Maldives: Was it a coup?

By Khadija Patel 9 February 2012

Away from the people-powered uprisings in the Middle East, the idyllic archipelago nation of the Maldives has been rocked by an unrelenting wave of protests against the government. On Tuesday a police mutiny further fuelled protests forcing President Mohamed Nasheed to step down, but instead of congratulating the Maldives allegations of a coup have been levelled against political factions loyal to former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. By KHADIJA PATEL.

On Wednesday a march by supporters of President Mohamed Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party turned violent. Protesting against Nasheed’s ousting in the capital, Male, Nasheed’s supporters clashed with security officials.

There are conflicting accounts of the confrontation. Some reports suggested protesters threw petrol bombs at police and attacked a private television station that had been critical of the deposed government. Other reports contend Nasheed’s supporters had been attacked and beaten when riot police fired teargas and baton charged them. While 40 people have been arrested following the clashes, the threat of violence has been stoked by Nasheed’s claims that he had been the object of a covert coup.

When he resigned on Tuesday, Nasheed speaking in the local Divehi tongue, said: “I resign because I am not a person who wishes to rule with the use of power. I believe that if the government were to remain in power it would require the use of force which would harm many citizens. I resign because I believe that if the government continues to stay in power, it is very likely that we may face foreign influences. I have always wished the citizens of this country well, now and into the future. I have made this decision and I wish for your prosperity in this life and the life after.”

Yet in an interview with AFP on Wednesday, Nasheed said he had been forced to resign at gunpoint by a group of rebel police and army officers who threatened a bloodbath if he stayed in power. “They told me if I didn’t resign they would resort to arms,” he is reported to have said,  adding that he feared his deputy, Mohamed Waheed, who succeeded him, “was in on it” and seized the chance to take over.

“I am afraid he’s always entertained an idea to become the president. He’s never been able to do that. When the opportunity was available to him, he took it,” Nasheed said.

“There were guns all around me, and they told me they wouldn’t hesitate to use them if I didn’t resign.” But Waheed insists the transfer of power had been peaceful and constitutional. “Do I look like someone who will bring about a coup d’etat?” Waheed asked reporters. “There was no plan. I was not prepared at all.” He has called for a government of national unity.

But as foreign commentators deplore Nasheed’s resignation as a blow to a fragile democracy, the reality is that Nasheed has been an especially unpopular leader.  Last year, he faced repeated calls for his resignation from protesters who alleged he had mismanaged the country’s economy. The main political opposition party in the country, the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (Maldivian People’s Party) led by former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled for more than 30 years under an authoritarian system, accused Nasheed of “talking about democracy but not putting it into practice”.

In 2008, Nasheed was the first president to be elected by a multiparty democracy in the Maldives and implemented a slew of political reforms in the country. Nasheed was hailed as a beacon of democracy in the Muslim world. After all the Maldives is a “100% Sunni Muslim” state and Nasheed adroitly said of the triumph of democracy in the Maldives, “You don’t need to bomb a Muslim country for regime change.”

His efforts did not go unnoticed. In 2009 he was awarded the Anna Lindh Award for bringing democracy to the Maldives, but, despite these gains in democracy, the feeble Maldivian economy has continued to suffer. The Maldives is still reeling from the effects of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, which devastated its economy and caused serious damage on most of the islands. Global financial instability also contributed to the economic woes, causing a major spike in inflation and rising food prices. Yet amid the doom and gloom, the Maldives graduated from the ignominy of being one the world’s “least developed countries” to a “developing country” last year. 

In May last year the Maldives witnessed one of its biggest achievements when the government decided to allow its currency, the Rufiya, to float in a 20% band, effectively pushing up prices of all commodities by 20%. The Maldives imports all its needs and the currency decision was  part of a package of measures the government introduced on the advice of the central bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other multilateral organisations to reduce the country’s budget deficit and stabilise its economy.

Despite his positive reputation outside the Maldives, Nasheed was certainly not a popular president. The volatile economic environment was soon to be manipulated by the opposition to spur protests against Nasheed. When the US assistant secretary of state for south and central Asian affairs Robert Blake visited the Maldives last year he offered a terse bit of advice to the Maldivian opposition – come up with alternative policies instead of constantly criticising the government.  

But the Maldives suffered from more polarising problems than just the economy. For years, religion has also been severely politicised.  Throughout his reign, the autocrat Maumoon Abdul Gayoom pushed the idea of a “100% Sunni Muslim nation”  to ensure conformity. Yameen Rasheed, a freelance writer and blogger from the Maldives, says Gayoom, an Al-Azhar University graduate, was instrumental in introducing a new brand of Islam to the islands. “Gayoom introduced an ‘Arabised’ version of Islam, putting an end to several-centuries-old traditions and customs practised as part of the Sufi-style ‘folk Islam’ prevalent in the atolls,” he says. Despite mixing his politics with a good measure of religious fervour, Gayoom was widely considered a religious “moderate” – even if he cracked down on hard-line interpretations of Islam and was alleged to have tortured clerics in his prisons.

Nasheed’s ascendancy to the presidency in the country’s multiparty election ended Gayoom’s bent for torture, but religion would remain a charged issue for Maldivians. The country’s new constitution, introduced in 2008, decreed that only Sunni Muslims could become citizens of the new republic. “If Gayoom planted the seeds of religious intolerance, the harvest (was) now in full bloom under President Mohamed Nasheed’s government,” Rasheed says. “Where there was once a vague fear of Christian missionaries, there is now full-blown paranoia and open hostility towards non-Muslims.”

The tribulations of blogger Ismail Khilath Rasheed, known as “Hilath”, exemplify the religious challenges in the Maldives.  In 2009, his blog broke a story about male religious extremists keeping underage concubines, which was later confirmed and gained national prominence. “I have also been targeted for my liberal Sufi Muslim views,” Hilath is reported to have said, “because these beliefs go against the mainstream conservative Sunni ideology promoted by the government.”

In early 2010, Hilath was charged with atheism, drug use and homosexuality, allegedly in retaliation for his human rights reporting. He also received several death threats, and material appeared on Maldivian websites calling for his beheading, prompting the Maldives Journalists Association to offer a statement of support.

In November last year, the Maldivian government ordered Hilath’s blog to be banned, alleging that it had published material in contradiction to Islam. Hilath believes that the conservative fringe put the ban in place because it could not withstand the criticism he levelled against them.

During a visit to Malé in the same month, UN high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay  described the blog’s closure as a “disturbing act” raising concerns about a “rise in religious intolerance”. Pillay’s remarks would, however, further fuel discontent with the government which blamed Nasheed for allowing her – an outsider – to pronounce on religious affairs in the Maldives.

In December Hilath organised a small rally in Malé calling for religious tolerance. The rally was attacked by men throwing stones, one of which fractured Hilath’s skull, sending him to hospital. Following the protest, members of the Maldives’ opposition Adhaalath Party called for Hilath’s arrest and for a counter-demonstration to protect Islam. A website currying support for these protests again called for the murder of “those against Islam”. Amnesty International reported that Nasheed’s government had made no effort to locate Rasheed’s attackers, despite “credible photographic evidence of the attack”.

Days later, Hilath was detained on a charge of questioning the constitution, later amended to “involvement in an unlawful assembly”. Amnesty International described the charge as a “clear example of the erosion of freedom of expression in the Maldives”, named Hilath a prisoner of conscience and demanded his immediate release.

Hilath’s detention was extended twice at the request of investigating officers, in order that the Islamic ministry might provide him counselling to “bring him back to Islam”. After 24 days in detention, he was released. His blog remained banned.

In this context the government announced plans to re-organise the Maldivian judiciary. The proposed a bill to amend the Courts Act (22/2010) would reduce the number of judges on both the benches of the Supreme Court and the high court if passed – innocuous to the untrained ear, but the bill would set in motion a series of events that would eventually unseat Nasheed. The proposed bill was widely suspected to be a ploy by Nasheed to undermine the judiciary and install his own nominees to the bench.

On 16 January, on instruction from Nasheed, Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed was arrested by military forces and detained at a training facility in Kaafu Atoll Girifushi.  The defence minister said the country’s armed forces had received a request from police “to carry out its(sic) legal duty under article 71 of the Police Act, stating that the Criminal Court was not cooperating with police and that as a consequence of Judge Mohamed’s obstructing police work, the country’s internal security was threatened and police were unable to maintain public order and safety.”

In parliament, home minister Hassan Afeef and defence minister Tholhath Ibrahim Kaleyfaanu said the judge was not under arrest, but rather was being “supervised to ensure national security”. The judge was accused of “taking the entire criminal justice system in his fist”, and the government insisted it had been compelled to act to protect the constitution. As the government tried in vain to explain the arrest of the Judge and defend the proposed reforms to the judicial system, protests broke out in Malé.

Public anger spilt over into the streets, but Nasheed accused the judge of blocking multimillion-dollar corruption cases against members of the former government.

In the meanwhile parliamentarians haggled ineffectually, the national security committee session was abruptly dissolved and violent clashes between protesters who demanded the release of the judge and government supporters ensued. These clashes, which began on the night of 4 February, continued unabated until Tuesday 7 February when a police mutiny forced the resignation of Nasheed. Soon after Nasheed’s resignation, Judge Mohamed was released.

According to the Maldivian Minivian News, the Maldives high commissioner in the UK, Farahanaz Faizal, has resigned in protest against the new government: “My conscience wouldn’t allow me to serve a government which had overthrown a democratically elected government in a coup d’etat.” If a coup is defined as the sudden, violent overthrow of an existing government by a small group of people then perhaps recent events in the Maldives fall loosely within that definition. Not entirely though. Nasheed was by no means a popular president.  DM

Read more:

  • The Fall of the Island President: The Maldives’ Nasheed Steps Down in Time;
  • Mohamed Nasheed’s overthrow is a blow to the Maldives and democracy in The Guardian;
  • The Maldives’ nascent democracy faces an uncertain future in The Guardian.

Photo: Maldivian riot police chase away the supporters of the ousted Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed during a clash in Male February 8, 2012. The ousted president of the Maldives, credited with bringing democracy to the Indian Ocean island resort, said on Wednesday he was forced out of power at gunpoint, prompting clashes between police and angry supporters. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte


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