The political situation in Maldives is tense and worsening day by day even as the country is scheduled to organise the presidential elections next year, according opposition leaders.
Political activist Shauna Aminath, a former aide of ex-President Mohamed Nasheed, told a conference on ‘Threats to free speech and press freedom in Maldives’ at Observer Research Foundation on 19 May 2017 that if the situation continued like this, a free and fair election is almost impossible.
Shauna also hinted that Nasheed is unlikely to return from exile and fight the elections if the situations continues like this. Despite being asked specifically if Nasheed would come back to fight the elections, she didn’t give any positive answer.
Shauna told the conference, chaired by Nandan Unnikrishnan, Senior Fellow, ORF, that the opposition leaders have been calling upon the international community to help preserve democracy in the country. She asked them to probe blatant human rights violations taking place in her country, besides restrictions on free speech and press freedom.
Maldives looks towards its South Asian neighbours, especially India, to keep up its democratic aspirations. Though India had been sympathetic to Maldives, it needs to take more action to keep the nation democratic, considering its strategic role in the Indian Ocean Region, Shauna said.
Shauna was at ORF to talk about the situation in Maldives following the murder of a prominent political blogger and democratic rights activist, Yameen Rasheed for his criticism of increasing radicalisation in the country. Rasheed’s father said the murder of his son was a reflection of the state of free speech in the country now.
Yameen’s father, Hussain Rasheed gave a detailed description of the events leading up to his son’s death and the weak response from the government along with a possible cover up. Yameen posted screenshots of receiving death threats by extremists on several of his social media platforms. He frequently visited police stations to file complaints against the threats. However, the police took no action or even take his complaints seriously. There was no serious investigation into the murder by the government to bring out the guilty. He said he feared for the life of his other family members.
In his blog, The Daily Panic, Rasheed had described himself as a “disobedient writer” and “occasional satirist.” He commented on politics and society in Maldives. He was vocal about the increasingly authoritarian Maldivian government and critical about increasing Islamic extremism on the archipelago. He was also actively involved in a campaign to find his friend, a journalist for the Maldives Independent. Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla was abducted in 2014 and has been missing since. Along with Rilwan’s disappearance, blogger Ismail Rasheed was stabbed in 2012. Afrasheem Ali, a Member of Parliament, was also killed in the same year. Ali seemed to have angered religious hardliners with his Islamic scholarship.
Shauna addressed specific issues which threaten to undermine internal security in Maldives. Specifically, the unfair practices of the government, the interference of the Saudi regime in local politics and rise of radical Islam. According to Shauna, if things continue to worsen, the political situation will be irreversible. The overlapping issues are a major concern for the majority Maldivian population, which aspires for a democratic and secular society.
She pointed out that since 2012, the democratic environment in Maldives has severely declined. Amidst corruption allegations and increasing Islamist extremism, President Abdulla Yameen is under severe pressure to step down. Along with curbs on press freedom and free speech, the government has left no room for political dissent. Independent institutions have been politicised, defamation is criminalised and judges are corrupt. In recent years, an increasing number of opposition leaders are facing criminal charges for participating in anti-government protests, receiving jail time or are in exile, she pointed out.
Shauna said a new strand of Saudi Salafism is strengthening its roots in Maldivian society. An increasing strategic partnership between the Yameen government and Saudi Arabia has led to more investments in the island’s energy, transport and health sector. Simultaneously, Saudi Arabia has donated $100,000 for the establishment of Islamic University of Maldives along with a generous $1.2 million fund for the construction of ten mosques all over the islands.
The clear blue waters of Maldives, which attract thousands of tourists from around the world, has also become an attractive spot for ISIS recruiters, she said, adding an estimated 200 Maldivian fighters are said to have joined the ISIS and many were killed in Syria and Iraq.
Shauna said a growing internal radicalisation teamed with the political turmoil has led to the present scenario. While limitations on press freedom is a direct result of the government restrictions, it is also influenced by a growing Islamic radicalisation. Around the island, it is impossible to criticise radical Islam or call out the undemocratic practices of the government.
This report was prepared by Ashini Jagtiani, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation.