A group of NGOs gathered outside the residence of Economic Minister Mohamed Rasheed last night for publishing regulations permitting the licensed sale of alcohol on inhabited islands.
The protesters called on the minister to withdraw the new regulations, which allow hotels with over 100 beds to sell alcohol and pork to foreigners amid tight security. Newspaper Haveeru reported that some elements of the crowd even called for the minister’s “execution”, calling him “an infidel”.
Police media official Sergeant Athifa Hassan said police received information about the protest around 11:00pm, and immediately attended the scene.
”It was a very peaceful protest and nobody was injured,” she said, adding that the protesters went home at 1:00am.
A second protest was sparked outside the Iskandhar Koshi (police base) after reports that police had discovered 168 bottles of alcohol in a car belonging to Maldivian Democratic Party MP MDP’s Parliamentary Group leader ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik, who is currently in Singapore.
Sergeant Abdul Muhsin from the Maldives Police Service said the protesters gathered in front of Iskandhar Koshi around 10:30pm and were dispersed at 2:30am, reportedly with tear gas.
Muhsin said the protest was “not very violent” but ”three police were injured and five men were arrested.”
Political parties including the Adhaalath Party, Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), Peoples Alliances (PA) and the Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) strongly condemned the regulation.
The Adhaalath Party has indicated its intention to host a protest on Friday afternoon, calling on the president to invalidate the regulation “and apologise to the people.”
Vice president of the Tourism Employment Association of Maldives (TEAM) Mauroof Zakir said more than 80 NGOs were present at the protest.
”We called on the resignation of the Minister,” Mauroof said, adding that ”nobody called for his execution.”
He claimed more than 1000 members took part in the protest, the first in a series of planned events.
”We will not say what kind of events and when we will start,” he said.
Spokesperson of the Adhaalath party and State minister for the Islamic Ministry Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed said the party would not allow alcohol to be consumed and sold on inhabited islands.
Shaheem said he regretted that the government had not discussed the issue with the Islamic Ministry.
”We invite all political parties and all people against the new regulation to take part in the protest [on Friday] so their voices are heard by the government,” he said.
The use and sale of alcohol was not permitted under the tenets of Islam, he said, ”and nobody under the sky can allow it.”
Vice President of the DRP Umar Naseer said he “knew this would be happen” and ”I am not surprised.”
Naseer claimed the government was trying to promote alcohol in the country “and make everyone drink it.”
”This government consists of alcoholics,” he claimed, accusing President Mohamed Nasheed of “building a bar inside Muleeage three months after he came to presidency.”
”I bet on that,” he said. ”One day let’s go inside Muleeage with journalists to check.”
Secretary General of the PA Ahmed Shareef said the party would be taking part in the protest held by Adhaalath party.
”We are against [the sale of alcohol],” Shareef said. ”Maldivians would not let the government to sell and use alcohol in the inhabited islands.”
He said the party was confused about the government’s policy on the subject.
President of religious NGO Jamiyyath-al-Salaf, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Mohamed Ibrahim said the organisation would also take part in Friday’s protest by the Adhaalath Party, and that the entire coalition of concerned NGOs would participate.
”The whole country is against it,” he said. ”We will continue our protest until we succeed.”
Press Secretary for the President Mohamed Zuhair said he was confident that the president would not pass any law against the tenets of Islam, and would discuss the matter with the Islamic Ministry and the Economic Ministry over the coming days.
He said that the regulations would “not technically” become effective until they were published in the government’s gazette, and noted that “the President has not yet made the decision to do so. He has reservations and is seeking advice as to the extent the regulations [can be implemented].”
The ministry of economic developments commented that the regulations would come into effect on 1 March “were not true”, he said, “even if gazetted, as certain criteria have to be met by sellers.”
State Minister for Economic Development Adhil Saleem said the regulations would be effective from 1 March “unless we receive instructions otherwise.”
“We have a mandate to regulate controlled substances,” he said. “This ministry regulates the use of alcohol and pork in this country, and working with police and customs we have formulated regulations we believe are best suited for today’s economy.”
The sale of alcohol, he said, was innately linked to Western tourism in the Maldives and its ability “to provide an environment conducive to foreign investment.”
“The Maldivian people want an international airport at Gan, and there are many development projects to boost economic activity through foreign investment,” he said. “If we want to be [a hub] like Singapore, we have to allow big hotel chains to establish themselves here and create an environment attractive to foreign investment. City hotels create economic activity and jobs.”
Adhil said he felt people were “being misled” over the issue, and “do not understand what this means for the economy.”
“It’s not just the development of airports [at stake] but schools and hospitals. We cannot achieve this development by 2013 unless our revenues increase.”
He claimed that many countries grappled with the issue, “and if you take a religious angle on this, many Muslim countries issue liquor permits to non-Muslims. Some of them have minerals, soil or gold, we have based our economy on tourism. For 15 years we’ve been attracting Western tourism development, and that includes alcohol. If that is unacceptable we should design another industry.”
He noted that many resorts in the Maldives “employ more than 1000 Maldivians, which is larger than the population of some inhabited islands.”
Like those opposed to the new regulations, he said “the real public reaction will be gauged on Friday. Let’s see how many people turn up. If this is something the majority of people don’t want, then no doubt the government will reconsider it. I am defending the new liquor regulations openly in public and I believe we should stand firm against these attacks.”