Maldivian domestic politics have made global headlines again, this time for censorship and black magic. A documentary about the personal sorcerer of Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen was banned in the Indian Ocean archipelago. The documentary, first aired on 5 February 2016 by the pro-opposition television channel RaajjeTV, features secretly recorded conversations between Yameen and Sri Lankan national Asela Wikramasinghe, prior to the 2013 presidential election.
Yameen can be heard discussing how to use black magic to remove his opponent, former President Mohamed Nasheed, by making him go “temporarily crazy” or taking his life. Yameen, in the recordings, ultimately rejects murder as an option, protesting, “But Asela, human life is so precious. So precious.”
Traditional Maldivian black magic practices, such as sihuru and fanditha, merge elements of animism and voodoo with Quranic verses and Islamic rituals. Yameen’s belief in fanditha has been long suspected. In August 2015, he abruptly ordered the rerouting of traffic around the main mosque and Islamic Centre in Malé, and the uprooting of two 20-year-old pine trees in Republic Square. At the same time, a monument in Sultan Park was also taken down. Rumours spread about how Yameen believed Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) had laid a spell on the trees and monument to make him ill. The official explanation for rerouting traffic was that it would facilitate mass prayer sessions with 25,000 or more people at the Islamic Centre.
The Maldives is a country where the death penalty is rarely carried out, but the last person to be executed was Hakim Didi in 1953 for the crime of attempting to assassinate the president with black magic. While black magic, according to the penal code, is no longer explicitly a criminal offence on the islands, since November 2015 nearly a dozen alleged ‘sorcerers’ have been arrested. Police arrested a 66-year-old man on the island of Villingili in Gaafu Alif Atoll on 25 January 2016, and confiscated as evidence 90 of his books. His daughter explained to Maldives Independent that the books taken were prayer books written in Arabic, which the Dhivehi-speaking police had probably not been able to decipher.
The 2013 presidential elections in the Maldives made international headlines after coconuts with spells written upon them in Arabic were found near polling stations, purportedly to influence swing voters. One imposter coconut, found on Guraidhoo Island, was ‘detained’ until it had been judged harmless by a white magic practitioner. In another instance, a courier charged with delivering five cursed coconuts hid them temporarily under his bed sheet, where his wife found them. She immediately reported them to the police, who confiscated the coconuts and refused to return them when the courier complained.
The detention of cursed-until-proven-innocent coconuts was played in Western media mostly for laughs, though it did bring much-needed global scrutiny to a troubled electoral process. The banned documentary, the latest addendum to the story, is a little less funny because it showed the lengths Yameen, the half-brother of Maldives’s former dictator, was willing to go to capture power. He eventually went on to win the 2013 election with 51 percent of the vote and soon had Nasheed, his opponent, convicted of terrorism in a sham trial. The UN condemned his detention and called for his immediate release. Following international pressure and the intervention of multiple Western governments, Nasheed was permitted to seek medical treatment in the UK in February 2016. But the court ruling that convicted him has not yet been overturned, clouding his future in the Maldives, should he decide to return. However, Nasheed and the MDP have begun to stir things up, looking towards the 2018 election.
The MDP last week announced evidence of an USD 80 million (MVR 1233 million) embezzlement scandal with direct ties to Yameen, and documents implicating the state bank in industrial-scale money laundering. Yameen’s private sorcerer Asela Wikramasinghe came forward not because of the MDP, but because the Yameen administration had delayed his payments for two months. But it was the MDP-aligned RaajjeTV that picked up and sensationally publicised his story through the documentary that is now under fire. The government justified the ban on the basis that a repeat airing “would cause serious adverse impact on society”.
Black magic, censorship and other forms of state-supported political violence is an ongoing story in the Maldives. On 14 February, a RaajjeTV sports journalist was forcefully picked up from the broadcasting station, allegedly without a warrant, and questioned by the police before being let go a few hours later. While he was in custody, RaajjeTV tweeted: “We continue to live in an atmosphere of fear & uncertainty”.
One consequence of this use of black magic rituals in Maldivian politics is undeniable – it throws a temporary spotlight on the island nation. In recent weeks, while Nasheed has been on public platforms in the UK, the Maldives’s representation of itself as a tropical resort island for the very wealthy has become complicated. Stories of the current government’s corruption, concrete ties to terrorist organisations in West Asia, and the violations of due process in order to imprison opposition leaders is making headlines in Western news outlets. When global coverage is provided to the electioneering coconuts or a disgruntled personal sorcerer, the question is, does the media attention to such novelty ultimately benefit the democratic process in the Maldives? Or does it merely trivialise it, while human-rights violations and allegations of millions of dollars laundered through state institutions pass under the international radar?
~Sarah Khatry is an intern at Himal Southasian. She is a Physics and English student at Dartmouth College. She is an editor of 40 Towns, a longform student magazine covering New Hampshire and Vermont.