The combination of feudal patriarchy, big business and religious extremism that exists in the Maldives is not only lethal for the future of the country and its people but also has serious implications for the South Asia region. The milky white and spotless beaches of the archipelago can give the casual observer the impression that all that there is to those beaches are the white sands by the blue lagoons. What they do not see are the numerous crabs with sharp claws that live in the sand. This is an apt metaphor for the political scene of the Maldives. The government rules unopposed with no political strikes, demonstrations or agitation. There is a seeming air of serenity in which it is easy to miss out the resentment against the government. At least, that is how it was until a few weeks ago when the popular image of a tranquil and placid archipelago was shattered by the sound of gunfire, rubber bullets and tear gas canisters. Angry rioters ransacked government buildings and burnt the office of the Election Commissioner in Male, only a day after Maumoon Abdul Gayoom submitted his application to remain president for a sixth consecutive five-year term. Suddenly, the myth of a peaceful polity and stable society was being shattered and without any warning at that. International correspondents were as baffled as regional governments were by the brutal turn of events in the islands’ capital.
Atolls of repression
On 20 September 2003, the dead body of a young prison inmate from the Maafushi Jail, in the South Male atoll, was brought to Male for burial. The body was covered with burn marks and other visible signs of torture and beatings. Even as the grim evidence of police brutality was just sinking in, the city’s residents got news of a prison riot and shooting of inmates by guards. Many young people who knew the victim went on a rampage, leading a spontaneous riot unseen for decades in the country. Riot control police were deployed on the streets as news and rumour spread, the mobs began to burn and ransack public buildings. Their anger was clearly directed at the government. As the hours passed it became clear that the prison riot at Maafushi broke out following the beating and killing of the first victim. But to add insult to injury, the police had used live ammunition to quell the protesters in prison, killing at least two more and injuring several others in the process.
Police brutality and torture is nothing new to many Maldivians. “The killing of at least three prisoners by the National Security Service (NSS) 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 NSS personnel who function under the Presidents command”, said Amnesty International. Over the years, many people have died in prison. Others have managed to survive. Some of the survivors are still struggling with the physical and psychological effects of torture. Those who were forced to stay in stocks for weeks live with excruciating pain in their joints and spine. Their stories are told only in confidence for fear of inviting further reprisals, but history will tell the gruesome facts of torture and killings carried out by a government which projects the image of a benign authority to the world that is supposed to protect and defend the civil rights of the people.
The repression by the authorities in the Maldives has, as its backdrop, a long history of denial of basic human rights to its citizens by the state. The totalitarian government that has sustained this repression has concealed itself behind a veil of what President Gayoom calls a “model democracy”. This version of democracy has no conception of individual freedoms. The freedoms of expression, assembly or political association have been denied to the people. It was this veil which was finally lifted on 20 September 2003. Thanks to those who expressed their anger and pent up frustration despite the certainty of violent response, the world now knows the reality of Maldivian democracy.
Amnesty International put the responsibility squarely on the government. It said, “By repeatedly dismissing reports of human rights violations in the country, the Government of President Gayoom has allowed perpetrators to continue to act with impunity. This has effectively perpetuated a cycle of repression eroding people’s confidence in the state’s institutions to protect their fundamental rights. It is high time that government authorities accept their own responsibility and failure to protect and promote human rights”.
Why should the world be concerned about this small nation of under 300,000 people? For one, it can serve as an important lesson for many other nations. The state of Maldives is not a singular or unique entity. It resembles the autocratic states of West Asia. Posing no obvious threat to any other country and with the proscription of any independent press, including the foreign media, the government is largely insulated from external scrutiny. This is perhaps the first time in the country’s history that it has attracted such negative attention, having revelled for the most part in the reputation of being a pleasant and attractive tourist destination.
The unfolding of contemporary Maldivian politics can be understood by examining the political, economic and cultural factors that affect its society. Arab socialism, international tourism, cultural and educational integration, and Islamic extremism have all contributed to the formation of the social and cultural fabric of the Maldives. The current political system was installed nearly 50 years ago by the first generation of Arab-educated elite. Its perpetuation and maintenance is guaranteed by another generation of Arab-educated elite who took over the government in 1978.
The politics of Maldives has been dominated by one dictator after another. President Gayoom came to power with the promise of a new age of political and cultural freedom. The socialist rhetoric of the early days of his regime resembled that of any revolutionary leadership. This sharply contrasted the quiet and very private style of the previous president, Ibrahim Nasir, who ruled the Maldives for 20 years, first as Prime Minister and then as President. President Gayoom was hailed as the only hope for the Maldives, with his advanced university education and as a scholar of Islamic studies. In contrast Ibrahim Nasir had barely finished his secondary education. However, unlike Gayoom, Nasir was a visionary and a pragmatic, who it was that introduced Western style education and opened the country to international tourism.
When Gayoom took command 25 years ago, most Maldivians did not understand the political background of the new leadership, including that of Gayoom’s friends, the Foreign Minister Fathulla Jameel and the Youth Minister Zahir Hussain. They had contributed to pan-Arab and Islamic socialism and had aspired to rule the Maldives ever since they were students at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo in the 1960s. They were heavily influenced by Arab Socialism and the teachings of the likes of Libya’s leader Muammar Gadhafi and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. This background is important to understand the political history of the Maldives.
If Maldivians expected a leader to introduce democracy and individual freedoms in the country, Gayoom could not have been the one to do that because he did not believe in individual freedoms any more than Hafiz Al-Asad of Syria or Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Gayoom and his Arab educated friends have operated as a close-knit group, very similar in its functioning to a politburo, while denying the privilege of political association to their potential opponents. They demand absolute loyalty and anyone who challenges the political system, let alone the legitimacy of their authority, is treated as an enemy of the state. By not allowing formal political parties, the ruling politburo ensures that legitimate opposition to the government cannot be expressed in peaceful ways.
The inner mechanisms of this autocratic system are controlled and operated by an intricate network of family and friends who control power, with President Gayoom playing the role of a godfather. In a system like this, absolute and unquestioned allegiance is a must. Family connections and friendships are everything. Gayoom’s younger brother Abdulla Hameed and, until recently, brother-in-law Ilyas Ibrahim are family members who wield extraordinary power and play a critical role in the maintenance of this regime. It was they who have been instrumental in securing absolute power for President Gayoom.
They were once close confidantes of the previous president Ibrahim Nasir and therefore knew the tricks of manipulating the public vote. They controlled the Majlis, the parliament. It is not in their interest to reform the age-old political system in the country. Until today, Hameed is the speaker of the Majlis, appointed by Gayoom and in addition he holds the sensitive and strategic post of Minister for Atolls Administration. His primary responsibility is to secure votes for Gayoom from the rural islands through the aegis of the island chiefs appointed by him. His other task is to control the Majlis so that any non- government bill submitted to the parliament will never get through unless it has the blessings of the President. Hameed is his elder brother’s biggest political asset.
Like Hameed, Ilyas has held strategic positions in government. He was Deputy Defence Minister and head of the NSS for many years (The President always reserved the defence ministry portfolio for himself). Ilyas, an old time Nasir protégé, knows only the power of money and the police. Gayoom used Ilyas to maintain law and order. The latter’s close friend Adam Zahir, an Australian trained schoolteacher, was appointed chief of police immediately after Gayoom came to power in 1978. Adam Zahir and Ilyas perfected the art of torture and repression for Gayoom’s government.
The Maldives is too small a place and the position of the President as head of the police and armed forces is so visible, it is inconceivable that he would be unaware of the gross violations of human rights in the prison system. Following the recent killings, Adam Zahir has been removed from his post. He quickly left the country for the United Kingdom. Gayoom is hoping that the entire blame for the killing of prisoners can be put on Zahir and a few prison guards. However, it is essential that responsibility be borne by all who have condoned such brutality over the years.
The senior figures in the Maldivian government have all enjoyed full immunity from investigations and prosecution. It is widely believed that in addition to being accomplices to human rights violations, many of them have misappropriated large amounts of public funds, transferred huge amounts of foreign exchange to offshore banks and engaged in shady business deals with overseas companies, especially in the fisheries sector and the airline industry. Following major corruption scandals among senior officials, the government did set up an anti-corruption board. But, when the ruling elite are bound by such powerful political and economic ties, and the judiciary is just an extension of the executive branch, such anti-corruption initiatives and investigative committees have little chance of ever getting started.
The world community may not have heard of torture and repression in the Maldives until now, but it is common knowledge in the Maldives that gross violations of human rights are a standard feature of the prison system in the country. Such practices have continued down through the last several decades, and the regime of President Gayoom is no exception. Using the excuse of an attempted coup, Gayoom arrested his opponents as early as 1979, barely a year after he took office, when a number of supporters of former President Nasir were imprisoned.
Stories of torture began to emerge from then on. Several people have died in prison and independent investigation has never been carried out. The recent riots that began in the prison and the shooting of several prisoners by armed guards are a natural outcome of many years of repression. Unlike earlier incidents, however, this time dead bodies were brought to Male, clearly a grave oversight from the perspective of the regime managers. When the gravity of the mistake was realised, the rest of the injured prisoners were flown out of the country to Sri Lanka for treatment.
The existing system of repression is perpetuated through the continuous reproduction of social and political relations between the political apparatus and the tourism industry. The tourism sector is the backbone of Maldives’ politics and economy. In the early 1970’s, some of the Western educated youth who were then frustrated by Nasir’s autocratic rule went into tourism, gaving up their dreams of a just society. Today, they form the crust of the wealthy class in the country. The state uses the most important asset of the country to buy political allegiance.
Uninhabited islands are dished out to government supporters, who in turn rent them out to Western travel companies. These few families led by one-time progressives have now acquired a substantial stake in the maintenance of the regime. Many members of the cabinet fall in this category. The revenue accruing to the government itself from such handouts is only a fraction of the total revenue being generated from the tourism industry. The bulk of the national revenue is skimmed off by this handful of Maldivians and their foreign financiers and partners. The few Maldivians who actually run their own resorts are struggling to compete with large international hotel operators because they have to make regular payments both to the government and to members of Gayoom’s cabinet.
The events of 20 September have grave implications for the tourism industry. As the European tourism industry becomes more sensitive to the human rights abuses of the current regime, they will look for other holiday destinations. Many Western tourists are no longer willing to be party to repressive systems or contribute to regimes that deny basic freedoms of speech, assembly and political association to their people.
This feudal system of patronage and rewards is constructed and reconstructed to maintain absolute authority. The system is designed to keep the country’s wealth and sources of income concentrated in the hands of a few families and to keep the rest of the population silent. Some of the wealthy resort owners provide the financial backing to government-supported candidates in the election to the Majlis. They also finance the expenses for the re-election of the President. That explains how the entire cabinet gets re-elected to the Majlis on a regular basis. The ministers together with the eight members of the Majlis, and the Speaker appointed by the President ensure that he remains in his position for life.
In addition to political and economic factors, cultural interventions have played an important role in maintaining state hegemony. The press is under tight control. The only newspapers in the Maldives are owned either by cabinet ministers or by the President’s family. Only state run television and radio are allowed. Private cable operators are required to censor sensitive news on political changes in other parts of the world.
The events following the riots demonstrate that the days of information blackout and press control are numbered. Changes in information technology will erode the walls of secrecy around the Maldives. The younger generation is connected globally through the internet. Most young people today watch CNN or the BBC World Service. They identify themselves with youth in other parts of the world. The internet and the mobile telephone have become the tools of communication and inevitably the international community will get to know a different Maldives from the one that gets projected, that of a beach resort for the world’s rich and the famous.
Another aspect of cultural hegemony is the monopolisation of religious thought. Only those persons with an Arab education have the right to express their thoughts on religious matters. This policy has become a double-edged sword. For a while, President Gayoom was the only source of religious opinion and interpretation. With a growing body of Saudi Arabia-educated elite in the country, this is no longer the case.
One dimension of Gayoom’s regime that is little known is its contribution to creating and fostering extremist Islam in the Maldives. Having secured his position as the head of state and head of Islamic affairs in the country, he instituted strict Islamic education. It was a source of legitimacy for his role as head of Islam in the country and a move to counter the influence of the pro-Western education introduced by his predecessor. Islamic schools teaching in the Arabic medium and were introduced at the primary and secondary level, to function alongside secular schools where Islam was taught as one of the subjects of study. Mohammed Rasheed Ibrahim, the Chief Justice of the Maldives is the patron and champion of this project. Educated in the Islamic schools of Cairo and Saudi Arabia, the project leaders promoted a version of Islam called Wahhabism, totally unknown to the Maldives until a few years ago.
Wahhabism is a puritanical version of Islam promoted by a Saudi extremist called Abdul Wahab. It calls for a jihad for the establishment of a Muslim state based on the Sharia law. Twenty years down the line this tilt towards fundamentalist Islam seems to have become a thorn in Gayooms side. Many outspoken young Muslim scholars have been arrested and tortured but their followers have multiplied throughout the country and have become a significant political force. The Chief Justice continues to be the quiet supporter of this movement.
It is important to note that the majority of the population, however, has gone through a predominantly secular education with expectations of greater political, social and religious freedoms. The resulting divisions in education and culture have thus created a deep schism in the national society. One group favours an Islamic state with little or no individual freedom. They are rapidly converting the women into wearing the Islamic hijab (veil) and the men to grow beards. By contrast, the Western educated youth are demanding greater freedoms, including elimination of gender biases. In the Male streets, therefore, veiled women walk side by side women in short skirts. This is not a sign of mutual admiration but rather a passive acceptance of a dichotomy within society, one that is symbolic and symptomatic of a deeper division.
It is possible that a relaxation of the existing controls on the freedom of expression can contribute to the surfacing of these underlying differences. This is the dilemma confronting the government. Gayoom would like to keep the system under tight control as long as he can. He does not have the energy or the creativity required to fashion a new and open system. On the other hand, the longer he insists on control – the more intense the pressure will become, until it begins to rip society apart. We have yet to see if the events in the Maafushi prison and in Male are the beginnings of a system breakdown or a careless slip that will be fixed with thicker layers of ‘band aid’.
The rest of South Asia cannot afford to allow the Maldives to become a hotbed of religious extremism. It is incumbent on Gayoom to take more enlightened steps to confront that possibility. Continued repression will only build more pressure and when it explodes, it will not only pose a danger to the Maldives but also to the security of the entire region.
The country has often been seen as a point of strategic importance to security in the Indian Ocean. The Maldivian archipelago extends between the Indian Subcontinent and the Chagos islands, where a major US military base is located. It is in no one’s interest to see an extremist and repressive state in the Maldives, most importantly the Maldivians themselves. The peaceful resolution of social differences requires an open system in which individuals and organisations with differing views can freely express themselves without infringing on the basic and fundamental rights of every citizen.
The Maldives is no longer an isolated beach for recreation. It is part of a global community and a microcosm where political, economic and cultural forces are at play as in other much larger countries such as Indonesia, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. What happens in the Maldives will largely depend on the extent to which the global community is interested in the human rights of its people as much as it is interested in the pleasures of its sandy beaches.