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Is the Maldives an example of Asian democracy in the current world challenges?

March 6, 2023 at 8:35 pm

The national flag in front of the police headquarters in Male, the capital of the Maldives [Gerhard Joren/LightRocket via Getty Images]

The Maldives, the friendly holiday destination that everyone loves. Maldivians, in general, have been people who are very friendly towards those they meet from around the world. As a Maldivian, I can say, generally, our character is based on being polite and ready to help others. Our people are smart, and our youth get some of the highest scores in international exams. The last President of the United Nations General Assembly (UNPGA) was a Maldivian. For those involved in global politics, we know this is not just because of our kind character alone. What many readers might not know is that the evolving military-led foreign policy of world powers has found our tiny nation to be in a strategic maritime location of great importance. Our ocean space is over 1 million square kilometres and in a time of expanding military conflict, anyone who controls this area can block over half of the world’s maritime trade which passes through the Indian Ocean. To this reference, the Maldives even played a historic role in supporting the Ottoman Empire that sought to challenge Portuguese control over the Indian Ocean. Historically, the Ottomans saw that anyone who controlled the Indian Ocean could pose a threat to this important trade route.

Fast forward to early 2003, I was a young pro-democracy activist in exile in the UK. During my undergraduate studies, I worked closely with British and EU politicians to apply pressure on the 30-year-old dictator of the Maldives to allow for freedom of speech, a free press and to initiate the journey towards democracy where every citizen would have a voice. To understand the atmosphere at the time, one could imagine themselves as an Egyptian during Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year oppressive rule. Speaking out against the government or expressing political views could put not only the individual but also their family in danger. I had first-hand experience of this, as my father and his colleagues were sentenced to life in prison for operating the first pro-democracy digital news outlet in the Maldives called “Sandhaanu”, which advocated for the people’s right to question their government and transparency.

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In November 2003, my relative, Mohamed Nasheed, a well-known local political activist informed me of his plans to establish the first opposition party in the Maldives, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). At the time, he was in exile in Sri Lanka but, as soon as everything was official, he joined me in Britain. Over the next four years, we worked together to build the party’s network, educate new members on democratic values and plan and strategise our political efforts. It is worth noting that our success would not have been possible without the support of several well-intentioned politicians from Western countries. Despite what some might assume, these politicians did not ask for anything in return for their support, and it was evident that they genuinely believed in promoting democracy without imposing their culture on us.

In 2008, the Maldives held its first multi-party democratic election and Mohamed Nasheed, from our party, was the opposition candidate. It is important to note that our aim was not to seek revenge for the hardships and injustices suffered by us, our families or others, but to peacefully overthrow the 30-year-old dictator through democratic means. At the end of the election results, we emerged victorious, and it was one of the proudest moments of my life and for many MDP members and voters who supported us to make that day a reality.

After the election, my colleague, Mohamed Nasheed, was now the newly elected President of Maldives. Therefore, he had to appoint individuals to fill key positions in his cabinet. Despite being offered a role, I respectfully declined the offer. As a seasoned pro-democracy activist and one of the founders of Maldivian multi-party democracy, I was content in knowing that someone I trusted and respected was at the helm of the government. My decision to abstain from taking a government position allowed me to remain impartial and avoid getting embroiled in the internal politics of a country where democracy was still in its nascent stage.

With the advent of democracy, political opinions and debates erupted in every household, as people felt they could perform the President’s job better than the President himself. However, it is important for pro-democracy activists to understand that this is a natural aspect of change. When the new government took power in 2008, it was clean, transparent and thoroughly democratic. However, as history has shown, greed often overtakes us humans when power is at our disposal, and this was the case in the Maldives, as well. Some within the President’s inner circle started to look out for their own interests by using their new gained trust with him.

As the former youngest head of relations to UK & Europe for the Maldivian Democratic Party, I observed the changes taking place in the government after our successful election in 2008. Despite coming into power as a clean and transparent government, I noticed individuals with questionable history from the previous regime being welcomed into the new administration. President Nasheed, with his open-hearted approach, sought to find common ground and forgive those who had previously opposed our pro-democracy movement. However, this new-found unity was not based on democratic values. An influential few of those who got very close to the President used their new political positions to further their personal business interests. The allegations of corruption and anti-Islam policies had weakened Nasheed’s political tenure. Followed by receiving poor advice on how to react to the delicate situation from his inner circle, he was forced to resign as things spiralled out of control.

The political situation in the Maldives has been tumultuous from 2008 to 2022, with power shifting back and forth among various players within the Maldivian Democratic Party. Recently, the former President Nasheed has come to realise that even his closest childhood friend and current President, Ibrahim Solih, is out to get him. Solih government’s arrested Nasheed’s brother in an attempt to silence him from being critical of his presidency, but Nasheed has stood firm. He ran for the party primary elections, only to find that many of his supporters were expelled from the party by the Maldives Elections Commission. This ensured a win for President Solih as the party’s primary candidate for the upcoming Presidential Election. This is a significant development, as the Maldivian Democratic Party, led by Nasheed, has gained recognition around the world. Yet, unfortunately, it has now been hijacked by those closest to Nasheed, who had no involvement in the hard work that brought democratic change to the country.

During my recent visit to the Maldives, I was able to witness the new alarming situation, first-hand, that had been reported to me by grassroots activists across the country. While the country is facing its own political crisis, the foreign far-right leader of India’s BJP party-led government took advantage of the situation by inviting various members of the current Maldivian government on frequent visits. These visits resulted in the promise of millions of dollars and, to my shock, the establishment of an Indian military base in the Maldives. Citizens from all over the Maldives expressed their concern regarding the government’s decision to allow Indian military flights to land on Maldivian islands without informing the public of their activities. As a response to growing nationwide anti-India protests against the Indian military presence, the government of Ibrahim Solih declared that any opposition to India would harm the country’s “India first” policy. As a result, the government announced a nationwide ban against anti-India protests and, so far, many peaceful protestors were arrested and subjected to violence and arrests. This goes against the basic rights of freedom of expression and peaceful protests.

One would expect that the judicial system in the Maldives would have improved after the change in government in 2008, but this is not entirely the case. On paper, the judiciary and the executive are separate entities, but due to the ruling party’s significant victory in the parliamentary elections, they hold immense influence over the majority of appointments to the Judiciary Service Commission. This Commission is responsible for determining which judge presides over which court case, and it can be utilised to one’s advantage to bring charges against a political opponent just prior to an election.

With the current President, Ibrahim Solih, holding such significant power and with the backing of the region’s most formidable far-right leader, Narendra Modi, he has been able to carry out his plans. With an extremist figure like Modi supporting a Maldives government that has complete control over the country’s police, military and judiciary, the opposition leader and former President, Yameen, became the next obstacle to be silenced.President Yameen, being a nationalist, has been leading the call against any military presence in the Maldives, accusing his opponents of doing exactly the same thing which they accused him of, but with China. It is important to note that, after the current government came to power, they have yet to show the public any factual evidence that can be upheld in an international judicial standard of pretty much anything they had accused him of.

However, since there was a wave of negative international news reports released by international media against former President Yameen during his time in office, it is important for international readers to understand the reality of the situation of what we know now. While it is true that there were instances of corruption during Yameen’s presidency, it is worth noting that these were primarily carried out by his then-Vice President, Ahmed Adeeb, as the mastermind.

Adeeb misused the country’s tourism funds to bribe politicians both within the government and the opposition. When President Yameen discovered these actions, he attempted to bring Adeeb to justice, only for Adeeb to attempt to assassinate Yameen. The attempt failed, and Adeeb was subsequently arrested, along with the head of the Maldives government tourism company.

Despite all the evidence pointing to the former Vice President, Adeeb, it might be confusing for readers to understand why the truth was not widely reported in the international media. The reason for this is simple. After 2008, the European Union, United Nations and the United Kingdom, as well as major international news media outlets, have relied on sources from the Maldivian Democratic Party or their party activists who went on to work for media outlets like Al Jazeera English or NGOs like Transparency International. Many have good relations with western governments because, let us face it, it was our party that brought democracy to the Maldives, so we cannot really be against democracy right? – pun intended.

These former partisan sources have been the primary providers of news from the Maldives and it is evident that they have a strong bias against President Yameen. This also might be because the majority of these sources are individuals who are not part of the pro-democracy movement, but rather became who they are through the party, which has since been taken over and is far from what I would describe as democratic.

It is not entirely fair to place the blame solely on the current President Solih and his party for the current state of affairs in the Maldives, especially when they have the support of smaller parties that leverage religion to garner support from certain segments of the religious community. The coalition parties seem to be more focused on staying silent and enjoying the benefits of their positions in government, rather than speaking out against oppressive policies. This lack of transparency at the highest levels of governance weakens the country’s position on the global stage, and makes it difficult for them to advocate for the rights of their citizens in regard to foreign relations.

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Personally, I find it unacceptable for any government to prioritise the interest of any one foreign power over another. We are not a country that needs to side with any global power. Especially not one led by a far-right religious government that is known for human rights violations against minorities. The current coalition government in Maldives has not once condemned the lynching of minority Muslims in India, even though it is documented and reported by all major human rights organisations, and there are thousands of videos that cannot be ignored. Under Solih’s government, the Maldives has also moved away from supporting the sovereignty of the Muslim majority Kashmir region, instead now supporting the Indian military by claiming it as a disputed region.

This is certainly not what I dreamt for the Maldives. I had hoped for a country which is democratic and economically strong, where we would become the beacon of pro-democracy in South East Asia. I know many Maldivians like me believe this is possible.

To understand all parts of Maldives, we must also look at the religious political aspect of the country. There are some religious figures in the Maldives who claim that democracy is a threat to Islam. To them, what I say is that before we brought democracy to the Maldives, no scholar was allowed to preach Islam freely. So, their ability to teach Islam freely to the public without fear is completely thanks to our pro-democracy movement. Democracy is not a threat to any religion or culture; it is the weakness of our leaders to be honest and frank with their foreign counterparts that is the cause of this. If we are strong in our character and the nation’s position, just as the other side is, both sides can always find a solution to respect each other’s differences and culture, while working to improve our relations on business, investment, trade and other common areas. Instead of condemning democracy, use your vote to support leaders for the policies you agree with. No leader will have every policy you agree with, and a leader is not supposed to please every policy of every voter. If you want to be active in politics, be vocal by supporting or being critical of specific policies of your leaders so they know which policies you disapprove of or support.

I hope the above not just gives a better understanding to the international community on the history of democracy in the Maldives, especially in today’s polarised world of military build-up. But it also helps pro-democracy movements understand what to look out for and understand how to avoid mistakes from our own experience. Remember if good people are inactive, the opposite are always ready to take their place. I hope to re-enter Maldives politics with the aim of reviving the pro-democracy movement together with our partners around the world. My goal is to ensure the next government in power upholds transparency, good governance, human rights and has a foreign policy based on fostering positive relationships with other nations that share these same values. I look forward to the day when the Maldives become the shining example to all South East Asian nations.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.