A Crisis for Democracy in the Maldives

Protests in the Maldives. Picture by Dying Regime

President Yameen of the Maldives has imprisoned all his opponents. Democracy is under threat. It is in India’s interest to intervene. But we must take a measured approach, and not rush in with all guns blazing.

On February 5, President Yameen decided to defy the Supreme Court order to release all the political prisoners and re-instate the 12 disqualified Members of Parliament (MPs). This is entirely in keeping with his rise to power, continuation in office and his style of functioning. Yameen was elected in 2013 by repeated acts of fraud committed by the Election Commission. Later he imprisoned all his political opponents on trumped-up charges and through unfair trials by an obliging police and judiciary. This was because appointees in high office in all the State institutions were former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s (half brother of Yameen) men. Between the two of them they maintained a vice-like grip over the State and the island for almost 3 years. Then, the two fell apart and now relations are so bad that Yameen recently ordered the arrest of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the grand old patriarch who has become the head of the united opposition.

It is important to recall the landmark events of President Yameen’s rule. He first used the Judiciary to fix Mohammed Nasheed on an utterly untenable charge of ‘terrorism’ and had him sentenced to 13 years in prison in March 2015. In the same month, the full power of the Executive was used to silence another opposition leader. The tourism ministry issued an order imposing a fine of $90 million on politician Qasim Ibrahim for not utilizing the islands allotted to him and causing loss of revenue. Qasim Ibrahim had to cough up a huge sum to both the President and the Vice President to get out of this patently bogus claim. Meanwhile, Defence Minister Col. Mohammed Nazim, who had played a key role in ousting President Mohammed Nasheed in February 2012, was accused of conspiring to overthrow the government and put behind bars, exactly three years later in February 2015.

Soon President Yameen got rid of his most trusted confidante, Vice President Adheeb (widely regarded as his money-bag) and put him behind bars in October 2015 on charge of attempting to assassinate the President when a low-intensity bomb exploded on the boat he was travelling in. Though President Yameen escaped unhurt, his wife sustained minor injuries. No one knows who planted the bomb and why it was so badly planned.

It is indeed a strange list of political prisoners with Col. Nazim and Adheeb, the two oppressors of Nasheed and Qasim respectively, soon joining their ranks as the oppressed. This was Yameen’s don-like style of functioning. He used his aides for the dirty work and on completion of the task they too were imprisoned.

Qasim Ibrahim’s troubles were far from over. When 12 MPs of the ruling party defected to the Opposition in July 2017 and the Opposition moved a no-confidence vote against the Speaker, Qasim Ibrahim and Faris Maumoon (former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s son) were both charged with bribing the MPs and arrested. Qasim Ibrahim, who is well over 60 years, fainted in the courtroom as the trial was proceeding and had to be rushed to a hospital. He is presently in Germany undergoing medical treatment.

On 6th February 2018, Yameen ordered the arrest of the Chief Justice and the Deputy Chief Justic of the Supreme Court for daring to order the release of the political prisoners. He also sacked two police commissioners and the Director of Prisons who declared their intent to carry out the Court’s order.

Seen in the context of this repeated harassment of his political rivals or of state officials that challenge him, President Yameen has exhibited a maniacal paranoia for holding on to office. Power is essential for him to protect and secure his ill-gotten billions that have come from irregular and arbitrary allotment of islands and major contracts such as the construction of Male’ airport or of defence infrastructure on far away islands. He has favoured, not only private individuals and known international firms but also Saudi royals and Chinese businessmen and their government. His cronies, such as Gen. Shiyam, the current head of Maldives National Defence Forces (MNDF) have got sub-contracts from the Chinese government.

Any attempt to correct the un-constitutional acts of the Speaker or unfair trials and judicial verdicts of the past are seen as conspiracy to overthrow him. He, who thrived on undermining all the institutions of State, now feels threatened by the slightest show of independence. His fears are not entirely unfounded. With the re-instatement of 12 MPs, debarred by the Speaker, the Opposition has an unquestionable majority. If and when the Parliament is called to session, the first order of the day would be an impeachment motion against Yameen. Hence he has suspended the Parliament and arrested the Supreme Court Judges by declaring  an ‘Emergency for 15 days’.

Now what can India do, when Yameen has crippled the legislature, the judiciary and curtailed all civil liberties? In the past, we have witnessed much hand wringing in our Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) with senior officials commonly arguing that ‘it is, after all, a sovereign country and all this is an internal matter and if we push Yameen too hard, he would tighten his embrace of China.’ The simple answer to this line of thinking is that, he has gone over to China even without our pushing him. That’s hardly an excuse to stand silently and witness the murder of democracy in our neighborhood.

Our inaction would be rather inexcusable in the face of repeated cries for assistance from the democratic forces and a large majority of population that’s now united against President Yameen.

Former President Mohammed Nasheed has asked India to send a Special Envoy along with a military force. There are two distinct demands here. Firstly, a Special Envoy goes to convey to President Yameen the thinking in Delhi. This would be an effort at clarifying what is acceptable to Delhi and what is not. The Envoy would insist on the President abiding by the Constitution that he has sworn to protect and defend, abide by rule of law and respect the verdict of the Supreme Court, release political prisoners and conduct a fair-trial. It would also involve the release of Supreme Court judges and to, possibly, hold a session of the Parliament at the earliest. This would seem perfectly reasonable and unexceptional. The only hitch is that this is coming from a neighboring country, which is clearly not a favorite of  President Yameen. Now what if President Yameen refuses to meet the Special Envoy and keeps him waiting in the Indian High Commission for three days.  Knowing Yameen’s style, this is highly possible.

So the Envoy needs some clout to ensure that he is met and heard. Can that be ensured by a contingent of armed soldiers? Now what would be the mandate for these soldiers? When they land in Hulule airport (which is a separate island from the capital) will they be allowed to take the boats to Male or will they be met by hundreds of armed Maldivian Defence forces, either at the airport or on the waterfront near the VIP Jetty? What if there is resistance, what if someone fires a shot, could it lead to an open, uncontrolled shoot-out? Who will stop the firing? Will the Indian forces retreat and come back without achieving the ‘mission objectives’ or will India rush reinforcements and order a complete take-over of the State? For such a force, the ‘mission objectives’ have to be clearly outlined. Is the ‘mission objective’ merely restricted to obtaining the release of former President Gayoom alone or of all the political prisoners and Judges as well? Does it involve ending the dictatorship of President Yameen?

Former President Nasheed recalls the events of 1988 when Indian troops went to save the government of President Gayoom from an attempted coup by a Sri Lankan Tamil group called the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). He says that Indian troops came, completed their mission and left and that’s why Indians are gratefully remembered and they should do the same again. But there are some serious differences in the two contexts. Firstly, the call for help had come from a legitimate government that had the full backing of its people. Secondly, the security threat had come from abroad, from a ragtag bunch of handful of terrorists. And finally, we had clear ‘mission objectives’ of neutralizing the terrorist group. The present situation is far too different from that.

As of now, imposing sanctions on the President and his Cabinet and blacklisting them from travelling to India would be a good first step to start with. We could then join hands with the Sri Lankan and Singaporean governments to take a collective action to cut off money supply to the government and severely restrict trade with the island nation. The US and Britain are likely to support India in this venture. That would surely cripple the government of Yameen in a matter of weeks.

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About the author

Ravi Joshi

Ravi Joshi served in the Cabinet Secretariat and was posted on a diplomatic assignment in the Maldives from 1993 to 1996. He is presently a Visiting Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.