Dreaming democracy in Maldives

A manifesto for the future as the atoll prepares for its first elections.

Maldives can be a democratic state with Islam as its spiritual foundation, a state which promotes the moral and creative development of the people. It can be an example to all Islamic states which aspire to create open societies. It can emerge as a modern state which safeguards the individual rights of its people and promotes their aspirations for higher levels achievement. Maldives can be that modern liberal state, riding the crest of technological progress, engaging with its neighbours in the frontline of social and economic development, and an example to the rest of the world with its dynamism and youthful energy.

We need to build a society with living conditions that are comfortable and healthy for everyone, where children are educated well and fully protected, where people respect each other and enjoy community living, where the elderly receive proper care and respect, and where the spiritual needs of individuals and communities are fully met. We must have the confidence to let cultural and creative possibilities flourish.

Power when unchecked can easily become abusive. The fundamental freedoms and human rights of the people have been denied for too long. We must restore the dignity of the person, and create a new social order based on individual freedom and mutual respect. This will result in a culture of respect for diversity as well as for individual differences while safeguarding the sovereignty of the state. None have the right to impose their version of the truth on others. To be human is to be free to think and to express thought. The very reason a government exists is to safeguard the rights of its people, including their right to participate in governance. While democratic governments are led by the majority, the process of governance cannot do without parties in political parties and civil society at large. As we embark on a new course of multiparty democracy in the Maldives, it is important to underscore the role of the opposition, which must function as an effective check on the ruling party. Indeed, the opposition must become the conscience of the people and articulate ways of improving the status of the population, in arenas as diverse as health, education, environment, commerce and the provision of justice.

The Maldivian economy should be the main arena for expressing people's creativity and productivity. Individual enterprise will become the engine of future prosperity, with the state ensuring that the overall economic policies are conducive to growth. Economic growth must come with equity, and all Maldivians must have access to basic services for health, education, housing and protection. For the future, we must seek out possibilities for our people to live in Maldives and work in the global economy. Meanwhile, tourism and fisheries will continue as the backbone of the economy for the foreseeable future, and they should not be disrupted even as we explore new opportunities in the global marketplace. As the two largest industries, they must be developed to enhance employment and people's income. We must find ways to reinvest the returns from these sectors within Maldives itself.

The education policy should be an instrument for economic growth and national development. We must revamp our education system to help develop a highly educated citizenry capable of leading and managing growth and development in an increasingly global environment. We must attract the small but highly educated Maldivian diaspora to return, and invest their talent and resources in their homeland. The country must be made a safe place for our men and women, and all forms of discrimination related to gender, origin or education should be eliminated. Indeed, it is time that we learned to treat our women with respect. Similarly, those with Western education and others trained in the Islamic tradition must see value in each other's backgrounds.

"Health for all" means availability of preventive and curative care in every community of the atoll. A healthy environment that minimises respiratory and viral infections is necessary to reduce morbidity. Childhood mortality is low in Maldives but physical and mental growth is hampered due to poor nutrition. Basic hospital care is a right of every citizen, despite the relative isolation of some islands. Young people must be supported to safeguard their mental and physical health, and there must be nationwide campaigns against substance use, drug trafficking. There must be rehabilitation for drug users.

Most Maldivian communities do not have access to clean drinking water and sanitation, and public policy must fulfill this lack, as well as that of electricity. While it is true that availability of public utilities is linked to population concentration, we must be conscious of ecological sustainability when we go about establishing population centers. Indeed, the development model of Male – with associated devastation of groundwater, vegetation and shoreline – should not be the only one available to the rest of the islands. The sea level rise projected in the coming years will adversely affect our islands, and so natural defences such as healthy reefs and shoreline vegetation must be preserved even while we seek technological reinforcements and counter-measures are adopted.

The administration of justice in Maldives has been extremely politicised. During the last 20, years there have been several calls for the separation of judiciary from the executive branch of the government. Some have used Islam as an excuse to prevent such reform, forgetting that the very essence of Islam is justice and freedom. The head of state in a modern Islamic state should not be the administrator of justice; instead he should be the guarantor of an independent and capable judicial system. We must strengthen the capacities and independence of our judges, affiliated staff, at the same time strengthening the legal profession even as we improve the legal and constitutional provisions that govern us all.

There is an unacceptably high degree of criminality in the country, much of it linked to the drug culture. Male and Addu Atoll in particular have become increasingly unsafe places to live because of rising criminality. Community policing, neighborhood-watch and closer relationship between the communities and the police can substantially reduce the crime rate. There is no doubt that the police are well equipped, but they have to be trained to use more people-friendly ways of dealing with problems. The police of the Maldives must channel its energy towards reducing criminality and protecting the public rather than protecting the ruling elite.

As we embark on a new chapter of constitutional and political change, the people will inevitably have to play a more active role, and everyone has something to learn. We must grow out of our propensity for the blame game. A minimum level of trust and good faith is necessary for the government and the opposition to function effectively. Like it or not, our fates are interlinked with the future of peace in Maldives. In the end, much will depend on how the newly active political parties can work with each other. It is my hope that those in government and those in opposition can find common ground to work together, based on mutual respect and goodwill. Let us pray that we will have the wisdom and the courage to be mutually compassionate, to be able to put the people's interest ahead of personal interests. There has been too much injustice and too much hurt till now, and we must understand that a collision course will benefit no one. Only a path of healing, reconciliation and selflessness can lead to peace and prosperity.

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