Senator calls for US to back early elections in the Maldives “as soon as possible”

A US Senator serving as Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee’s Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs Subcommittee has called for fresh elections in the Maldives at the earliest date possible, to ensure democracy is not at risk of being “derailed” in the tiny island nation.

The Press Trust of India (PTI) quoted Senator Robert Casey as requesting the US “continue calls for elections to be held in the Maldives as soon as possible to ensure that the seeds of the democratic process planted in 2008 are able to flourish.”

The comments were reportedly made yesterday during the confirmation hearing in Washington DC of the US Ambassador Designate to Colombo Michele Sison.

President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan, has previously claimed that the earliest date elections can be held on the country will be July 2013, as detailed in the country’s constitution.  The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) has continued to request that early elections be held before the end of the present year.

The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which contends that President Waheed’s government is illegitimate after he came to power on February 7 in a “coup d’etat”, has said early elections could be held within two months without need for constitutional amendment should the president and vice president resign, under provisions for an interim government run by the Speaker of Parliament Abdulla Shahid.

However Waheed and the former opposition parties now in the ruling coalition and occupying senior cabinet positions, initially insisted that “conditions are not right” for early elections, and later contended that the earliest elections could be held under the constitution was July 2013.

Tweeting on June 2, Waheed posted a picture of himself with a group of children and wrote: “These young people advised me not to hold an early election.”

Amid talk of fresh elections, the US government in April pledged US$500,000 (Rf7.7 million) in technical assistance to ensure a free and fair presidential election, assistance it said would “be made available from July 2012”.

“Important” ally

Speaking during yesterday’s confirmation hearing for Ambassador Designate Michele Sison, Senator Casey claimed the Maldives remained an “important” ally to US interests.

Casey therefore raised concerns that the country’s “democratic beginning” was in danger of being “derailed” due to the political unrest leading up to and following the controversial transfer of power in February, according to media reports.

Sison responded that the country continues to push the Maldives to work within “existing democratic institutions” to ensure a resolution to its current political deadlock.

“The US government now has a window of opportunity to step up its engagement in Maldives, and USAID recently committed funding to assist Maldives in ensuring that the next round of presidential elections is free and fair,” Sison was reported to have told senators during the hearing.

The US Embassy in Colombo said it did not have a copy of the transcript of Sison’s confirmation hearing and was unable to clarify the comments attributed to Senator Casey, and would not comment on the political significance of the senator’s comments.

However, the embassy confirmed that like every US ambassador appointed to a foreign position, Sison was required to go before the senate to answer questions about her role.

During yesterday’s hearing, the embassy spokesperson said Sison would have been asked questions on Sri Lanka and the Maldives by senators to ensure she was qualified for the position, ahead of a vote to appoint her.

Responding to the reported comments in the US Senate about early elections, President’s Office spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza referred to the recent comments by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon commending agreements between President Waheed and the opposition MDP in seeking a political resolution in the country.

In his statement, Ki-moon urged all political parties “to resume immediately their political dialogue, both within and outside of Parliament, in order to find a mutually agreeable way forward on the basis of the Constitution and without jeopardising the democratic gains achieved thus far in the Maldives.”

Riza told Minivan News today that the government supported the UN’s comments that any solution to the current political upheavals must be made through local stakeholders and also not contravene the constitution.

He claimed that the government was already committed to a process of resolving political differences through a roadmap plan outlined by the president that includes All-Party Talks designed to set a six point agenda concluding with setting a date for early elections.

The last round of All-Party Talks, held at Vice President Waheed Deen’s Bandos Island Resort and Spa last weekend and monitored by UN mediator Pierre Yves Monett, collapsed after parties in the ruling coalition presented the MDP with a list of 30 demands that included “stop practicing black magic and sorcery”, “stop the use of sexual and erotic tools”, and “not walk in groups of more than 10”.

Anti-terrorism Assistance Training

Aside from assigning funds for early elections, present US Ambassador Patricia A. Butenis this week signed a Memorandum of Intent with Maldives Police Service Commissioner Abdulla Riyaz to provide Antiterrorism Assistance (ATA) training in the country.

The training programmes, which will take place between June 10 – June 21 and July 1 – July 12, will focus respectively on “Police Leaders’ Role in Combating Terrorism” and “Preventing Attacks on Soft Targets”, according to the US Embassy, as well as making police aware of their human rights obligations.


US funds digital preservation of traditional Maldivian love ballad

The United States Embassy in Sri Lanka has awarded Maldives’ Hulhevi Media US$25,000 towards their project, “Research, Documentation and Preservation of the Buruni Ballad.” Over the next five months, the team will produce the first digital recording, transcription and documentary video of the traditional love epic, “Buruni Kamana Raivaru.”

The 6-hour oral history has never been transcribed. It has generally been considered the Maldives’ version of “Romeo and Juliet.”

The tragic love story of Dhon Hiyala and Alifulhu is set against a background of magic, jealousy and revenge. After rejecting the king’s advances, the heroine Dhon Hiyala and her lower-class lover Alifulhu are forced to commit suicide by jumping onto a giant, poisonous jelly fish.

Experts view the epic as more than a literary treasure; it is also a guide to cultural history. Told in great detail, the epic describes ancient Maldivian customs such as feasting, marriage, fishing, and arts.

The US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation has supported over 640 cultural heritage preservation projects in over 100 countries for the past 11 years, donating approximately US$26 million to these endeavors.

“Heritage is a reminder of the historical experiences and achievements of humanity,” said US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives Patricia  Butenis at today’s ceremony. “The more we know about each others’ traditions, the more common ground we share.”

The ambassador noted that this is the first time the fund has supported intangible heritage. “This project in the Maldives is about culture in its most basic form – the spoken word,” said Butenis.

This year, the Fund for Cultural Preservation awarded funding to three projects, two in Sri Lanka to preserve historic sites and one in the Maldives. Director of the American Center in Colombo Christopher Teal called the Buruni Ballad project an original and exciting first for the fund.

“We believe this is important, and we strive to provide funding to support the desire and expertise that is already there,” said Teal.

Hulhevi Media is an independent film group which produces documentaries on a wide range of issues including domestic violence, sexual abuse, and disabilities. The group has worked with NGOs including the Red Cross and the United Nations, and has been selected at several international film festivals. The team of four will travel to islands related to the oral history to record it in digital format, along with interviews.

Sharif Ali, Ibrahim Yassir, Ahmed Shafeeu, and Yumna Maumoon will be working on the project, which they described as “urgent.”

“There are only a handful of people who can tell the story today, and many of them are quite old, so time is critical here,” said Ali. “Working on a cultural preservation project, we will be going back to see what we have lost.”

The team aims to produce an audio CD and a transcription of the epic. “We do hope the book will be used extensively for literary analysis, and can be integrated into the education system,” said Shafeeu.

The epic has been used in secondary schools, but the team hopes it will be used more broadly in the education system.

The story was published as prose in 1976 by the renowned Dhivehi language scholar Abdullah Sodiq.

“I heard this same ballad (raivaru) being sung by the famous Kafa Kuda Thakkaan in a house in the Galolhu ward of Male’. As I listened my heart went through inexplicable feelings. This was no longer just a ballad, it was a fascinatingly beautiful romantic story told in a special raivaru form of rhyme and rhythm,” Sadiq said in a press statement.

Sadiq will advise the Hulhevi team on the Buruni Ballad project. “I never thought it would get this kind of help, I am very excited about this,” said Sadiq after today’s ceremony.

The Hulhuvi team said they were “elated” to receive the award after submitting their proposal a year ago. “It came out of the blue. And it’s great because it’s different from what we normally do. We are essentially a video production group, but with this project we’ll also be collaborating on linguistics and audio,” they said.

In September, the Maldives signed the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. It is already a participant in the World Heritage Convention and the Cultural Diversity Convention.

At the time, Minister of State for Tourism, Arts and Culture Ahmed Naseer said no efforts had been made in this department. “It is very easy to see things like poetry, music, language, and dance disappear if they are not practiced. We need to have a law enacted to outline these practices.”

A draft of new legislation promoting the preservation of intangible cultural heritage is currently before parliament, Naseer said previously.