A Maldivian opposition activist speaks of hope, humour, and the non-violent path back to democracy.
Bakuree and I sat in a café on the waterfront, less than thirty feet from the ocean. Insistent waves raced in from the east, depositing surfers just before the coral reef and water just before people’s front doors. This would have been a unique spot in most places – but not in Male. One of around 1200 islands, Male is the capital of the Maldives, 99 percent of whose territory is comprised of water. Nearly one-third of the nation’s 330,000 people squeeze into Male’s two square miles, making it the fourth most densely populated island on earth. The five km road ringing this unique capital is home to countless establishments such as this one, where we met to discuss what some have called a ‘unique coup’.
On 7 February 2012, the first democratically elected president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, resigned after a night of confusion in Male. The following day, Nasheed declared that his hand had been illegally forced. Confusion turned to heated confrontations on the streets of the capital, and radiated out to the other 191 inhabited islands. These events thrust Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) back into the opposition – a position from which it had spent the better part of a decade agitating for democracy before landmark multi-party elections in 2008.
I was prompted to contact Bakuree by a source close to the former president, who was in the United States the same day receiving an award for achievements gained through non-violent action. Bakuree is part of the MDP’s eleven-member organising committee, and served as the party’s public relations and organisational secretary for the Male area during its struggles for democratic reforms in the country between 2005 and 2010. Bakuree, whose real name is Imran Zahir, met me to talk about the methods of non-violence espoused by the MDP.
The café where we met lies only a short distance from where the MDP has been staging protests and rallies since the change of government. So close, in fact, that on both occasions when the police raided the MDP camps, the café has been adjacent to police cordons sealing the area from the public. The café is a well-known haunt of MDP supporters, and was reported to have been raided by rogue police officers the night before Nasheed’s resignation.
I arrived to find Bakuree with a group of friends, gathered around smoking cigarettes and chewing Acacia nuts. I began by asking whether the unusual environment in the Maldives affected the way in which the MDP conducted its activities. I mentioned a prior conversation with a member of parliament who had explained to me the unique effect that static protests such as sit-downs around the police and army headquarters in Male, as opposed to demonstration marches, can have on national security. “The uniqueness of the country doesn’t change the way we protest,” Bakuree tells me, “the ‘unique’ argument is unacceptable.”
The government has been determined to prevent protesters from gathering around the government buildings surrounding Republican Square on the northern side of the island. The most notable incident in this area occurred in March and resulted in supposedly ‘intimidated’ policemen spraying prostrate women with a high pressure water hose. Since that time, the MDP has largely avoided the area, choosing instead to march regularly around the southern half of the island.
The science of non-violence
When asked about this change in approach, Bakuree explained that “everything we do is carefully analysed in terms of cost and benefit.” The events of that March day had been designed to achieve certain goals – to obtain photographs of middle-aged, burqa-clad women being manhandled by the police, and to show the restrictions being placed on freedom of assembly. Bakuree spelled out the lessons the MDP has learned from similar movements in other nations, and which allowed the party to bring down the thirty-year autocratic rule of former-president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
“It’s like a science,” Bakuree told me. “First you identify the pillars of support for the dictator, assigning each a number on a scale, ranging from one – supportive of the government and willing to act on it – to five – supportive of the opposition movement and willing to act on it,” he explained. These ‘pillars’ are usually political parties and certain institutions, like the police and the judiciary. “Then we target the periphery of these pillars. We try to avoid the core. For example, we talk to the police and soldiers. We say, ‘We don’t want to fight you.’ We say that we understand you have to do your jobs, but we encourage them to do just that and no more.” The party has taken steps to teach and replicate such strategies throughout the Maldives. Bakuree says that the MDP has “published guidelines for protests and demonstrations, with clear demarcations.”
Such theoretical sophistication comes from the training and guidance the MDP has received from veterans and scholars of non-violent conflict. Over the years, that guidance helped thrust the MDP leadership from self-imposed exile during Gayoom’s rule to the presidency and domination of the country’s parliament, prior to the events of 7 February. The party continues to have the largest membership in the country with over 48,000 members, 21,000 more than its nearest rival, the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (Maldivian People’s Party), associated with Gayoom.
The party’s methodical approach belies the apparently impromptu nature of many protests and demonstrations. “There’s no such thing as a spontaneous revolution,” said Bakuree, citing the texts of non-violent resistance luminaries such as Gene Sharp, Jack Duvall and Peter Ackerman.
While in exile in Colombo in 2006, the MDP’s founders were approached by Duvall and Ackerman’s International Centre for Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), a Washington-based independent educational foundation which aims to disseminate non-violent strategies. “Jack Duvall came to the Maldives and gave a lecture. He also introduced us to the book A Force More Powerful,” Bakuree recalled. He cited this book – based on the 1999 film of the same name chronicling the success of six non-violent movements during the 20th century – as an inspiration.
Other such books have also been vital to the MDP’s cause. Gene Sharp’s seminal work From Dictatorship to Democracy was recently translated into Dhivehi by the journalist and blogger Ismail ‘Hilath’ Rasheed. Rasheed was himself the victim of an apparent assassination attempt in early June. His throat was slashed in what he alleges was an attack by Islamic radicals, forcing him to flee the country for his own safety.
Bakuree says the MDP is actively promoting and distributing such literature, and that he “would be happy if [such books] ended up in the hands of any government official.”
After the initial contact with the ICNC, activists such as Bakuree were taken to Sri Lanka to work with the MDP’s founding members, who had announced the formation of the party from their temporary base 750 kilometres north-east across the Lakshadweep Sea. There, Serbian activists, fresh from the democratic struggle in their own country, joined the Maldivians and the Americans, bringing their pragmatism and experience in non-violent campaigning to the Subcontinent.
Veterans of the Otpor! student movement who had demonstrated against the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic were especially effective in passing on technological expertise and theories of non-violent protest to the Maldivians. Bakuree described Nonviolent Struggle: 50 Crucial Points by Otpor! leader Srdja Popovic as the ideal handbook for grass-root activists in any country.
After success in Serbia, Popovic went on to co-found the Centre for Applied NonViolent Actions and Strategies (CANVAS), a knowledge-transfer institution which Bakuree had planned to replicate in the Maldives, before the recent change of government. Bakuree explained in detail the important role that CANVAS had played in the Egyptian uprisings during the Arab Spring, drawing similarities between those events and the democratic movement in the Maldives. “The lessons [from the Maldives] for the Arab Spring are that dictators will return – we are ahead of the Arab Spring.”
All those lessons have paid off handsomely. The MDP is particularly active on Twitter and Facebook, achieving a level of technical sophistication that their political opponents have struggled to match. The MDP’s activities are chronicled in detail on the web via these social networks, often moments after they take place. The government’s recent attempt to use Twitter to promote the tourism industry backfired spectacularly as activists hijacked the SunnySideOfLife hashtag to highlight their own pro-democracy campaign, grabbing the international headlines.
The MDP officially distanced itself from that campaign, claiming instead that the stunt indicated a strong and active grass-root youth movement. The party has largely stayed away from any attempts to damage the tourism sector, which, together with related businesses, contributes around 70 percent of the country’s GDP – “70 percent of the pillars of support”, as Bakuree sees it. “This is the farthest we would go. We don’t want to affect the livelihood of the Maldives.”
Just days after my chat with Bakuree, former-president Nasheed gave an interview to the UK’s Financial Times in which he called for all tourists to avoid the Maldives and to cancel any bookings already made. However, when I spoke to other prominent party members the day after the article’s publication, their initial bemusement at this change in policy suggested that this apparent aberration from the party line had been a unilateral one on Nasheed’s part. Neither Nasheed nor the party has repeated such calls for a boycott since the Financial Times interview.
Otpor!’s influence on the MDP can also be seen in its use of humour as a tactic. Recent rallies have been headed by people in crow costumes, while the MDP’s headquarters have become home to a flock of the birds, each named after a prominent member of the current Waheed government. “Crows are understood to be a nuisance in remote communities, and all communities know they can’t get rid of them – they will keep stealing and snatching from kids. We use this to refer to Waheed’s grab on power,” Bakuree explained.
“Many problems in authoritarian societies come from people taking themselves too seriously,” said Bakuree. “Humour is an important part of the movement. We are trained not to get angry but to get humorous. Anger is not a moral action. We have an idea to place a box on Majeedhee Magu [Male’s main thoroughfare] which lets out a ‘kaw kaw’ noise like a crow when people drop a coin in it,” Bakuree said, laughing.
In a variation of Bakuree’s humorous yet subversive idea, Otpor! members once placed a barrel with Milosevic’s face on in front of Belgrade’s National Theatre in Serbia, offering passers-by the chance to hit the portrait for a dinar. The loud noise soon attracted a long line of people, anxious to take a shot at the autocrat.
All of the relevant literature encourages the use of humour in non-violent campaigns as an effective way to reduce tensions between protesters and security forces by commuting anger towards more thoughtful contemplation. It is also guaranteed to elicit enhanced media coverage, as well as provoking what Popovic refers to as ‘dilemma actions’ for the ruling group, in which it faces ‘lose-lose’ situations. For instance, even if the government cracks down on the MDP’s crow campaign, pictures of a giant crow being taken into custody is sure to result in negative publicity for the government.
One fairly unique aspect of the Maldives’ political tumult which may be of assistance to non-violent agitators is the close ties inevitable in any small island community. The frequent use of nicknames evinces the familial nature of island life. Mohamed Nasheed is more often referred to in Male as ‘Anni’, while his party’s chairman Moosa Manik goes by the moniker ‘Reeko’. The name ‘Bakuree’ is not part of a false identity either.
In a nation where most families include a member of the armed forces or the police, violence is something particularly unusual and, from Bakuree’s experience, always regrettable. “I have been beaten by the police three times, and every single time the officers involved have approached me afterwards to apologise.”
As we finished our coffee and gazed out towards the relentless waves, Bakuree assured me of the MDP’s resolve to regain what it sees as lost ground on the path to stable democracy.
“I have never seen crowds like this in ten years as an activist; the activities are 500% more than in 2007. They are not willing to give democracy up.”
~ Daniel Bosley is a journalist currently working for the independent Maldivian news source Minivan News. He holds an MA in International Relations from Keele University in the UK.
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