From Public Protest to Power Politics: The the crisis in Maldives
Anushree Ghisad

The ongoing political crisis in Maldives has not only raised serious doubts about the country’s democratic credentials but also resulted in international spotlight shifting its focus on Maldives’ human rights record and its capacity to deal with political dissent in a democratic manner, although the path to democratic changeover in the country itself was full of turbulence when Mohamed Nasheed was elected as the first President in a multi-party democratic election. The recent turmoil has been triggered after former President Mohamed Nasheed was arrested by the present regime of President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom on February 22, earlier this year.

His subsequent trial resulting in 13 years jail term on charges of terrorism has seen a series of agitations, protests and night marches in the capital Male. The latest round was on the May Day which led to violent confrontations and arrest of principal political opponents. The government of President Abdulla Yameen has been receiving flak for its rising intolerance to dissent. Even though the government has lately shown willingness to enter into political dialogue with the opposition parties to find a viable solution to the ongoing crisis, it seems to have some reservations on the scope, content and composition of the proposed dialogue process. This article tries to unravel and find a link between the events, political calculations, apprehensions and international reactions which have shaped the present day Maldivian state of politics.

Tracing the Roots of Unrest

The genesis of the recent events dates back to December 2011 when Maldivian National Defence Forces, under orders of the then President Abdullah Mohamed. Nasheed, arrested Chief Justice of the Criminal Court on charges of corruption. Nasheed was irked by the fact that the judge had set free an opposition politician who was arrested by police loyal to Nasheed. Thereafter Nasheed was forced to resign in February 2012, handing over charge to Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik. Following his resignation, Nasheed assumed a new role of a political activist demanding immediate elections and continued with political confrontation. The developments forced realignment of political forces and eventually the final round of delayed presidential elections that saw present president Abdulla Yameen emerging victorious in November 2013. But this did not lead to peace on the political front.

The government revived the 2012 case of arrest of a judge of the criminal court to foist charges under anti-terror law against Nasheed in February 2015, his arrest and conviction with 13 years imprisonment, all in quick succession. Nasheed, of course, denied the charges and it still remains a matter of speculation if he had actually ordered the arrest or not.

This verdict has come as a serious blow to Nasheed’s political ambitions and aspirations, through a ‘judicial coup’. His political party, Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has mounted an agitational programme against President Abdulla Yameen to force him to release Nasheed. Together with Jumhooree Party, the MDP kick started ‘save the constitution’ movement. Soon Adhaaath Party, the proponent of democratic Islam, also joined this movement, citing blatant disregard to rule of law and abuse of democracy by the Abdulla Yameen regime.

Why Nasheed’s Arrest Now?

The question which arises is why was Nasheed arrested immediately after the court had dropped the 2012 case against him? Why was the case restarted under a serious anti-terror law? He might have abused or misused the power or gone beyond his constitutional jurisdiction or even crossed the limits of propriety but possibly, under no definition of jurisprudence the executive order of arrest of the judge in 2012 could be defined as ‘an act of terrorism’!

The rather hasty arrest of Nasheed by the government and quick conviction for 13 years of imprisonment could have been driven by two considerations, primarily political in nature. The first factor could be an attempt at consolidation of his own power by President Abdulla Yameen, driven by his palpable intolerance to any opposition. A series of high profile ousters of Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim, Auditor General Niyaz Ibrahim and dismissal of Chief Justice, Ahmed Faiz Hussain along with another Supreme Court judge has raised fears about the country slipping once again into an authoritarian mode of governance, undoing the gains of hard earned democracy in Maldives.

Nasheed, projecting himself as a champion of democracy and human rights, was very vocal in expressing these fears and his activism on this score has attracted international attention. Perhaps realizing this, Abdulla Yameen slapped the case against his key opponent. The second factor was the removal of Gasim Ibrahim’s Jumhooree Party (JP) from the ruling coalition at the end of May 2014. It may be recalled that Gasim switching support from Nasheed to Abdulla Yameen was crucial for the latter’s election as the new President. Once he went back to the opposition fold, the possibility of Gasim and Nasheed joining hands to form a stronger coalition against the government must have unnerved Abdulla Yameen. The only plausible way of preventing such an eventuality was to effectively deal with either one or both of them. Abdulla Yameen resorted to the latter option by first sending Nasheed to jail for 13 long years and then taking on Gasim Ibrahim by cracking down on his business/economic interests.

Gasim Ibrahim Factor

So who is Gasim Ibrahim, what is his political nuisance value and in what way can he be a threat to Abdulla Yameen?

Briefly, he is the owner of ‘Villa Group’ and arguably the wealthiest businessman of Maldives. He joined politics and became Member of Parliament in 1989. He unsuccessfully contested presidential election as his party’s candidate in 2013. His political clout can be assessed from the fact that he polled 24 per cent votes in the first round as against Abdulla Yameen’s 25 per cent and Nasheed’s 45.5%. These elections were cancelled by Supreme Court but the first round of re-run elections in November 2013 produced similar results, which further confirmed his substantial electoral base. It is believed that at former President Moumoon Abdul Gayoom’s persuasion, Gasim switched sides and supported Abdulla Yameen. Finally Abdulla Yameen managed to win the election with a thin majority at 51 per cent vote over Nasheed’s nearly 49 per cent vote share.

The Gasim- Abdulla Yameen alliance, however, did not last long. Grasim’s JP was driven out of the ruling coalition and has gone back to MDP after Nasheed’s arrest. The alliance is working hard to expose the trend of rising authoritarianism in Maldives under Abdulla Yameen’s presidency. Worried at this development the government machinery has started targeting Gasim’s business empire by asking ‘Villa Group’ to return the islands leased out to his company to develop tourist resorts and also slapped a demand of US $ 90.4 million. Gasim, fearing arrest and victimization, has fled the country. The Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant against him on the charge of financing anti-government mass protest on May Day.

Impact on Economy

Amidst the prolonged period of political unrest, the Maldivian economy has understandably taken a hit. Even though inflation is down from 12.3per cent in 2008 to 2.1 per cent last year; unemployment rate remains high at 26 per cent in 2013; foreign remittances have crashed drastically from US $ 62.65 million in 2008 to $29.97 million in 2011, picking up to 33.0 million in 2013; FDI that stood at nearly US $ 180 million in 2008 and climbed up to a record high of nearly 440 million in 2011, has declined to around 340 million in 2013. According to World Bank figures the GDP growth has been the hardest hit, declining from 12.2 per cent in 2008 to 1.3 per cent in 2012 and 3.7 per centin 2013. Tourist inflow that forms the backbone of the economy is however reportedly stable. Analysts believe that Chinese nationals have been major contributors to the economic activities in the recent years.

International Reaction

The continuing political turmoil has drawn adverse reactions of the international community particularly on the issue of "alarming deterioration" in the human rights situation in the country. Amnesty International has urged the international community, including India, to engage more with the island nation to protect the human rights of its citizens. The European Union is trying to push for a travel advisory on Maldives. The US too has taken a strong stand on the current political situation in Maldives as evident from American Senators’ letter to Defence Secretary and Secretary of State stating, “The political space in Maldives is quickly closing as democratically-oriented opposition political parties, civil society groups and journalists have come under increased pressure. Opposition political activists, including former President Nasheed, have been subjected to criminal proceedings with no due process." During his visit to Sri Lanka last month, Secretary of State John Kerry had also raised these issues and said there were "troubling signs that democracy is under threat in Maldives.” He further hinted that this “injustice must be addressed soon."

As far as India is concerned, it has so far preferred to play a low key role of quiet diplomacy to help find an amicable political resolution to the crisis. It had, in way, intervened in resolving the stand off between Nasheed and the then government of Mohamed Waheed Hassan in 2012 when the former had taken refuge in the mission premises for nearly two weeks fearing threat to his life. It had also sent the Foreign Secretary to Male for discussions with the regime. However, this time around, in a more significant way, Prime Minister Modi sent a strong diplomatic signal to President Abdulla Yameen by cancelling at the last minute, his visit (March 2015) to Maldives which was a part of his four nation tour that also included Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka too, under President Sirisena has been closely monitoring the situation. Soon after President Sirisena assumed office, a joint delegation of JP and MDP visited Colombo in February 2015. JP leader Qasim Ibrahim accompanied by former Maldivian Police Commissioner Ali Riaz met Sirisena and also interacted with the diplomatic community in Colombo to brief them on the current crisis in Maldives. However, according to media reports, the MDP delegates were not present during the meeting with Sirisena.

Obviously concerned at its declining international image, the Maldivian leadership is trying hard to garner as much international support as it can. Their efforts have so far yielded very limited success, not surprisingly from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China. Understandably, Nasheed and his supporters are disappointed that India has not played a more active role in resolving the crisis in Maldives, but it is assessed by New Delhi that this policy may be a better option in the overall interest of the country.

The Future Looks Gloomy

It is becoming increasingly clear that President Abdulla Yameen will continue with his relentless campaign to neutralize the opposition forces from within and without. As a matter of fact, Abdulla Yameen’s hold on the power structure is pretty intact and any organized movement in favour of Nasheed will attract a more obstinate reaction. Nasheed’s arrest, prosecution and long term of imprisonment and squeezing Gasim’s business empire has hit them and their parties hard. It may be mentioned that Gasim’s ‘Villa Group’ employs more than 5000 people who have started agitating by resorting to mass protests. MDP, JP and AP are garnering public opinion by fueling these protests and rallies. What one is witnessing in Maldives is a very volatile state of acrimonious politics and government’s reaction is bound to be more and more severe in the days ahead. As Ambassador Kanwal Sibal, former Foreign Secretary said in a recent TV interaction in New Delhi, “these are the classic steps which are road to the political turmoil within the country”. International community and organizations which sympathize with the opposition led by Mohamed Nasheed on grounds of democracy, human rights and environmental cause, cannot afford to remain mute spectators for long. Trapped between a rock and a hard place, the real challenge for the common Maldivians is to preserve their peaceful and pluralistic way of life and preserve their hard won democratic polity. Needless to add, India has high stakes in restoring peace and stability, strengthening the newly established democratic system and in the economic development of Maldives. It therefore has a special responsibility towards that country that seems to be on a path full of uncertainty.

Published Date: 19th June 2015, Image Source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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