Comment: Toothless Civil Society

When a people’s liberties are suspended whenever there is an emergency, there is a word for that: dictatorship. There is a line between democracy and dictatorship – and over the course of the last week we came dangerously close to stepping over it.

Not necessarily because of the President’s actions, the incarcerations, or the now common place parliamentary upheaval, but because those who should have spoken out remained silent.

Yes, you in the civil society need to raise your voices. Raise your voices to demand explanations, protest abuses, and safeguard the right to criticise a sitting government.

Instead of raised voices, however, we have only heard silence. And this started from the moment this affair began. The President’s office holds a press conference where the entire cabinet resigns, the President asserts his supreme authority to find justice, and what does the media say? Do they question the legitimacy of the action? Do they ask what this will mean for the peace in this nation? Or even whether the government expects demonstrations in retaliation and how the President (now the only civilian authority over the police and army) will respond?

No. They stay silent. Well, practically silent. The hardest hitting question was “does this mean your government is a failure?”

Really? Good job guys.

But who can blame the fledgling media groups in this nation. Unaccustomed to true democracy, they are not the ones who are directly tasked with protecting and asserting our democratic rights and ensuring this transition from autocracy to democracy actually works out. Who does this benevolent task fall to?

Civil Society

Organisations such as Transparency International, Democracy House, Open Society Association, and the newly renamed Maldivian Democracy Network all claim to safe guard democracy.

To work for its betterment – and yet civil society remained silent. Even Jamiyathul Salaf, who seem to have religious edicts about everything, stayed silent.

We have seen allegations of corruption first leveled by the executive branch against the legislative branch and then visa versa. We have not only seen wire-tapping where private conversations were recorded without warrants and outside of due process, but also seen them leaked to the public, indicating that civilian/partisan individuals had access to them.

We are witnessing a power struggle between executive and legislative branches with neither side realizing that they are both part of one government. And we see a judiciary that is caught in the middle and being accused of being susceptible to political influence.

We see the army working side by side with the police in the capital, outside of their mandate. We see all the things that would be any democracy fighter’s dream. The perfect excuse for a civil society group to put their two cents in, allowing them to claim they are meeting their own mandates. But instead we have silence and even some amount of fear.

The Fray

Civil society seems to be afraid of jumping into the fray. Of being labeled as being inclined towards one political party or another. Instead they give no comment and it is not hard for one to come up with excuses for why they should not comment at all.

Firstly, everyone must realise that this is a highly charged political atmosphere where any statement at all will be seen as aligning with one group or another.

Secondly, no formal charges have been brought against the three Members of Parliament (MPs) who have been detained. Instead, all that we have seen is allegations being flung about – none of which are easy to comment on.

And finally the questions: can’t there be levels to democracy? Where we move gradually towards it? After all, have any laws actually been broken?

The Other Side

The argument could be made however, that one cannot wait to evaluate. That civil society organizations are supposed to have principles and ideals that they adhere to above all others. And unlike political parties who can take time to organize, reflect, and adjust their values – civil society act on the basis of whether their values have been violated or not.

Does the MNDF’s involvement in everything that transpired adhere to their values? Was it okay for the MNDF to send a letter explaining why MPs could not go to Parliament in clear violation of their constitutional rights?

Was there any risk assessment that was done? And is there any level of alertness that we should be on? Do they have any questions about people’s conversations being tapped? Who else is being targeted? How does this feud between the executive and legislative affect the people? And who is responsible for failed policies?

My point is not that the executive branch has acted inappropriately, but rather that they have not been sufficiently grilled by the right people. My point is that civil society is an important part of our democratic transition, and right now they are slacking off.

I’m sure the government could post adequate answers to the questions posed, but my point is that the questions need to be asked in the first place from the right actors.

One Government

And it is also about more than just the executive branch. The civil society is responsible for explaining and helping us to define our government’s role. They are also responsible for reminding us that both legislative and executive branches are part of one government and that the failure of one aspect will make all of it fail.

We are in desperate need of this reminding. I walked out onto my balcony day before yesterday to watch protesters with underwear on their heads, supporting the arrest of our Deputy Speaker of Parliament – Ahmed Nazim.

These are protests that the nation believes is sanctioned by the executive branch. And they had underwear on their heads.

Forget the man for a second, and realize that Nazim is the Deputy Speaker of Parliament. He is third in the line of succession for the Presidency. And while it would be a black mark on our country’s record to have him in this position if he is in fact guilty of all that is accused of him, we cannot assume guilt. We cannot disrespect the office the people of this nation gave him. And we cannot forgo all measures of dignity and justice.

We are one government and should all be held accountable. And you, civil society, need to step up your game and live up to your values. Democracy’s survival is in your hands, and if it fails you will share the blame.

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