The Maldivian government’s use of excessive force in mid-August to quell demonstrations by opposition activists demanding democratic reforms indicates that its commitment to establishing multi-party democracy in the country remains weak. There is a danger that its foot dragging on democratic reform and the suppression of its secular-moderate opponents could clear the way for assertion of hard-line Islamists in the country.
The Anti-Government Protests
Anti-government demonstrations calling for Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s resignation and fresh elections turned violent when police used tear gas, electric batons and water cannons to disperse the protestors. Dozens of members of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (M.D.P.) were taken into custody.
What has further fueled anger against the government is that the arrest of M.D.P. activists preceded the riots. M.D.P. chairman Mohamed Nasheed, a vocal critic of Gayoom, was arrested even before the protests turned violent. According to Maldivian media sources, on August 12 “Nasheed and three other M.D.P. members were seated all by themselves in the Republican Square when the riot squad came and dragged them away. There were no other M.D.P. protesters participating in the event.”
The current crackdown has dashed hopes raised in June 2005 when the government took some tentative steps toward the setting up of a multi-party democracy. The government promised to have in place before the end of 2005 a full-fledged democratic system. It lifted the ban on political parties.
Background of Current Unrest
Better known for its emerald green waters and white sandy beaches, the Maldives — an archipelago of 1,192 tiny coral islands scattered around 850 kilometers (528 miles) across the equator to the southwest of India — has appeared in international news more in relation to climate and environmental issues rather than political ones. This seemingly serene archipelago now appears to be slipping toward political turmoil. Violent confrontation between authorities and the public is growing in frequency.
Unprecedented anti-government riots rocked the Maldives capital, Male, in September 2003. The violent protests were a spontaneous response to a prison riot in which at least three inmates were shot dead by jail authorities. It emerged that the prison riot was triggered by the death of an inmate following torture by the police.
In August 2004, pro-democracy demonstrations shook Male once again. The government responded with an iron hand. Almost a hundred people were jailed and a state of emergency was declared in the country.
Torture and government repression is not new to the Maldives. Scores of opponents of the government are said to be languishing in jails. The Maldives’ police force, the National Security Service (N.S.S.), is known to intimidate opponents of the regime. As Amnesty International observed following the violent events of 2003, “The killing of at least three prisoners by the N.S.S. and the injury of a dozen more in Maafushi Prison is only the latest chapter in a catalogue of human rights violations in the country by N.S.S. personnel who function under the president’s command.”
What is new to the Maldives, however, is the public and violent articulation of anti-government anger. The violent protests witnessed on the streets of Male in 2003 and 2004 were unprecedented.