Commodity prices vary “significantly” between retailers, reports Economic Development Ministry

The Department of National Planning and the State Trading Organisation (STO) have conducted a price comparison exercise across Male’ in a bid to show that while some retailers are charging inflated prices for basic commodities, most prices have risen little.

Speaking yesterday evening from the President’s Office, Economic Development Minister Mahmood Razee said the statistics, which were compiled by the Department of National Planning in collaboration with his ministry, indicated that although certain prices had been found to have risen in the last few months, there was no pattern to link these costs solely to a controversial managed float of the local currency.

The opposition has maintained that demonstrations raging across Male’ this week were against the government’s decision to implement a managed float of the rufiya and are led by youth unhappy with rising commodity prices.  These claims were made despite the active involvement of dismissed opposition Deputy Leader Umar Naseer, and MPs Ilham Ahmed, Ahmed Mahlouf, Ali Waheed, and Ahmed Nihan.

However, Razee added that discussions were ongoing with the STO – a main buyer of goods to the country – to try and maintain import supplies of 27 key food items in attempts to try and keep prices stable as well as enacting a cabinet pledge to cut import duty on diesel fuel by 50 percent.

Speaking ahead of a fourth night of protests by young people, parliamentarians and political activists on the streets of Male’, Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) MP Ahmed Mahlouf said that although he had not been made aware of the content of the statistics at the time, he believed that protestors would not believe or be satisfied by the government’s claims and reaction.

“At this time, I think it would be difficult to accept that this is a genuine or positive message. At this point I don’t think [this] one press conference will help people,” he said.

Mahlouf added that he believed comments made by President Nasheed earlier this week, where he allegedly denied knowledge of the street protests concerning increased living costs that have garnered news coverage all over the world, had been extremely offensive to people gathering on the streets .

“It would be better to have a statement from President Nasheed apologising for the stupid comments he has made,” he added. “These comments have only made protestors more angry.”

Government findings, which were compiled on April 2 by officers visiting ten different stores across Male’, were said to highlight prices found to vary, sometimes significantly, between the retailers.

Speaking at press conference last night alongside Finance Minister Ahmed Inaz and representatives from the Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA), Razee said that when talking about changes in prices, it was important to try and determine how extensive they were.

“Yes, there are changes in prices, however, we should also see that in terms of essential commodities, what are the different brands that are there [in stores] and the price variations between them?” he said.

Following price comparisons conducted on May 2 at 10 different stores in Male’, Razee took the example of the prices of five powdered milk products, where prices between the stores were said to vary between Rf150 and Rf345. In addition he also pointed to the price differences in diapers, which he claimed varied between Rf118 and Rf150 for the same product.

The figures presently supplied by the government to Minivan News did not appear to verify these price fluctuations.

Razee added that he was unable to speculate on how long some of these potential differences in prices may have been present in stores across the capital or when and for what purpose they may have been implemented.

“What we are saying it, if you look at the price fluctuations that were there in 2006, 2007 and 2008, and if you look at the price fluctuations of the last few years, you will see there is no clear cut format or reason to believe this is directly related to the float of the currency,” he said. “Yes, it would have a bearing, but what needs to [be understood] is that there may changes to the prices. However, these are varied.”

Razee claimed that the government was not using this explanation as an excuse to avoid acting on public price concerns and said that measures were being taken to try and offer stable prices for certain “essential products”.

“We are in consultation with the STO and we have identified together 27 elementary items, out of which six are currently imported directly. [STO] is going to import the other items [on this list] as well to try and maintain price stability and ensure the availability is there,” he said. “In addition to this, the cabinet today advised the president to remove 50 percent of the duty on diesel. So this will give some relief to power generation, electricity bills and transportation costs.”

Finance Minister Inaz added that the government had decided to release some of its statistics to try and highlight current prices being paid by goods in relation to the last few years.

“It is very easy in a small economy to play with and manipulate the confidence of the economy,” he said. “Confidence is the most important factor to build an economy and it can be easily twisted. We agree the prices have gone up, but we want to maintain these price levels at a competitive level compared to other international rises.”

Cost statistics

The government, in figures compiled by Department of National Planning, outlined a number of changes in the average prices paid for goods between March 2010 and March 2011.

These price changes include:

• One kilogram of loose rice – up 1.07 percent from last year

• One kilogram of ordinary flour – down 1.89 percent from last year

• One kilogram of frozen chicken – up by 8.73 percent from last year

• One medium sized coconut – up 69.71 percent over last year

• One hundred grams of garlic – up 22.34 percent last year

• One kilogram of potatoes – up 8.74 percent last year

• One kilogram of imported onions – down 12.64 percent from last year

• One kilogram of yellow coloured dhal – up 17.63 percent from last year

• One 500 millilitre bottle of Kinley mineral water – down 30.30 percent from last year

• One 185 gram can of Felivaru brand fish chunks in oil – up 22.24 percent from last year

• One unit of state-supplied electricity – unchanged from last year

• Thirteen kilogram of cooking gas – up 12.12 percent from last year

• One litre of petrol – up 32.65 percent over last year

• One packet of Fitti brand small baby diapers – up 4.35 percent from last year


Economy’s pigeons come home to roost

The stated cause of the opposition-led protests in Male’ – the party claims the rallies are “youth led”, however opposition politicians are a leading fixture at the demonstrations – is the increase in the cost of living due to the government’s recent decision to implement a managed float of the rufiya, within a 20 percent band of the pegged rate of Rf 12.85.

An ongoing dollar shortage, reluctance of banks to exchange local currency, and a flourishing blackmarket that reached Rf 14.2-14.8 to the dollar, culminated in mid-April with the government finally acknowledging that the rufiya was overvalued – after a short-lived attempt to crack down on ‘illegal’ exchanges.

High demand immediately led to most banks and companies dealing in dollar commodities – such as airline ticketing agents – to immediately raise their rate of exchange to the maximum permitted rate Rf15.42.

With the Maldives almost totally reliant on outside imports, including fuel and basic staples such as rice, the government’s decision has effectively led to a 20 percent increase in the cost of living for most ordinary Maldivians.

Moreover the Maldivian economy is dependent on oil to such an extent that is spends a quarter of its GDP on it – US$245 million – the vast majority on marine diesel, making imported energy one of the single largest drains on the country’s economy.

Customs documents obtained by Minivan News in January showed that Maldives was spending almost US$100,000 more per day more on fossil fuels than it was in the summer of 2010. At that time, oil was US$86 a barrel. By the same calculations but with today’s oil price, the Maldives is paying an additional US$450,000 per day for oil compared to summer prices last year.

Amidst rising commodity costs and external pressures, the country’s insistence on maintaining a fixed rate while increasing government spending had late last year begun to affect shop shelves and raise the ire of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which delayed the third tranche of its funding due to “significant policy slippages” concerning the government’s failure to curtail spending. That amount in itself was not substantial, but the IMF is used as a financial bell-weather by most major donors.

The government’s unwillingness to face the political difficulties inherent in its budget deficit of 21 percent – the legacy of a 400 percent increase in civil service expenditure since 2002 and a hot printing press – was compounded by the addition of an extra layer of local government added to the state payroll, and the country’s graduation from the UN’s ‘Least Developed Country’ status to ‘Middle Income’, and the loss of concessional credit and certain trade concessions.

In an article for Minivan News, Director of Structured Finance at the Royal Bank of Scotland Ali Imraan observed that ‘growth’ in the domestic economy had been driven by the public sector and “paid for by printing Maldivian rufiya and clever manoeuvres with T-Bills, which the government has used since 2009 to be able conveniently sidestep the charge of printing money. In simple terms: successive governments printed/created money to drive domestic economic growth.”

Imraan pressed for the Maldives to invest in private sector revenue growth “rather than building airports on every island”, and implement a progressive taxation system targeting high earners in the interest of income equality. He also urged the Majlis to uphold the constitutional stipulation whereby MPs – such as those with business interest in the tourism sector – removed themselves from voting on issue in which they had a vested interest, and further suggested that the government resolve the matter of stalled tourism developments “awarded to parties with no money or track record.”

“Moratoriums on lease payments or debt repayments may look innocuous enough, but they rob the country of vital growth opportunities and hence ultimately rob the people. We should not stand for it,” he said.

Imraan’s latter suggestion proved somewhat prescient when the Tourism Ministry renewed the lease for Hudhufushi in Lhaviyani Atoll, despite the resort island’s owner owing more than US$85 million in unpaid rent – most of it fines for non-payment.

The government’s decision to implement a managed float of the currency came as a least one local sales agent for international airlines operating in and out of the Maldives closed its doors to customers, blaming an inability to pay the airlines because of a lack of US dollars circulating within the economy.

Parallel economy

The Maldives’ profitable tourism industry is considered to be indirectly responsible for 70 percent of the country’s GDP, and certainly the vast majority of its foreign currency earnings.

However historically little of the industry’s financial success has reflected on the Maldives’ domestic economy, with the inflow of money limited to the flat rate bed tax, import duties and worker salaries – most of that in rufiya.

With the introduction this year of a 3.5 percent tourism goods and services tax, a business profit tax and a revision of the rents paid for resort islands, the government now has a number of economic levers it can pull to increase revenue in the future.

However it has struggled to explain that to people now paying 20 percent extra for basic commodities – an affront to the MDP’s pledge to reduce the cost of living – and seems have been caught unawares by this week’s populist protests.

Both factions of the opposition have meanwhile seized the political opportunity to take the focus off the party’s internal troubles, but have offered few alternatives beyond demanding the government “reduce commodity prices”.

“I believe a lot of people are very unhappy with rising prices. People are asking the government to bring down the prices,” opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party spokesman Ibrahim ‘Mavota’ Shareef told Minivan News.

“It has been a sudden and tremendous jump and people were not prepared for it. This feeling is shared across party lines.”

Shareef accused the MDP of financial mismanagement and recklessly increasing spending, without investing “in productive resources that ensure future revenue for the country, and reducing expenditure in areas that do not affect the people – such as foreign missions.”

“They need not reduce the civil service, because these are the lowest paid government employees and reducing their numbers would have not tangible effect. But the top players in government – the political positions – and positions in the paper companies created by the government are many areas [that can be reduced],” Shareef claimed.

“Before the tsunami the country’s finances were very well managed, and even after the tsunami, given the circumstances, they were well managed. Tourism infrastructure was damaged, islands needed reconstruction and in some cases resettlement. We had to spend a lot of money, and increased the budget from Rf4 billion to Rf5.5-6 billion. It was still a manageable level, and although it was not the best option we had no choice at the time,” he claimed.

The opposition – and the Civil Service Commission (CSC) – for much of last year opposed the reductions in the 21,000-strong civil service demanded by the IMF, with the issue becoming mired in the court system.

The opposition contested that it is unfair to reduce the number of civil servants while increasing the number of political appointees. While the government now has only 170 political appointees on its books, Shareef claimed “they do not show up on paper because of the paper companies the government created in the name of corporatisation to try and fool the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. I don’t think a country of this size – 350,000 people – needs to have so many political appointees.”

The government has since changed tactics, offering incentives to civil servants as young as 18 to leave the state payroll.

Under the scheme, the application deadline for which was May 31, civil servants and government employees are eligible for one of four retirement incentive packages: no assistance, a one time payment of Rf 150,000 (US$11,700), a payment of Rf 150,000 and priority in the small and medium enterprises loan scheme (for those 18-50 years of age), or a lump sum of Rf 200,000 (US$15,600) and priority in government training and scholarship programmes (for those 18-40 years of age).

The move to incentivise the departure of civil servants is likely to draw further support from the IMF, which has finished its Article IV consultation and may be weighing up the provision of further support.

Meanwhile, the government is unable to respond to demands from the constituency to reduce commodity prices without explaining the complexities of the situation it finds itself in. Yet neither is it realistic “to pin our hopes on some sort of tourism growth bonanza in the short term,” wrote Imraan. “We might as well play the Euro lottery every week if this is the only plan.


Transport authorities look to complete Israeli airline deal

Transport officials have confirmed that a subsidiary of Israel’s flagship airline El Al is in the process of starting services to the Maldives later this year, despite some fervent anti-Israel sentiment in the country and recent administrative difficulties between the flight operator and its parent company.

Transport Minister Adil Saleem told Minivan News that relevant authorities were currently processing a license for Sun d’Or International Airlines to begin operating to the Maldives after talks began last year. He claimed such a move would create opportunities for both Israeli tourists to visit the country as well as facilitate pilgrimages for Maldivians to mosques around Jerusalem and other parts of the country.

Sun D’Or International, which is wholly owned by Israeli transport group El Al, was reported to have ceased operations from April 1 this year after the country’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) ruled that it relied on its parent company to administer and provide infrastructure to its operations – a situation it deemed “unsatisfactory”.

In a report for the Reuters news agency, despite reservations raised by the CAA on the manner the company was being run, the Israeli Transport Ministry claimed that the aircraft, maintained by El Al , were “completely safe” and any reservations about Sun D’Or International’s operations related solely to “administrative issues”. The report quoted ministry officials as saying that El Al could continue to use the Sun D’Or brand name commercially, but could not continue to operate the airline as an independent company.

A spokesperson for El Al was unavailable for comment when contacted by Minivan News at the time of press, but Adil Saleem claimed that to his knowledge, negotiations to begin services to the Maldives had not been affected so far by the Israeli CAA’s decision.

“I am not presently on top of the latest developments [with the company], but I believe we have almost completed the licence process for the services, which are expected to begin in October.

In recent months, the Maldives has seen a number of protests against Israel and its foreign policy along with claims by one former opposition party leader that the privatisation of Male’ International Airport would allow for Israeli bombers to go out of their way to refuel in the Maldives on their way to attack its neighbours in the Middle East. Saleem said he had taken such controversies on board.

“The [transport] department has gone through their procedures that it goes through with any airline planning to operate to the Maldives.  As Transport Minister I have looked at this like with any other airline,” he said. “Some Maldivians see Israel as controversial over the issue of Palestine. Yet Palestine accepts Israel as a state, benchmarking the point that I don’t see why we should not allow these flights.”

Saleem said that the Maldives already played host to a number of Israeli tourists at its resorts and that the airline would allow for a greater influx of guests to the country’s tourism industry.

The Transport Minister added that it had also become fashionable for some Muslims to travel to ancient mosques in Medina and Jerusalem, with the deal potentially allowing for local companies to provide pilgrimages to these sites.


Mubarak may face execution as protests and violence continue to engulf region

Egypt’s former president may face execution over allegations he ordered the killing of demonstrators opposed to his rule, while Syrian security officials have reportedly violently suppressed thousands of anti-government protesters as political unrest continues to rock the Middle East and North Africa.

Syria, along with a number of nations including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bahrain, Libya, Egypt and Tunisia have all reportedly witnessed surges in anti-government activism in recent months as political unrest has spread through the region leading to demonstrations against their respective rulers – all to varying degrees of success.

The BBC reported yesterday that security forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad have continued to crack down on protests during a “month of unrest”. Amidst this political landscape, news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) revealed that Egypt’s currently detained former leader Hosni Mubarak could stand trial and face the death penalty over suspicions that he ordered the murder of activists opposed to his rule.

The AFP cited reports in local state-owned media that prominent figures in Cairo’s Appeals Court had claimed that the execution of the former president could be possible if he was convicted of having a role in murdering protestors who stood against his rule at mass demonstrations across the country before Mubarak eventually stood down in February as activism intensified.

According to the report, the head of the country’s Appeals Court said that if testimony by Habib al-Adly, a interior minister serving under Mubarak, implicating the disposed president in approving the shooting of some protestors proved to be true, he too could face a custodial sentence or execution.

Media reports suggest that up to 800 people are thought to have been killed during a wave of protests before Mubarak was finally toppled. However, further protests in the country has thought to have been averted by authorities following the detention of Mubarak and his two sons Alaa and Gamal over alleged links to violent suppression, the AFP reported.

Meanwhile, Syrian authorities have also been charged with violently suppressing it citizens, with the BBC reporting have been some of the largest-scale protests yet seen in the country calling for an end to the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

According to the news agency, tear gas and batons were used by authorities to repel protestors that reportedly had gathered in their thousands in Damascus to continue to demand al-Assad’s resignation despite his attempts to make “some concessions” to his rule.

State media reportedly confirmed that small demonstrations had taken place across the country without the intervention of security officials, the BBC added.

In its own coverage of the protests, Al Jazeera reported that some witnesses in Damascus claimed that some 15 buses full of secret police had been drafted in to try and quell protests, while plain clothes-armed men were reported to have surrounded protestors gathered outside the Salam mosque in the city’s Barzeh district.

The news agency added that protests carried out against the government elsewhere in the country such as Baniyas, Latakia, Baida and Homs appeared to have gone ahead peacefully.

Reuters reported that unrest was also continuing elsewhere in the region this week with hundreds of Shias protesting around the Saudi Arabian region of Qatif to demand the release of prisoners they claim to have been held without a trial on political and religious grounds.


Google exec galvanises Egyptian protesters in second wave of demonstrations

The protests in Egypt against the rule of President Hosni Mubarak have been reignited following the release from police custody of Wael Ghonim, an online activist and key organiser of the demonstrations.

Ghonim, who is also Google’s head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa, wept openly on Dream TV and gave an emotional interview that has reinvigorated anti-government protests in Cairo.

The search giant had earlier appealed for public help in locating the missing executive, who disappeared on January 27 and was adopted by many protesters as a symbolic leader.

When he was told about the deaths of 300 people who died during the demonstrations, he cried – “We didn’t do anything wrong. We did what our consciences dictated to us”, he said.

Yesterday, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators filled the central square of Cairo while marches erupted in cities across the country.

“I like to call it the Facebook Revolution, but after seeing the people right now, I would say this is the Egyptian people’s revolution. It’s amazing,” Ghonim was reported as saying, after he was mobbed by galvanised supporters.

“Egyptians deserve a better life. Today one of those dreams has actually come true, which is actually putting all of us together and as one hand believing in something,” he said.

Prior to Ghonim’s release foreign media present in Egypt had reported a drop in momentum following 12 days of unprecedented demonstrations, with the UK’s Independent newspaper writing that Mubarak was using “all the guile that has kept him in power for so long to produce a series of sweeteners – including a 15 per cent pay rise for state employees – to widen his public support.”

The United States meanwhile backed Mubarak’s perferred successor, recently appointed Vice-President Omar Suleiman, as the country’s transitional leader in a bid to encourage President Hosni Mubarak to step aside.

Suleiman was appointed to the position by Mubarak following the sacking of his entire cabinet. Columnist Lisa Hajjar writes for Al-Jazeera that Egypt’s intelligence has CIA links and has “long been favoured by the US government for his ardent anti-Islamism [and] his willingness to talk and act tough on Iran.”

“There are forces in any society, particularly one facing these kind of challenges, that will try to derail or overtake the process to pursue their own agenda,” said US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, “which is why I think it’s important to follow the transition process announced by the Egyptian government, actually headed by vice-president Omar Suleiman.”

The US appears anxious that Egypt avoid the fate of Iran, which replaced a US-backed dictatorial regime with an unpredictable Islamic republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during the Iranian revolution in 1979. Egypt is central to the region and an unstable Egypt would have a knock-on effect on world oil prices.

Media in Egypt have reported that one group likely to benefit from the fall of Mubarak is the Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Hassan al-Banna 1928 in opposition to the British presence in Egypt.

“Six Egyptian workers employed in the military camps of Ismailiyya in the Suez Canal Zone visited Banna, a young teacher who they had heard preaching in mosques and cafes on the need for ‘Islamic renewal’,” writes the Guardian’s Jack Shenker, in a rare interview with the group.

“‘Arabs and Muslims have no status and no dignity,’ they complained, according to the brotherhood’s official history. ‘They are no more than mere hirelings belonging to the foreigners… We are unable to perceive the road to action as you perceive it…’

Banna later wrote that the Europeans had expropriated the resources of Muslim lands and corrupted them with ‘murderous germs’: ‘They imported their half-naked women into these regions, together with their liquors, their theatres, their dance halls, their amusements, their stories, their newspapers, their novels, their whims, their silly games, and their vices… The day must come when the castles of this materialistic civilisation will be laid low upon the heads of their inhabitants.’

Banna argued that Islam provided a complete solution, with divine guidance on everything from worship and spiritual matters to the law, politics and social organisation. He established an evening school for the working classes which impressed the general inspector of education and by 1931 the brotherhood had constructed its first mosque – for which the Suez Canal Company is said to have provided some of the funds.”

The BBC reported that a senior Hamas commander from Gaza, Ayman Nofel, used the chaos to escape his three year detention in Egypt on unspecified charges.

“I shouted to other prisoners to break down the doors and gates,” Nofel told the BBC, who used smuggled mobile phones to mobilise local residents outside the jail to storm the prison gates and allow him to fight his way through guards to freedom.

Mubarak’s position continues to weaken, after the state-controlled Al-Ahram newspaper, Egypt’s second oldest, abandoned its support for his regime with a front page lead hailing the “nobility” of the “revolution”.

The state and all its denizens, the elder generation, the politicians and all other powers on the political stage must humble themselves and rein themselves in to understand the ambitions of the young and the dreams of this nation,” wrote editor Osama Saraya.

Even if Mubarak were to be ousted in similar fashion to his Tunisian counterpart Ben Ali, he is unlikely to go hungry – an analysis by Middle East experts published by the Guardian pegs the Egyptian President’s private wealth at US$70 billion, making him among the wealthiest people on the planet. Much of this money is reported to stashed in British and Swiss bank accounts or tied up in real estate in London, New York, Los Angeles and acres of Red Sea coast.

Meanwhile, the effect of Egyptian unrest has been felt across the region. Last week Yemeni leader of 30 years Ali Abdullah Saleh promised he would halt constitutional changes that would allow him to be president for life promised not to seek reelection, after civil society groups promised “a day of rage”.

“I will not extend my mandate and I am against hereditary rule,” Saleh said during an emergency session of parliament.

Libyan President of 42 years, Muammar al-Gaddafi, is said to be moving towards transitioning his country back to the monarchy he overthrew in a 1969 coup.

“He’s started to return property, which belonged to the late King Idris, back to the designated heirs of the king,” noted president of the International Strategic Studies Association, Greg Copley.

Tunisia, which started the domino trend after protests forced Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee, has been forced to call up army reservists to confront growing unrest and meet demand for democratic reforms.

Former conscripts and retired soldiers were ordered to report to military posts according to the local news agency TAP.

Gaza is meanwhile facing acute shortages of fuel and supplies as the traffic of goods through underground tunnels crossing the border to Egypt has dried up. Petrol and diesel brought in from Israel costs three times as much as that smuggled into the country, which relies on it for power during extend cuts.

The Maldives is unlikely to escape unscathed either – the country spends 25 percent of its GDP on fuel and its economy, one of the most sensitive in the world, is likely to be susceptible to even minor price fluctuations.


Controversial salary amendments not yet approved, say MPs

MPs “have not taken pay increases”, Deputy Speaker of Parliament Ahmed Nazim has said, despite the Rf20,000 wage hikes for MPs included in the 2011 state budget approved yesterday.

Deputy Speaker Nazim said the proposed wage hikes must receive additional approval by the Majlis before they can take effect.

Despite “cross party support” for budgetary amendments allowing additional MP privileges like salary increases, he said, no wage hikes have actually been approved. Nazim anticipates that the proposals, considered a possible means of improving parliament’s “productivity”, would come under review in March after the recess.

The claims were made at the first session of the Mjalis since it passed the 2011 state budget. It opened to chants of “We need cash” from protesters gathered near the parliament building, angry over the salary amendments passed as part of a budget said to be aimed at cost-cutting.

However, acting Finance Minister Mahmood Razee said he believed the budget had been passed relatively well. He added that any amendments such as those suggested for MPs’ salaries – passed yesterday by a majority of members – would still ultimately require presidential approval.

In addition, the acting Finance Minister said, all amendments would ideally fulfil the commitment to keep the budget at about Rf12.37bn for the year ahead.

These commitments are also focused on trying to ensure a budget deficit of around 16 per cent, which has been sought in an attempt to appease institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which suspended finance to the country earlier this year over concerns about it living beyond its means.

However, Nazim, who also serves as Deputy Leader of the opposition People’s Alliance (PA) party, rebuked the optimism shown by the acting finance Minister. He added that concerns remained among some “opposition and independent MPs” over a lack of detail in the budget, such as in the funding of enterprises like the Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation (MNBC).

Addressing the topic of MPs salaries outlined under amendments to parliamentary privileges, Nazim claimed  the salaries were not solely a “money issue”, but were also part of an attempt to test methods for improved “productivity” among the Majlis.

“The amendments were not to do with spending cuts, the salary structures have been amended as part of measures to increase productivity among members, which will be reviewed by parliament’s Public Accounts Committee,” he said. “The figure of Rf20,000 is an upper ceiling level that parliament will look to see whether it can be increased, it doesn’t mean anything has been passed.”

“We are not taking a pay rise,” Nazim added.

In looking at the wider budget, Nazim stressed that there remained concerns among some MPs over a number of proposed amendments to the budget, such as those concerning MNBC, that had been dismissed by Parliamentary speaker Abdullah Shahid as “not in the budget”.

Citing the 2010 budget that he claimed had not outlined funding for the MNBC, Nazim said  the government still provided a total of Rf54m for monthly salaries to the broadcaster, which had not been accounted for once again in the latest state finances.

The Deputy Speaker also noted that the state-owned Maldives National Shipping Limited, which  had required Rf84 million from the government’s contingency budget in 2009 had also required another Rf48 million so far this year.

In light of the recent privatisation agreement with Indian infrastructure group GMR to manage Male’ International Airport, Nazim asked why the government had “not sold off” the shipping enterprise to aid finances.

“The government refused to give this contingency budget out before it was brought to the Majlis,” he said. “They have not cooperated with parliament. Though there have been improvements since the acting [Finance] Minister came in, we still believe there has been systematic abuse of the system.”

From a government perspective, Acting Finance Minister Razee claimed that he believed budget discussions had “actually gone quite well”.

He said the approved budget was within the Rf12.37bn first projected earlier this month, but amendments would require it to “take some funds from existing programmes” so they could be invested elsewhere.

Razee said he remained hopeful that the funding would not significantly impact the proposed target for an annual budget deficit of 16 per cent.

However, he conceded that possible amendments to programmes within the budget could yet “be more significant” in terms of their financial impact than anticipated.

When asked if passing proposed amendments to parliamentary privileges such as increased wages for MPs was a failure for a budget aimed at cost reduction, Razee said that the proposals were not part of the government’s original plan.

“These [privileges] were amendments to existing bills,” he said. “Obviously, these amendments that have been provided would have to be approved by the president, who would decide if there was enough revenue to support such an increase.”

Razee added that he did not have the figures on the exact numbers of MPs and party members who had voted to approve the amendments that included the privileges, though he confirmed they “had been passed by the majority”.

“I can’t say why people voted for it, the amendments had included allowances to independent institutions so perhaps they were confused,” he claimed.


Flag burnings and assault claims have not dampened Eye from Zion “success”: DMC

An Israeli opthamologist NGO has been praised for providing the “most successful” medical camp the Maldives has ever seen following its conclusion last week, despite protests including the burning of Israeli flags and the alleged assault of a government under secretary, Abdulla Shahid, Coordinator for the country’s National Disaster Management Centre (DMC) has claimed.

Shahid claimed that for the hundreds of Maldivians who had not “been too scared” to travel for a consultation or s surgical procedure on their eyes with the NGO, a free service was on offer that was only available otherwise at the country’s private medical clinics.

“There has never been such a successful camp,” he said, despite allegations of “scare mongering” and an assault on a relative of one patient arriving at a hospital for an operation with the NGO.

However, the visit of the Eye from Zion NGO, which had been working at hospitals across the country offering “eye surgery camps”, has seen a number of protests taking place against it, with high-profile politicians such as Umar Naseer and former State Islamic Minister Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed joining the movement.

Both men have claimed following a protest held in front of the Tsunami memorial on Friday December 17, that their opposition to the NGO was not anti-Semitic or targeted directly at Jews, but rather a sign of “solidarity” with fellow Muslims about concerns with Israeli foreign policy, particularly in Palestine.

Both politicians spoke along with other figures at a rally of hundreds of people gathered in Male’, some carrying banners in both Dhivehi and English with messages ranging from “Say no to Israeli terrorism” and “Jews said Allah is poor” to “We are with anyone who fights Israel & USA” and “Bloody Zionists”.
However, Shahid told Minivan News that he believed that the protests were more often the result of “political” considerations rather than solidarity with Palestinians. Therefore he claimed that for the hundreds of people screened at camps in Male’, Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll and Addu Atoll, who “couldn’t afford to fly to destinations like Bangkok for specialist treatment”, the arrival of Eye from Zion staff on December 9, 2010 was an important sharing of expertise from a “knowledge-based economy”.

“From the first day [the NGO worked] at the hospitals, religious groups had begun displaying their banners outside and they even tried to attack one person. The person has since filed a complaint with the Country’s Human Rights Commission,” he claimed.

According to Shahid, the person who alleged the attack, themselves a political under secretary, claimed to have been assaulted after trying to take a relative for an operation with the Eye from Zion group, a process that was eventually carried out.  The alleged victim was unavailable for comment when contacted by Minivan News at the time of going to press.

Ultimately, with the screening of some 215 people in Male’ alone, Shahid said that 16 patients had undergone surgery with Eye from Zion doctors in the capital and 104 had received consultations from the NGO. DMC figures stated meanwhile that 137 people were found to have been treated in Thinadhoo, Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll.

However, Shahid conceded that the protests, along with a campaign of “scare stories” that were being spread around the country involving “organ harvesting”, had taken their toll on numbers actually turning up for surgery, some of whom he said “were too scared to take part” in the eye camps.
“In Addu Atolll there were rumours going around that the doctors were putting strong glue in the eyes of patients,” he said. “These guys [protests organisers] need to bring surgeons to the country to help start treatments for people.”

These “stories” included claims reported by NGOs such as the Islamic Foundation of the Maldives (IFM) that it was advisable to take “precautionary measures to avoid any foul play” from Jewish doctors that were “ notorious for illegally harvesting organs from non-Jews.”

The furore over the visit of Israeli surgeons under the Eye from Zion banner has led to NGOs such as Jamiyyathusalaf to call for the provision of “military training to all Muslim Maldivians and familiarise citizens with the use of modern weaponry” before “Jews take over the country”.

Distancing itself from what it called “hysterical” statements such as these, the co-founders of the IFM told Minivan News earlier this month that they believed by adopting a “pro-Israel” stance and working with NGOs like Eye from Zion, the Maldivian government was losing support and credibility among its people.

However, Shahid claimed that from the perspective of the DMC, cooperation with specialist NGOs was seen as hugely beneficial, no matter their national origin.

“There have been several camps all set up with different NGOs. This is the first time we have had a group from Israel,” he said. “However, we don’t have any set practices in regards to what nation we invite NGOs to visit from. We would welcome help from anywhere.”  Former Deputy Leader of the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), Umar Naseer, who had been one of the speakers at the Tsunami Memorial protest, said last week that he believed that protests continuing throughout the week were a reflection of “concern over the continued relationship” between the governments of Israel and the Maldives.

“Israel continues to bombard cities and continues to occupy Palestinian lands,” he said. “As Muslims, we have one basic principle; if one of us is hurt, we all are. Similarly, if Palestinian people suffer, so do we,” he said.

Naseer claimed that the government had turned a “blind eye to the frustrations of its people” and that the protestors believed that the “Maldives should not accept Israeli NGOs or their aid”. “Once we have settled the issue [of Palestine], then we can have normal relations,” he said.

Before resigning from his position as the Islamic State Minister on Thursday December 23, Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed of the religious Adhaalath party said that he didn’t see the protests against Eye from Zion “as a religious problem” but as a reflection of dissatisfaction with Israeli foreign policy. “The thing is injustice, we are not enemies of Jews and Christians,” he said. “We don’t want Jews to kill Palestinians; they are not obeying the UN or international law.”

Prior to his speech at the Tsunami memorial protest, Miadhu last week reported that Shaheem had used his Friday sermon on the same day – December 17 – to claim that the history of Jewish people was “full of deception, trickery, rebellion, oppression, evil and corruption”.

According to the report, Shaheem had said that they [Jewish people] were always seeking to cause “mischief on the earth and Allah loves not the mischief-makers”.

“So it is not it is not acceptable that one who would stab the ummah in the heart could heal the eyes. This philosophy is not acceptable,” he said.

Shaheem did not elaborate or confirm if he had said these comments when questioned by Minivan News at the time. The former Islamic State Minister claimed that he had used his Friday Sermon to call for peaceful protest.
“I asked for no problems to be created for the [Eye from Zion] doctors,” he said.

Ultimately, Shaheem said that protests against the policies of the Israeli government have been occurring all over the world in London, Paris and New York and this didn’t mean “these people were against all Jews”.

“Our problems are with groups like Zionists,” he said.

Shaheem pointed to the London-based protestor, Brian Haw, who has spent many years camped outside London’s Houses of Parliament in part of ongoing peaceful demonstration linked to opposing UK governmental policy such as backing invading Iraq back in 2003, as a reflection of the “democratic” importance of protesting and solidarity.

“He is just one man sleeping in a tent protesting, yet he is not a Muslim,” Shaheem said.


Political figures join protests in surge of anti-Zionist sentiment

Anti-Zionist protests continued over the weekend reflecting the anger of some Maldivians about Israeli medical assistance being supplied to the country, leading to a rally held by the Tsunami Memorial on Friday with a host of high profile political figures speaking at the event.

Hundreds of people gathered at the protest with some carrying banners in both Dhivehi and English with messages ranging from “Say no to Israeli terrorism” and “Jews said Allah is poor” to “We are with anyone who fights Israel & USA” and “Bloody Zionists”.

The protests are said to be directly focused on deporting an Israeli NGO called Eye from Zion that is conducting eye surgery at a number of hospitals around the country. The religious NGO Islamic Foundation of the Maldives (IFM) said the protests were also targeted at rising concern over “President Mohamed Nasheed’s decision to have closer ties with Israel.”

A host of speakers including State Minister for Islamic Affairs, Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed and former Deputy Leader for the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP, Umar Naseer, addressed attendees, voicing their opposition to accepting any aid from Israel amidst anger at its foreign policy towards Palestine.

Miadhu reported that Sheikh Shaheem spoke during a sermon on the day of the protest claiming that “the history of Jews was deception, trickery, rebellion, oppression, evil and corruption.”

“So it is not it is not acceptable that one who would stab the ummah in the heart could heal the eyes?” he reportedly said. “This philosophy is not acceptable.”

Alongside these comments, Naseer claimed that no aid should be taken by an Islamic state such as the Maldives until Israel settles the issues of occupation in Palestine in solidarity with other Muslims. The IFM claimed that other similar protests were held in Addu Atoll and Fuamulaku over the weekend.

Some 739 people in Male’ and 879 in Addu and Fuvahmulah had registered for treatment at eye camps run by the NGO as of December 9.

Last week, the co-founders of the IFM said that although they were not directly involved in the protests, it would not discourage its members from joining so called anti-Zionist demonstrations such as flag burnings and peaceful protests that have taken place over the last month over concern about the visit of ‘Eye from Zion’.

IFM co-founders Ibrahim Nazim and Ibrahim Fauzee said that they did not wish to “prohibit its members” from taking part in the ongoing protests that it saw as a “spontaneous reaction” to concerns over Israel’s attitude towards Palestine.

Nazim said that the IFM did not favour violence as an organisation and claims by “other organisations in the country” that Jewish people were planning to take over the country were setting back legitimate concerns over the visit of Eye from Zion and Israeli foreign policy.

“What I feel is that some groups are trying to win publicity by making radical statements,” he said. “We do not believe this is good and in the long-term it is not be favourable [towards effectively opposing Israeli activities in the Maldives].”

Fauzee added that he believed the protests reflected the fact that “many people in the Maldives do not accept Israel as a state.”

In response to the anti-Zionist protests and criticism that the government was engaged in a pro-Israel agenda, Press Secretary for the President Mohamed Zuhair said that the government “holds friendly relations with Israel, as it does almost every other nation in the world.”

“We are not at loggerheads with any states, though we have some differences with Burma over the treatment of [formerly arrested dissident] Aung Sun Suu Kyi,” he said. “There is nothing special in terms of agreements with Israel.”

Though Zuhair claimed that the Maldives government has been “consistent on criticising Israel over Palestine and other foreign policy issues it did not agree on”, this was not a barrier to humanitarian cooperation, he said.

Zuhair added that by having bilateral relations with a large number of nations, the Maldives was able to benefit from cooperation based on technical assistance, education and humanitarian aid.

He claimed that the medical expertise offered by Eye from Zion was a strong example of this.

“We ourselves don’t have the means for this type of surgery, which has so far treated 140 patients in Male’ and 40 people across islands in the outer atolls,” Zuhair added. “In this case, the patients that thankful for the treatment they have received, which outweighs the protests against [the doctors].”


Umar Naseer supporters call for Thasmeen’s resignation, outside DRP head office

Protesters allegedly in support of the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) have gathered in front of the group’s head office calling on its leader, MP Ahmed Thasmeen Ali, to resign.

The protests, which took place this afternoon outside the group’s headquarters opposite the Artificial Beach, came as website ‘Dhivehi Post’ published an article calling on DRP supporters to gather near the building.

The website alleged that Thasmeen was offering “gifts” to his party’s disciplinary committee members to dismiss DRP deputy leader Umar Naseer from his position.

In September Naseer accused Thasmeen of attempting to dismiss him from the party, after the DRP council voted narrowly to recommend Umar to the disciplinary committee.

“I know that the disciplinary committee will decide to oust me from the party, that is very clear to me,’’ Naseer told press at the time, adding that the committee was “full of Thasmeen’s people who would do whatever he says”.

This afternoon, 30 protesters gathered near the DRP’s headquarters holding placards carrying messages in Dhivehi saying things such as “although Umar may be removed from his position he will be serving the nation and the people.”

Others signs being held outside the party HQ read, ”for the nation, religion and people, we call on Gayoom to be back in politics” and ”Primaries will be held to elect the party’s presidential candidate in 2012.”

Umar Naseer vowed to take legal action against “government officials and opposition figures who accepted bribes from (Indian infrastructure giant) GMR”, following allegations that surfaced on the Dhivehi Post website last week.

Thasmeen and Naseer were not responding to calls at time of press.