Comment: September 28 could be the Maldives’ last chance

I was the little girl who lived in the same block. We played cricket together, stabbed banana trunks with home-made spears and baked cakes in recycled butter tins. I remember times when he carried me on his back, remember times when he dressed up in his colourful shirts and reeking of ‘atharu’ (perfume), went out on his evening sojourns. He was a Don Juan, tall for his age, with laughing eyes and thick, wavy hair. Girls could not resist him and he could not resist trouble.

He was only five years older than me, but when I met him on that unforgettable day, several years later, there was an eternity of age and distance separating us. What was left of his hair was falling in untidy strands round his dirty shirt-collar. He was obese, embarrassingly so. Myself, sanitised by three decades of the good life in the West, jumped to conclusions. Too much grease, too little care…

Then, tears welled up in his eyes. They cascaded down his unkempt face. He shook. He stuttered.

I was utterly unprepared for my first experience of talking face to face with a victim of the regime: the horror of solitary confinement, the nights in the lagoons, the near-drownings, the chains, the mental and physical torture, the bodily deterioration, and the ensuing mental breakdown of those who displeased the dictator. In subsequent years I was to listen to numerous such narratives with a common theme, a callous disregard for people and the violation of human life and dignity as evidenced by the killing of Evan Naseem.

I am convinced that a relapse into the darker days of our history, by an election win to the Gayoom/Yameen regime, will set in motion a greater level of atrocities than was my generation’s heritage. We were sheltered. We were politically naïve. We did not question.

Today, there is huge opposition to the regime. They are articulate, determined and unprepared to put up with the whims of a regime struggling to come to terms with the realities of the 21st century. If the regime is reinstated, it would cope with this opposition in the way it’s accustomed to. The level of atrocities will rise exponentially. Our country and our heritage will finally and unequivocally decline and settle into a corrupt and violent police state. The events of February 7th, 2012, and the wave of state condoned violence which followed, should be a real reminder to us to reflect and cast our votes wisely.

Those of us who remember the way we were, the Maldives of old, must approach this second round of the presidential elections with our eyes wide open. There are ethical and practical issues that we should consider.

Over 30 years of Gayoom’s rule made sure that generations of young people grew up with nothing to aspire to. While it is clichéd to say that the youth is the future of a nation, there is no denying that the physical and mental health of this group is the best indicator of a nation’s economic and human potential. Over thirty years of neglect has left Maldivian youth hopeless and alienated. Is it any wonder they flock to the MDP? They see the alternatives: unemployment, drugs, corruption, drugs, nepotism, drugs, a police state, drugs…

It is a matter of public knowledge that among large numbers of the youth population, drug abuse is a way of life and young gang members are hired to do the dirty work of the adults. Again and again one hears the accusation that this is a deliberate strategy – bread and circus – in a different and more insidious guise. It is the application of a philosophy as old as the Romans, but it is not often that a society turns inwards to deliberately create an underclass. People of my generation, who have known better days, have a part to play in making a political decision that would stop the perpetuation of this cruel indifference.

Another pressing concern of the nation is the dysfunctional judiciary. Easily accessible news headlines speak for themselves: ‘Judiciary’s Angst on Reform’, ‘Maldives’ Judiciary- Unreformed and Unrepentant’, and more recently, ‘Maldives Supreme Court Judge Ali Hameed with Russian and Sri Lankan prostitutes’. How can we forget that it was three decades of authoritarian dictatorship that totally vitiated the judiciary?

Gayoom’s iron fist still controls the judiciary. It is inconceivable to think that a return of PPM would lead to any positive improvements in a justice system that is so corrupt that it is destroying the moral fabric of the Maldives.

The most telling comment one can make about the Gayoom/Yameen regime, however, is its sense of entitlement. The extravagant and ostentatious life styles exemplified by Theemuge and the flotilla of yachts that Gayoom used are also symbolic of their belief that governance is a free ticket to have it all, at the expense of others; what is in the state coffers is theirs by right. Entitlement, elitism, privilege are words that summarise their philosophy of governance. Conflict of interest is not a concept that is in the handbook of these Feudalists.

The regime is also infamous for its unbroken network of patronage; patronage and fear being the bedrock of its present power. The failure of PPM to produce a clear election manifesto on time highlights this attitude.  Why write down promises for people to check and analyse when the intention to act on them is not there?

Entitlement seems a soft criticism. So what if some people think they are born to rule? But in the case of the regime, Gayoom and Yameen, this belief has become the fundamental driving force of their entire existence. Greater than their belief in capitalism, greater than their belief in democracy, greater than their belief in the Maldives, they simply believe they are born to rule – and that they MUST rule. If they cannot rule then they are no one. Within the Gayoom political tribe there is no existence without rule. They must rule to exist.

Narcissism is an evil sickness. It is this evil sickness that explains so much about the Gayoom coterie.

It explains why they have no detailed policy. They don’t need one; they are born to rule. It explains why they use corrupt means; when you are born to rule the end justifies the means. It explains why they will use violence; when you are born to rule then others have no rights, and must not share in the right to rule. It explains their vitriolic and personal attacks on their opponents, particularly of a religious nature; when you are born to rule, those who oppose you are unworthy of, not just humane, but human, consideration.

Gayoom’s sense of entitlement clarifies many seemingly strange actions and beliefs.

It is an understatement to say that what Gayoom/Yameen and PPM stand for is fundamentally detrimental to the Maldives. The abbreviation itself is a perverse contradiction of the truth. There is nothing progressive about the type of governance they will bring. Burma, under the clutches of a military dictatorship is making tentative steps towards democracy. Even China is beginning this process by introducing elements of freedom into their economic program.

Those who vote for the return of the regime must consider the fact that it is a vote to move the nation backwards, towards a dictatorship and a style of government that is not viable in the 21st century. In Gayoom’s era it might have been viable. For fifty years, we saw the same style of rule in Africa and Central America in the form of violent, bloody dictatorships. But things are changing in these countries. Can the Maldives let itself be turned into a 20th century Trujilloistic dictatorship just because the regime believe they were born to rule?

Apart from the moral reasons to avoid a return of the regime, there are practical reasons why we should not let that happen; the most important being our self-interest.

For its economic existence, the Maldives relies on its middle class, its business class, not on five or six big wealthy families, but on hundreds, perhaps thousands of small entrepreneurs. In every society these business people form the basis of the economy and the economy is the foundation on which society is formed. This middle class grows out of today’s youth. No modern society can exist without a vibrant, healthy, youth demographic being allowed to thrive.

Throughout the western and eastern worlds, countries are bemoaning the fact that their ‘youth’ are no longer able to be their future workforce, their future entrepreneurs, their future taxpayers, or their future heads of families. Societies rely on their youth to take over the burden of care for the old and the education of the young in the future. Here in the Maldives, the Gayoom/Yameen regime has targeted this group as their sacrificial lambs. They believe only in themselves.

Whilst I would like to think that no right minded person could ever support the regime with its horrifying track-record, I know this is untrue. There are some reasonable people who support them. Some of these do not receive bribes or inducements. Some of them are not under threat. Why do they support such a blood thirsty regime? I think the answer is simple. They believe that with the reinstatement of the old regime, the old economy will resurrect itself and they will prosper.

This is not so. Under a new Gayoom/Yameen dictatorship, the economy will move backwards.

Nepotism will prosper again. In a tightly controlled dictatorship, only family and close friends can be trusted. The rich and the elite who have everything to gain from the status quo will be rewarded, thus stifling innovation by the large majority of ordinary people. Much of the nation’s wealth will shift off shore.

No society can exist like this. The Gayoom/Yameen regime is so blinded by its own vision of their family’s right to rule that they are prepared to rule over a nation that has been deliberately disintegrated back into feudalism; so long as they rule it.

I find it a delicious irony that in the first round, large numbers of us have already voted in favour of ‘Aneh Dhivehi Raaje’, and the old dinosaur, the dynasty dreamer, is plodding behind to catch us with nothing new or appealing in his box of tricks. There is a famine of details in their policy documents. Produced four days before the presidential election, it did not show any budgetary provisions for its promises.

Perhaps the Adhaalath Party would pray for wells of gushing oil to finance Yameen’s plans, or faithful elements in the police and MNDF would come to the rescue, should the peasants complain! A leopard cannot change its spots, or perhaps more appropriately, a crow, cursed or otherwise, cannot change its raspy call to anything more endearing. A Gayoom/Yameen regime will uphold the same values that have already caused irreparable damage to the social fabric of our nation.

It will be business as usual. They have already proven to us that they are capable of doing awful and destructive things to this country and its people. We are yet to recover from thirty years of cruelty, abuse of the nation’s wealth, nepotism, lack of equitable development on the islands, and their frightening disregard for the plight of our youth. If the regime is given the mandate to govern again, even the most determined of our nation will not be able to pick up the pieces and rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes.

Prison did not kill my friend; he died of ‘natural causes’. But prison did kill him. I have lived long enough to appreciate that death has many faces. It is not simply a final breathe. It is also a slaying of the spirit, a denial of dignity and a hiatus of hope. To me personally, my childhood friend remains a symbol of this nation: betrayed, neglected, justice denied and potential unachieved.

September 28th may be the country’s last chance.

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