reportage Politics

Power In Paradise

The tug-of-war between dictatorship and democracy in the Maldives

By Omkar Khandekar | 1 August 2017

IT WAS TO START OFF as a people’s protest. Hundreds, if not thousands, would take to the streets of the capital, Malé. “Vettinee,” they would roar—rebellion. The police were to join them, and, after a point, so was the army. Together, they were to storm the residence of Abdulla Yameen, the president of the Maldives, and take him hostage. Then they were to march him to the country’s supreme court and legitimise his custody with an arrest warrant. The court could pick which of Yameen’s alleged offences to charge him for—abuse of power, persecution of his political opponents, involvement in the country’s biggest ever corruption scandal, and more.

All through August last year, the Maldives teemed with rumours of the impending ouster. For weeks, demonstrators defied new laws banning street protests to hold nightly gatherings demanding Yameen’s resignation. As the end of the month approached, the BBC cited “credible sources” to declare that the president of the Maldives faced a “removal plot.” “He’s lost all support from within his own political party,” an unnamed opposition MP was quoted as saying. “He doesn’t have any kind of support from the independent institutions, he doesn’t have support from the security forces.” Yameen’s opponents, the report said, were “looking to move against him within weeks.”

In the Malé office of the Maldives Independent, a news website where I worked at the time, we braced ourselves for it. Our only dilemma was the nomenclature: should we call it a coup or a revolution?

Late on 30 August, under a steady rain and with midnight approaching, a hundred-odd people gathered and began marching towards the presidential residence. Journalists from local television channels followed, broadcasting live. “This is it,” a young woman told me over the crowd’s cries. “We will see the government fall tonight.”

Near Yameen’s residence, the roads were blocked with red plastic barricades. Large squads of the police stood beyond them in riot gear. The demonstrators stopped. Their cries of “Vettinee” continued.

At 12.12 am, my phone beeped. “It’s starting,” the message read.

A few tense minutes passed. Then the police made a surprise announcement: turn back. A chain of them advanced behind a wall of shields, pushing the crowd. Several protestors were pepper sprayed. The police drew their batons and started swinging. People started running. Eyes watering, I ran after them. At the first roundabout, with the police still in pursuit, the crowd scattered.

At 12.54 am, my phone beeped again. “It’s off,” the message read. “Something went wrong.”

I made my way to the president’s residence anyway. The roads were still barricaded, but I slipped by. The police were not bothered—the threat had passed. Just outside the residence, I noticed Umar Naseer, a former home minister of the country, standing on the pavement and surveying the scene. Only a month earlier, Naseer had abruptly resigned from Yameen’s cabinet and declared himself a presidential candidate for an election due in 2018. Some had read this as him abandoning a sinking ship.

I approached him and started to chat. No, he told me, he had no reason to believe that the government faced any serious threat. But what of all the hype about an impending change of regime, I asked. “You see,” Naseer said, “we have a proverb in the Maldives: When a camel farts, it makes a huge show, it sways and turns, but at the end there is very little noise, and even less smell.”

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Omkar Khandekar is journalist from Mumbai, and an alumnus of Cardiff University. His reporting from Indian, the Maldives and the United Kingdom has appeared in numerous publications, including The CaravanOpen and Scroll.

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