“Make them accountable”: young Maldivians talk democracy at documentary launch

Six local students – part of a nine person delegation that earlier this year visited key political institutions in the UK – were today invited to share their experiences and views of challenges facing the Maldives’ parliamentary system when compared to its counterparts around the world.

“In many other countries, if there is a hint of a scandal about an MP they will resign or find themselves pressured out,” said one of the female delegates. “Here, many take the attitude of ‘I don’t care’. We need to make [politicians] accountable.”

It was a response met with genial laughter during a discussion event held in the conference room of the Trader’s Hotel in Male’ this afternoon – a good natured meeting that at times seemed to belie the frank concerns raised by the young delegates.

Accountability was just one of the issues concerning democratic development noted by the six-person panel, who all spoke at the launch of a new documentary of their experiences at the ‘UK Youth Exchange’.

The project – run in conjunction with Democracy House and the British High Commission in Colombo – saw delegates travel to major UK cities to meet senior political figures and NGOs in order to better understand issues of democratic development across the Commonwealth.

The participants included Mohamed Axam Maumoon, Aishath Loona Moosa, Shahaadha Ahmed, Sharoona Adil, Shinah Saeed and Abdulla Shahid. The trip was also attended by Ibrahim Nawaf, Hassan Qassan and Muhaisina Hassan, who were not present at today’s launch.

The corresponding documentary titled ‘A study tour to London’, which is aimed to be aired and local television as well as across social media platforms at a later date, detailed a ten day visit to the UK cities of Bristol and London to experience UK and Commonwealth democratic institutions.

Participants also took part in workshops with the British Youth council, Young Muslims Advisory Group and the Commonwealth parliamentary association, as well as joining in “parliamentary-style” debates with UK school children.

Having since returned to the Maldives, the delegates raised concerns over the lack of a sense of ownership of the country, the limited educational opportunities outside of Male’, and gender inequality.

Another issue raised concerned civic education in areas such as privatisation, taxation, and public healthcare with the launch of Aasandha scheme earlier this year.

One of the participants highlighted problems with infrastructure development, bemoaning a seeming lack of public ownership among Maldivian people. He believed this had resulted from a lack of discussions and opportunities for the public to have their say in advocating how state developments were being decided.

“The youth here also have no dialogue with authorities,” he said. “No one feels the country belongs to us, be it land or infrastructure. There needs to be greater sense of ownership and responsibility.”

Other delegates raised fears over discrimination, particularly towards women working at the country’s resorts.

“There is a lot of discrimination here. It is seen as unacceptable for women to work at resorts. Why? Why should this be the case? There are lots of opportunities here,” she added.

Another delegate noted the need for reform of the country’s curriculum during the event, especially in order to take into account the changes the country had undergone since its first democratic elections were held back in 2008.

“All Maldivians should know about democracy. We need civic education,” he said.

The delegate queried how the entire country was being educated, criticising a lack of focus on critical thinking in areas such as privatisation, taxation and healthcare.

“Many people still don’t know what taxes are. What benefits there are from tax. What universal healthcare is. I could go on,” he added, to the amusement of the audience made up partly of dignitaries representing both the government and key civil society organisations including the UN and local media.

As part of the UK visit, two other participants talked of their experiences “shadowing” UK parliamentarians, claiming the country appeared to have a much stronger level of youth involvement within local governance.

“Here in the Maldives there is no youth involvement. The youth is seen as representing 18 to 35 year olds,” said one of the delegates.

“In other countries, youth are seen as representing the ages between 12 and 21, but here our parents require us to concentrate only on our studies, they do not see us as being mature enough [for politics],” they added.

The participants also spoke of the custom UK MPs had of visiting their constituencies to meet with the people they represent.

“I highly doubt MPs are visiting their constituencies here,” one of the delegates added.

“Different cultures and religions”

Among the dignitaries at the launch was Vice President Mohamed Waheed Deen, a resort owner and philanthropist, who thanked the British High Commission project for allowing the Maldivian delegates to “explore different cultures and religions in the cosmopolitan city of London.”

“You would be great teachers to our politicians,” he claimed in a speech addressing the concerns raised by the six delegates.

“These messages should go to our real politicians. I’m not a real politician. But I wish today that more MPs were here. I’m informed they were invited. It’s important to listen to people. The government are the servants of the people.”

Deen claimed that politicians in the country were failing to listen to the voting public, while he also bemoaned the attitudes in the country that blamed young people and gangs for crime and murder without considering factors leading them to commit such acts.

“The problem with leaders is we try too hard to stay in power, but we often forget about our successors,” he said. “We don’t create leaders for tomorrow.”

The vice president said he aimed to do his utmost to take each of the delegates’ concerns and address them in the cabinet, pointing especially to the need for political sciences, civic education programmes and an understanding of the country’s constitution.

“Otherwise, what are we teaching?” Deen asked, this time without laughter from the gathered audience.