder of the historical experiences and achievements of humanity,” said US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives Patricia  Butenis at today’s ceremony. “The more we know about each others’ traditions, the more common ground we share.”

The ambassador noted that this is the first time the fund has supported intangible heritage. “This project in the Maldives is about culture in its most basic form – the spoken word,” said Butenis.

This year, the Fund for Cultural Preservation awarded funding to three projects, two in Sri Lanka to preserve historic sites and one in the Maldives. Director of the American Center in Colombo Christopher Teal called the Buruni Ballad project an original and exciting first for the fund.

“We believe this is important, and we strive to provide funding to support the desire and expertise that is already there,” said Teal.

Hulhevi Media is an independent film group which produces documentaries on a wide range of issues including domestic violence, sexual abuse, and disabilities. The group has worked with NGOs including the Red Cross and the United Nations, and has been selected at several international film festivals. The team of four will travel to islands related to the oral history to record it in digital format, along with interviews.

Sharif Ali, Ibrahim Yassir, Ahmed Shafeeu, and Yumna Maumoon will be working on the project, which they described as “urgent.”

“There are only a handful of people who can tell the story today, and many of them are quite old, so time is critical here,” said Ali. “Working on a cultural preservation project, we will be going back to see what we have lost.”

The team aims to produce an audio CD and a transcription of the epic. “We do hope the book will be used extensively for literary analysis, and can be integrated into the education system,” said Shafeeu.

The epic has been used in secondary schools, but the team hopes it will be used more broadly in the education system.

The story was published as prose in 1976 by the renowned Dhivehi language scholar Abdullah Sodiq.

“I heard this same ballad (raivaru) being sung by the famous Kafa Kuda Thakkaan in a house in the Galolhu ward of Male’. As I listened my heart went through inexplicable feelings. This was no longer just a ballad, it was a fascinatingly beautiful romantic story told in a special raivaru form of rhyme and rhythm,” Sadiq said in a press statement.

Sadiq will advise the Hulhevi team on the Buruni Ballad project. “I never thought it would get this kind of help, I am very excited about this,” said Sadiq after today’s ceremony.

The Hulhuvi team said they were “elated” to receive the award after submitting their proposal a year ago. “It came out of the blue. And it’s great because it’s different from what we normally do. We are essentially a video production group, but with this project we’ll also be collaborating on linguistics and audio,” they said.

In September, the Maldives signed the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. It is already a participant in the World Heritage Convention and the Cultural Diversity Convention.

At the time, Minister of State for Tourism, Arts and Culture Ahmed Naseer said no efforts had been made in this department. “It is very easy to see things like poetry, music, language, and dance disappear if they are not practiced. We need to have a law enacted to outline these practices.”

A draft of new legislation promoting the preservation of intangible cultural heritage is currently before parliament, Naseer said previously.


US Ambassador speaks on the current government’s practices

US Ambassador to the Maldives Patricia Butenis has said that because the current government is open to listening to the international community the country is improving, reports Miadhu.

Butenis said she understands the challenges the government is facing. She added that the previous government had not showed as much commitment as the current government in addressing major issues.

The ambassador said however the current government needs to address some issues urgently, specifically copyright laws, labour rights, and standarising current laws and regulations with international practices.

Vice President Dr Mohamed Waheed also met with Butenis yesterday morning at the President’s Office.

They spoke about strengthening bilateral relations between the US and Maldives, and discussed the upcoming Donor Conference (Maldives Partnership Forum) which is to be held at the end of March.

Dr Waheed thanked the ambassador for facilitating the Investment Incentive Agreement (IIA) signed yesterday by Ambassador Butenis and Minister for Economic Development Mohamed Rasheed.

The IIA will allow preferential investment opportunities for US firms wanting to finance projects in the Maldives.

Ambassador Butenis expressed interest in expanding the American Corner at the National Library.