Democracy Must Be Restored in Maldives

Professional journalist and occasional documentary filmmaker John Dayal has been a human rights activist since the early Seventies. His book on the Indian Emergency (1975-77) is a major document of that period. He edited the monumental Gujarat 2002 – Untold and Retold Stories, on the anti-Muslim genocide in the state of Gujarat. His latest book is A Matter of Equity –Interrogating Indian Secularismpublished in 2007. He is a Member of the National Integration Council, chaired by the Prime Minister of India. John was National President of the All India Catholic Union [2004-2008], the country’s main Catholic Laity movement, and is Founder Secretary General of the All India Christian Council. An internationally respected and honoured Journalist and Human Rights and Peace activist, John has spent years developing his database on peace issues, particularly right wing violence against Christians in India. John is currently researching Hindutva and its interface with Christianity in contemporary India. He can be contacted at john.dayal@gmail.com.

John Dayal

I cannot swim. I do paddle a little, and sometimes even float on my back if the water is tranquil. I none the less took courage and “dived” into the azure deep, picked up the lovely coral from the absolutely white sand under water even as a hundred colourful butterflies, masquerading as so many tiny tropical fish, fluttered around. Thankfully, the waters were but four foot deep for miles around in the lagoon. I still have that sparkling white coral branch displayed in my living room, a memory of my visit to the Maldives, a string of coral atolls just south of India’s Lakshadweep Island group.

The Maldives are prime attraction for all sorts of tourists – newly-married couples in search of nurturing solitude, western tourists seeking sun and sand, Indian businessmen seeking a quiet place to drink, perchance to make a deal. They have also attracted the occasional Wahabis, because of whose influence sometimes the Maldivian immigration and customs frown if you are brining your own whisky, which they confiscated once if possibly not now, and the Bible, not a wanted book in some extremist countries.

The Island democracy with a population of just 400,000, has seen not too many governments in the years of its coming of age. India helped thwart a coup against long-serving President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom once. It was in 1988 when India launched Operation Cactus Gayoom’s request. An Indian Army Para brigade at the airport on Hulule island, adjacent to Male and another Indian Warship at the mouth of the haven over-whelmed the Sri Lankan mercenaries, members of the Tamil PLOTE group who had grabbed hostages from ashore, hijacked a merchant vessel, the Progress Light anchored in Male harbour, and were challenging the government.

Gayoom eventually lost power after ruling for thirty years, but this time in a democratic election. He lost to a young political activist Mohamed Nasheed. Nasheed was a popular man, and immediately attracted a global following for his charm and avowed belief in the democratic process and issues such as secularism, a fresh wind after Gayoom’s oppressive regime. But he must have also made enemies, as is now becoming clear. One fine morning on 7th February his year, Nasheed went to the neighbouring Army garrison to ask the officers there to take action against a section of the police which had apparently turned hostile. Much to his shock, Nasheed discerned that the Army officers too had joined the police, making it clear that the coup, as it was, was a well planned one. Nasheed told the international media later that he was given an ultimatum to hand over power to his deputy, Vice president Dr. Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik . Manik immediately assumed power in the blood-less coup. Soon thereafter, he wanted Nasheed arrested, and asked the courts to issue the necessary warrants.

File: Nasheed in the Copenhagen climate change talks

Nasheed is still free, but the situation remains tense. India has its western navy ready just in case it has to take action to prevent the island’s fragile peace from being violated.

This writer, asked by international media, had expressed deep concern at the coup. Others too had expressed concern. India however has adopted a watch and wait strategy, presumably hoping that there will soon be fresh elections and democracy will be restored in the atoll-nation where the only threat once was from global warming which could threaten the security of the atolls which are in most places barely a six foot altitude from sea level.

International groups have now expressed concern saying the Maldives coup, portends very badly for human rights. One group, the Friends of the Maldives, has issued a call for a campaign urging people not to visit the resorts owned by supporters of the coup.

The Human Rights group has received coverage in the United Kingdom. “The current political turmoil in the Maldives has deterred people from visiting the islands. We feel the situation is not so bad, as the airport and resort islands are not linked to any population centres. But we strongly recommend the advice given by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the UK,” the group said in a statement this week.

The group gave a list of islands and resorts that, it said, international tourists “should avoid, based on our close information on the ground.” The resort atolls, it said, are “places linked to individuals or groups who we suspect to be involved in the subversion of democracy and in human rights abuses in the Maldives.”

The Friends of Maldives reported that currently, a large part of the population of the Maldives is demonstrating every day for early elections and for an end to police brutality. Although the demonstrations happen mostly in the capital Malé and other populated islands, there is a possibility of industrial actions, strikes and other form of protests in resorts that have links to those suspected to have involvement with the coup and related human rights abuses. While these protests don’t pose any danger, it is an inconvenience best avoided by holidaymakers.

“This is one reason to avoid these resorts. We also urge you to consider the idea of being a responsible traveller. Don’t let your pleasant holiday contribute to the suffering of others, whether it is to the Maldives or to any other place. Find out the background of the places you visit. In many cases, you can enjoy your holiday knowing you have helped, simply by being selective,” the advisory said.

The resorts on the “avoid” list include the Bandos resorts owned by new President Waheed Deen), the Sun Island Royal Island and Paradise Island resorts and Spas owned by Gasim Ibrahim.

According to the western media, Ahmed Naseem, the ousted foreign minister, faced opposition last year when he became the first Maldivian official to visit Israel. He said religious orthodoxy has become the norm as more people go to study in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. “This country had no one wearing headscarves 10 years ago” but it is common now, he said. The political opposition, he added, capitalized on this growing religiosity by portraying Nasheed as un-Islamic. “They’re using Islam as a tool.” A Western diplomat was quoted saying the nexus between Islamists and some politicians was a concern for the nation’s stability.

American media quoted Nasheed’s loyalists saying the coup plotters were loyal to former President Gayoom. President Nasheed had attempted to launch a corruption investigation into Gayoom, an authoritarian leader who ruled for 30 years. When a senior judge blocked the probe, Mr. Nasheed last month asked the army to arrest the judge, igniting anti government protests.

Western newspapers said the party of Mohamed Jameel, who was sworn in as home minister this week, issued a pamphlet last month claiming that empty bottles of alcohol, which is forbidden for Maldivians, were found in offices of Nasheed’s government. It blamed the government for planning to sell land to Israel. The pamphlet said the then-president was working to undermine Islamic law in the country.

India has not issued any advisory to tourists going to the Maldives. Indian Human Rights groups are also yet to take an initiative in the matter.

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