As the world watches the escalation of violence in the Maldives, the media, both nationally and internationally, has focused on the major characters in this unfolding drama. A corrupt government headed by an aging dictator was, for a short period, defeated by a popular movement led by a relentless activist, recognised for his fearless and uncompromising struggle to change the system.
However, the old regime was returned to power by the coup on February 7, barely four years after the previous government was established through a popular democratic movement. This is the stuff of Hollywood movies, but the script is still being written…
Democracy or Oligarchy? The dictionary definitions of these conflicting ideologies do not clearly reflect the real reasons behind the political struggle and the recent coup in the Maldives. It is not primarily a drama of personalities, as some of the media interviewers have portrayed it. It is a struggle between an oligarchy doggedly maintaining its privileges and a growing number of Maldivians who refuse to be beaten or intimidated into submission. Baton clashes with belief. Power clashes with powerlessness. And most importantly, privilege for the few clashes with justice for all.
For centuries, pre-eminence in government has been synonymous with privilege in the Maldives; and the privileged few used their power to do little other than to preserve their position and lifestyle. Gayoom, who was educated in the Middle East, came to power with such promise of change, but managed only to perpetuate an Arabian Nights style of governance.
Under him, the Maldivian government continued to be inward looking. The rule of the privileged few continued to be the norm. Thirty years of exploitation and repression under Gayoom left the country economically and emotionally bankrupt. The social results of this are seen in the plethora of problems that the Maldives faces today. One outstanding example is the neglect of the atolls- the economic backbone of the country.
While members of the privileged oligarchy lived the lifestyle of the rich and famous funded by the country’s earnings and the aid that was poured into the country to assist its development, there was a deliberate neglect of the islands outside the capital Male and their need for education, health care, and employment. This neglect led directly to the beleaguered state of Male today. Thousands upon thousands of Maldivians go to live in Male, to work and educate their children. Today, Male is one of the most crowded and polluted cities in the world. Privilege, married to self- interest, leaves long, dark shadows.
Privilege also goes hand in hand with exclusiveness and a strong sense of entitlement as evidenced by Gayoom’s regime. State money that was the right of all citizens was spent on personal aggrandizement. ‘Theemuge’- Gayoom’s presidential palace- and the millions of public money spent on it, is a symbol of corruption and excess that will stay with us for many years. However, the platoon of luxury yachts and the lifestyle enjoyed by his family and friends were not seen by them as a result of embezzlement, but a reflection of what they were justifiably entitled to.
Such self-deceit went further. Just as the colonial powers and the Christian missionaries of the past justified their dealings with the indigenous people of the colonies as humanitarian and ethically sound, the regime justified its way of doing things as enlightened and for the public good. For years, the old regime has argued that the Maldives was not ready for Democracy; this became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This style of archaic thinking assumes that change for the better can only happen when it follows a time line that suits those who are opposed to any change which threatens their privileged lifestyle. The return to that regime suggests that Gayoom is of the belief that the country will not be ready for such a change in the life time of his children either! The truth is that any major progress in human history, such as the growth of Islam in its early years, the development of the parliamentary system or the emancipation of women in the West, is achieved with pain and commitment. When the oligarchy takes the moral high ground, it asserts that the ordinary public is at a lower level of evolution- incapable of rational or intelligent behaviour. Will the regime now destroy the schools, keep economic power in the hands of the few, and then tell the many that they are too ignorant for Democracy?
“Let them eat cake” is a well-known quotation possibly misattributed to Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI, whose regime was toppled in the French Revolution. The queen, who had indulged in a lifestyle of huge affluence was told that the peasants had no bread; bread being the staple food of the French peasantry and the only food they could afford. The queen’s reply illustrates her lack of understanding of the predicament of the poverty-stricken population.
Privilege is characterised by this sheer obliviousness to the concerns and opinions of the less fortunate. Thus the February 7 coup in the Maldives is not merely the effort of an old regime to reinvent itself, but it is a deliberate and belligerent signal that the privileged regime and its supporters can do what they please regardless of what the ordinary citizen feels. It is an overwhelming show of strength: they can depose a legitimately elected president, they can beat people, including elected representatives, on the street and they can wipe the slate clean for those who have stolen from the country or committed grave crimes against the Maldivian people. It is a show of huge indifference.
There is nothing that testifies to this attitude more than the employment of Abdulla Riyaz as Police Commissioner and Hussain Waheed as his deputy. Even the least informed of the Maldivians understand that these people were the driving force behind the horrifying escalation of police brutality under Gayoom.
An oligarchy, such as the one in power in the Maldives, is unable to sustain itself on its own. Maintaining antiquated rules of behaviour and supressing the beliefs of the populace is increasingly difficult in the age of the internet and social networking. Unholy alliances have to be made and the regime under Gayoom relied on the police to stay in power.
In the minds of many Maldivians, the name Gayoom is synonymous with police brutality and torture and ill treatment of political prisoners. It is not surprising that the most committed detractors of Gayoom’s regime and its scarcely disguised puppets in the present administration are those who have been at the receiving end of the inhumane treatment. In the short period of time when Maldives was ruled by a democratically elected president, this reliance on the police to enforce compliance disappeared. It is possible, given time, it may have changed not only the way the people perceive the police, but also the way the police saw their own place in the community – perhaps as the caretakers of a more humane and compassionate society.
However, the February coup has introduced a more sinister note into this unholy alliance between those in power and those who help uphold this power through the use of fear and force. This time, the allegiance of a number of police and military has been purchased. It is not difficult to conceive of a future Maldivian police force, with shifting allegiances and well-honed negotiating powers, cutting the best deal for themselves. Less obvious, but yet more insidious, is the effect of using the police to uphold the rule of the few. T
The Maldives is a small country, and much of its social functioning is based on connectedness; the type of face to face relationships which unite and hold small communities together. Senior police officers, bribed by a handful of rich supporters of the regime, have ordered the juniors officers to beat their sisters, brothers, uncles and aunts. These are ordinary people who have little to gain by the power-play of their superiors.
Recent events in the Maldives also highlight another of the problems that privileged oligarchies have to address. No modern oligarchy has managed to completely obliterate social mobility. The ambitions of small groups of people who fight their way up the through private enterprise have to be addressed. The nouveaux riches of the Maldives have reached a stage where some of them are starting to question years of hard work which has not afforded them the privileges and influence to which they have aspired. Although oligarchies, such as the present regime, do not welcome new blood with open arms, they do manipulate it.
The coup represents an outcome of synchronicity – where the needs of the oligarchy and the aspirations of a small group of rich resort owners struck a meeting point. When in power, the Maldivian Democratic Party introduced a system of taxation that did not please some of the wealthy resort owners as well as low end tourism that would open up the industry to ordinary Maldivians. These efforts by a people’s government to improve the lot of the ordinary Maldivians were a huge threat to a small group of the rich who have enjoyed a monopoly of wealth alongside their friends in the regime.
The possibility of a law that would ensure that tourism profits in fact trickled down to the local economy by putting it through local banks, was another affront to some of the powerful resort owners. Like the members of the regime, they too have an interest in maintaining the status quo, so that both sides can continue building their own empires, be it based on power, money or influence. In aligning themselves with a cruel regime, they have tarnished their own names and become traitors to their nation.
However, oligarchic governments are also invariably threatened by a more fundamental force that is not so easily manipulated. This is the inevitable state of conflict which ensues between the power of the few and the needs of the many. Eventually, the down -trodden simply refuse to be part of the narrative and mythology perpetuated by the privileged few.
Some of the greatest upheavals of human history are testimony to this simmering sense of resentment. The French Revolution, The Russian Revolution, and the Chinese Revolution are all well documented examples of how the masses revolt against such inequalities. Inevitably the people find their voice in the figure of an individual who is prepared to be the punching bag of the powerful bureaucracies. A brown man with spindly legs wearing a dhoti makes an appearance. A black man insists that he wants his children to be judged by the strength of their character and not by the colour of their skin. An old woman refuses to sit at the back of bus and decides to break the law. An Anni appears…
Justice is a powerful threat to privileged oligarchies. Some two thousand years ago, Aristotle argued that the ordering of a society is centred on justice. No oligarchy has yet managed to convince the under-privileged majority of a nation that what is justice for the minority is also justice for the masses. And justice matters. The fundamental search of the human spirit is not, as advertisers would have us believe, to holiday on ‘the sunny side of life’. Nor is it money. It is a search for the confirmation that each individual life has meaning and each individual has a right to live in dignity. This is the point of civilised society. This is why, justice is central to the smooth functioning of any society. This is why one of the most enduring symbols of the anger against the coup of February 7 is a T-shirt that simply asks, “Where is my vote?”
This is why injustice penetrates deep into the human psyche. There is nothing that unites people more than a shared list of grievances. In more recent years, Martin Luther King Junior echoed these sentiments when he argued that, “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” Indeed, we need to worry when law and order have been unable to function effectively in the Maldives for over thirty years, due to the self-interest of a small minority of people.
Democracy or Oligarchy? This is no longer a political question. Nor is it an issue about two strong individuals. It has become a moral and ethical judgment that every Maldivian has to make. We must decide whether we are brave enough to choose ‘the road less travelled ’, make mistakes, take risks and grow towards maturity as a nation, or continue to be bullied by an oligarchy which, by its very definition, is focused on its own survival at the expense of the population.
The rest of the world also has to make a decision; the well- known words of Edmund Burke are hugely relevant to the situation in the Maldives: “All that is required for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing.”
It is time for good men and women, both nationally and internationally, to stand by the Maldivian Democratic Party and help write the script for a new and more enlightened age of Maldivian history.
The time for action is now.
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