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.”

THREE MONTHS BEFORE that night, on the first morning of June 2016, Mohamed Nasheed was to address the press in a conference hall in central London. I was running late as I stepped into the warm space from the chill outside, but so were the organisers. Journalists waited, pens poised and cameras trained on a dais, as did a handful of spectators connected to British politics and civil society. Nasheed, a short, boyish 49-year-old, mingled with the crowd. Several other members of the Maldivian opposition were scattered about. After a few minutes, they joined Nasheed at the front of the room.

“Our country, the Maldives, has reverted back to dictatorship,” Nasheed began. “Our people have lost all their rights: freedom of expression, freedom of assembly. We’ve lost the good governance structures that we had so hoped we could practise.”

It had been six months since Nasheed landed in the British capital. Three months after his arrival, he was granted political asylum in the United Kingdom—for the second time in 15 years. In 2003, Nasheed was leading a pro-democracy movement in the Maldives when he was forced to flee by the government of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the dictator who had ruled the Indian Ocean archipelago since 1978. In exile in Sri Lanka, he helped form the Maldivian Democratic Party. The United Kingdom granted him asylum in 2004.

Four years later, in 2008, the MDP won the Maldives’s first democratic election, deposing Gayoom in the process. Nasheed became president, and pushed forward a wave of reforms. He also earned a reputation for his climate-change advocacy, which included holding a first-of-its-kind underwater cabinet meeting to raise awareness of how rising sea levels threatened the low-lying Maldives.
Internationally, such stunts and an easy charm served Nasheed well. David Cameron, the former British prime minister, once named him among the five world leaders he would most want to take along on a stag party. In the Maldives, however, his policies displeased many still-powerful members of the old establishment, and also alienated some of his allies. Less than four years into his tenure, under pressure from mutineering security forces, Nasheed resigned.

In November 2013, Abdulla Yameen, Gayoom’s half-brother, was elected president under dubious circumstances. The country’s supreme court had annulled a round of voting and delayed a fresh election on largely spurious grounds, leading the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights to accuse the judiciary of “subverting the democratic processes.” Over the course of Yameen’s rule, the UN, Amnesty International, the European Union, the United States and others have repeatedly criticised the Maldives for politically motivated trials of critics and opposition leaders, restrictions on free speech and assembly, and rising Islamic fundamentalism among its almost entirely Sunni population. Yameen’s detractors say he has populated the cabinet, parliament, police, army, judiciary and public institutions of accountability with his loyalists.

Even within the government and among his allies, Yameen’s authoritarian ways have caused havoc. In the last three and a half years, the Maldives has seen three different vice presidents and over 20 sackings of cabinet ministers. Yameen has also, while building new partnerships with Saudi Arabia and China, alienated many foreign governments—not least India, a long-time ally of the Maldives.

Nasheed was arrested in 2015, and sentenced to 13 years in prison. A UN special rapporteur said that “the speed of the proceedings combined with the lack of fairness in the procedures lead me to believe the outcome of the trial may have been pre-determined.” After much international lobbying, Nasheed was allowed to temporarily leave the Maldives for medical attention in the United Kingdom. He did not go back.

At the press conference in London, Nasheed spoke about a fresh election due in 2018. “We don’t believe the present government in Maldives is willing to have free and fair elections,” he said. “We must find enough leverage so that the government relents and speaks to us. For that, we need your assistance.”

This was a pitch for the Maldives United Opposition, a new coalition ranged against Yameen and his Progressive Party of Maldives. Besides Nasheed, the MUO’s leaders included Mohamed Jameel and Ahmed Adeeb, both former vice presidents under Yameen, Mohamed Nazim, formerly Yameen’s defence minister, and Sheikh Imran, the head of an Islamist outfit called the Adhaalath Party and, at various times, an ally of both the current regime and the democratic opposition. Each one of them had been jailed, exiled or otherwise silenced by Yameen. Until recently, Nasheed had accused Jameel, Nazim and Imran of plotting against him in 2012. Now, he called on them to “restore democracy” in the country.

“I understand how difficult it is to take this step,” Nasheed said. “But we have decided this understanding and knowing the gravity of the issues faced by our people.”

The subtext to this would later become clear: the former president intended to overthrow the incumbent using the same forces once used against him. The midnight march in late August was the first attempted overthrow since the MUO’s inaugural press conference. Another one followed the next week, and failed just as badly, before the street protests ground to a halt. Later, I discovered that these were only the latest in a longer series of failed plots against Yameen. Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party had led two others in February and May 2015, and another discreet attempt in February 2016.

The tactics on all of these occasions were similar: to try and turn a civilian protest into a full-blown rebellion backed by the government’s own security forces. Each time, some civilians rose up, but no security personnel joined them. This pointed to a larger issue—the deep roots of Yameen’s regime, and the web of complicity between it and all organs of the Maldivian state. Many in the security forces have benefitted from the government’s corruption, and any change in regime comes with the threat of exposure. The same applies to parliamentarians too, who, on top of that, must also reckon with the government’s often deceitful political manoeuvring. Earlier this year, the opposition tried to orchestrate a no-confidence vote against the speaker in the country’s parliament, where the Progressive Party of Maldives holds a majority, but failed to muster the necessary numbers. “It’s easier to convince the police than the MPs,” an opposition leader, who was closely involved in the August plan, told me. “The parliament is full of money-crazy people. These monkeys have turned us into a banana-republic.”

The greater threat to Yameen might well reside within his inner circle. Besides the attempted overthrows, he has also weathered three alleged assassination attempts, reportedly organised by the man who was once his most trusted deputy, Ahmed Adeeb. These apparently failed for some of the same reasons as the rebellions, including bad planning and botched execution. But all the same, Yameen and his shrinking circle of supporters have shown what seems an uncanny knack for staying ahead of the growing opposition.

Over six months in the Maldives last year, from June through November, I interviewed more than two dozen former or current members of the government, the opposition, the security forces or civil-society groups. These meetings, often held in dimly lit cafes over the Maldivian staples of coffee, cigarettes and areca nuts, revealed in remarkable detail the failed attempts to remove Yameen, and the vicious machinations that have shaped the country’s recent politics.

My conversations with members of the opposition also exposed disillusionment among supporters of the MDP, and divides within the ranks of the MUO. In the days after the August overthrow attempt, planned street protests ground to a halt as the opposition found it ever harder to mobilise crowds. Several opposition leaders were disgruntled over the BBC report, and the MUO’s open declaration of an impending plot. “Who makes an announcement before attempting to overthrow a president?” the opposition leader involved in the August plan said. “The president was obviously ready for it.” There was also an intelligence failure on the opposition’s part, he added. Yameen was not even at his residence on that August night. He had left hours earlier for the presidential retreat on the island of Aarah.

There was consensus among those I spoke to that the Maldives had relapsed into dictatorship. What went unsaid was that the profile of those lining up against the regime has changed greatly since Yameen came to power. The opposition has grown, and the MUO presents a major challenge to the current government, but in getting to this stage it has taken in more and more members of the old guard, and employed less-than-democratic means to try and dislodge its nemesis. It also now encompasses a variety of competing interests and centres of power that could hamper its unity—whether as a dissident force or, should Yameen fall, as a ruling one. With so many opposition leaders carrying histories of complicity with undemocratic forces, there are chances that even if the current opposition attains rule, democracy in the Maldives could once again be sidelined.

THE FIRST PRESIDENT of the Maldives, Amin Didi, was beaten to death by an angry mob in Malé in 1954. He had abolished a centuries-old sultanate in 1953 and established a republic, although the country remained a British protectorate. Shunted out of power while on a visit abroad, after his return he attempted a coup to re-establish the sultanate, with himself as prime minister. He failed, and was killed on the night of his doomed attempt.

The sultanate was successfully re-established soon afterwards, but was finally abolished in 1968. By then, the Maldives had gained its independence. With the return of republicanism, Ibrahim Nasir became president. In 1978, as he sensed his influence waning, he fled to Singapore, making way for Gayoom. Nasheed’s immediate successor after he fell from power in 2012 was Mohamed Waheed. He fled to Singapore a week before his term ended, in 2013, and was replaced by Yameen.

Besides the serving president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom is the only person to have held the presidential post and avoided a violent death or exile. Gayoom, who ruled from 1978 to 2008, also holds the dubious distinction of being the longest-serving dictator in modern Asian history. Gayoom’s systems of patronage and intimidation shaped an entire generation of Maldivians, and continue to shape the presidency of Yameen.
Gayoom, now aged 79, is a soft-spoken man with a clean-shaven face usually frozen in an expression of mild amusement. A graduate of the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo, he is a well-regarded Islamic scholar in the Maldives. During his rule, he acted as the head of the government and the judiciary, and, in the words of the constitution, the “supreme authority to propagate the tenets of Islam.” Those disagreeing with his religious interpretations were banished to remote islands. In extreme cases, religious scholars had their long beards lathered with chilli sauce and shaved off.

Under Gayoom, the Maldives built itself up as a high-end tourism destination. Tourists had first arrived on the islands in 1971, when an Italian entrepreneur brought 22 of his compatriots for a 12-day stay. The pioneering excursion had its share of hiccups: the foreigners found the local food too spicy and the typical coral-stone houses too basic. But pristine beaches and near-perfect weather made up for the lack of material comforts. Those comforts gradually arrived, as Gayoom began leasing out uninhabited islands—even today, hundreds of the archipelago’s 1,192 islands have no one living on them—to be developed into resorts by his closest and most faithful. One of his former domestic helpers, Qasim Ibrahim, landed a number of these leases. Today he is widely described as “the richest man in the Maldives.” By the end of Gayoom’s reign, the Maldivian tourism industry was worth several billion dollars a year, and was the single most important part of the country’s economy.

Nepotism extended into political institutions as well: the cabinet of ministers, the judiciary and the National Security Service—which was known for its brutal crackdowns against Gayoom’s opponents, and was eventually split into the police and the military. Gayoom built up a large and generously compensated public sector. Spending on civil servants quadrupled between 2003 and 2009. Towards the end of Gayoom’s rule, about a tenth of the Maldives’s population held a government job.

In the early 1990s, the young, British-educated Mohamed Nasheed launched a movement to establish democracy. Nasheed and his small group of supporters were often detained and tortured on the prison island of Dhoonidhoo, which neighbours Malé. Prisoners later recalled being buried in the ground for days, or hung upside down from trees with coconut honey smeared on them to attract ants. Nasheed spent over a thousand days at Dhoonidhoo, the majority of them under Gayoom’s reign, often in solitary confinement.

Despite such repression, in the absence of independent media many Maldivians grew up believing that Gayoom was, in a popular phrase I heard many times, a dictator “with a velvet fist.”

The illusion of stability broke in 2003, when the mother of Evan Naseem, a criminal convict tortured and killed in custody, displayed his mutilated body in the streets of Malé. This was striking evidence of the state’s brutality, hitherto talked of only in whispers, and provoked the biggest street protests the country had seen in decades. Soon afterwards, the the country was hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. In bargaining for millions of dollars of international relief aid, Gayoom was made to introduce democratic reforms—freedom of speech, a free press and a multi-party system of governance, all under a new constitution.

For the country’s first democratic presidential election, in 2008, Nasheed’s MDP formed a coalition with the Jumhooree Party, led by Qasim Ibrahim, and the Adhaalath Party, led by religious scholars who hoped to create a sharia state. The alliance won, with a slight majority.

A buoyant Nasheed said that the outgoing president would not be prosecuted for his regime’s excesses. “If we can curtail him while he is in power, I have no problem in letting him out,” he had said in a pre-election interview. For Nasheed, there was no “fear that he would come and disturb us. Never.”

Nasheed’s optimism was short-lived. Ahead of parliamentary elections, held a few months after the presidential election, several islanders reported the appearance of new fridges, sports equipment and televisions in their neighbours’ houses. Amid accusations of vote-buying, Gayoom’s Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party won a majority in the 85-seat parliament. Soon, DRP MPs were stonewalling the government’s attempts at reform, sometimes on the basis of grammatical errors in bills put before the parliament. This forced Nasheed’s cabinet to briefly resign en-masse in 2010 to protest such “scorched-earth” tactics.

By then, Gayoom had weaponised his image as an Islamic scholar. In its rhetoric before the 2008 presidential election, the DRP accused Nasheed of conspiring to convert the Maldives into a Christian state. In December 2011, having tempted the Adhaalath Party into switching sides, Gayoom collaborated with Sheikh Imran, the Islamist outfit’s leader, to launch a high-decibel campaign to “defend Islam.” It attracted the largest crowds the Maldives had seen in years, and amplified calls for Nasheed’s resignation.

The movement against Nasheed could, by and large, also count on support from the security forces. Most members of the security forces had been appointed during Gayoom’s regime, and sympathised with the former dictator. To make things worse, the MDP government slashed their salaries in order to reduce the crippling debt it had inherited from Gayoom’s presidency.

The MDP’s reformist zeal was frustrated in the country’s courts as well. The new constitution had established strict standards for judicial conduct that should have disqualified many judges appointed under Gayoom, especially the sizeable contingent of them who had been implicated in criminal activity. But in August 2010, the parliament, working behind closed doors to approve a new set of judges for the supreme court, returned many tainted old-timers to their posts.

In January 2012, Nasheed ordered the arrest of the chief justice, an old Gayoom hand named Abdulla Mohamed, on charges including corruption and the obstruction of the government. Just before this, Abdulla Mohamed had ordered the release of Mohamed Jameel, then a Gayoom ally, who had been detained on suspicion of mobilising anti-government protests. The opposition accused Nasheed of violating the limits of his power under the constitution, and ramped up calls for his resignation.

At that point, things took an especially sinister turn. Mohamed Hameed, then the police intelligence chief, told me in a Malé cafe in August that, at the time, “The opposition was in talks with some members of the security forces. There was a possibility of a mutiny.” Late in January 2012, it was reported that Waheed, who was Nasheed’s vice president at the time, held a midnight meeting with opposition leaders at his residence.

On the morning of 7 February, Nasheed was cornered in Malé, in the headquarters of the Maldivian army, by a hundreds-strong crowd of mutineering police and army personnel, as well as opposition supporters. As rogue police officers hijacked the state broadcaster to take it off air and Islamists barged into the national museum to destroy Buddhist artefacts that predated the Maldives’s conversion to Islam, Waheed appeared on a private television channel owned by Qasim Ibrahim to implore viewers to stay calm. “I support the peaceful efforts of a large number of Maldivians trying to protect the constitution and the religion,” he said.

Ahmed Naseem, then the foreign minister, was in army headquarters at the time. “We told Nasheed to throw open the armoury,” he told me in Colombo, where he now lives in exile. But the president, he said, was resolute that there would be no bloodshed on his watch. A few hours later, Nasheed stood in a hall packed with incredulous MDP supporters and read aloud a handwritten resignation letter.
With Waheed at the head of the government, many of those who had served under Gayoom, including several of his family members, now returned to official positions. A Commonwealth-backed investigation subsequently rejected Nasheed’s claim that he had been removed in a coup.

“Nasheed had started street protests since 2005 and come to power based on a lot of lies,” Umar Naseer told me. Naseer, who served as the home minister under Yameen’s rule, had, soon after Nasheed resigned, boasted publicly of coordinating with protestors from a “command centre” as the situation escalated. “We thought, we’ll teach this guy a lesson,” he said. “We’ll play from his own book. We opened his operational manual and did a much better job than him.” Naseer paused and laughed. “His protests were 2005 to 2008. Our protests were 2009 to 2012. And we ended him.”

Few thought of Waheed as anything more than a stand-in. Gayoom’s loyalists massed behind Yameen. The deposed dictator’s half-brother had formed his own party in 2008, but now it merged into the Progressive Party of Maldives, an outfit launched earlier by Gayoom.

Yameen needed the backing. Azra Naseem, a prominent blogger, wrote at the time that he had “a hard time smiling, a fact which his campaign has sought hard to remedy” by having several of his friends appear on a television programme with Yameen “to insist on how much fun he really, really is.” The aspiring president complemented those efforts by touring several of the country’s islands by speedboat, where he cut ribbons, shook hands and pinched babies’ cheeks.

Not being affable was not his only handicap. As the chairman of the State Trade Organisation through the 1990s and early 2000s, he had been suspected of selling nearly $300 million of imported oil to the military junta in Myanmar, then under an international embargo, and pocketing millions of dollars in the process. In 2010, Yameen had been accused of offering bribes to MDP MPs in exchange for their help in impeaching Nasheed. In 2016, Nasheed told the New York Times that, while in power, his government had acquired evidence of Yameen’s corruption, and was set to pursue charges against him when it was ousted. Waheed’s government binned the matter.

Nasheed’s ouster burnished his credentials as a pro-democracy warrior. Instead of wooing partners to form a coalition as in 2008, for the 2013 presidential election he and the MDP decided to fight alone. The party’s campaign leaned heavily on its leader’s geniality. Nasheed visited almost every residence in Malé, travelled to all of the 200 islands where Maldivians live, and personally signed letters addressed to each of the country’s 240,000 eligible voters. While there were other candidates campaigning too, the marquee clash was Nasheed versus Gayoom, all over again.

In September 2013, in the first of what should have been two rounds of voting, Nasheed won 45 percent of the vote against Yameen’s 25 percent. The supreme court declared the results void, upholding allegations of vote-rigging submitted by the third runner-up, Qasim Ibrahim. The ruling came as a shock. The UN’s assistant secretary-general for political affairs, after inspecting the court’s judgment, stated that the election had been “all-inclusive, there was no disenfranchisement and the quality of voter register met international standards.” Meanwhile, the police released a “secret” report stating that over 5,000 of the votes cast were ineligible.

The election commission prepared a re-run of the election, but was twice stymied—first by security forces who blocked polling, and then by the supreme court again, with aid from security personnel. The delays gave Gayoom’s faction time to consolidate its position, and it continued to trumpet its claim of being a protector of Islam in the face of a supposed conspiracy against the religion by Nasheed and the MDP.

A repeat of the first round was finally held in November, with similar results to the earlier poll. A night before the second-round run-off between Yameen and Nasheed, Gayoom stitched together an alliance with Qasim Ibrahim, reportedly offering him control of a third of the seats in the cabinet. Yameen defeated Nasheed by around 6,000 ballots—roughly three percent of the total votes cast.

“The most important thing we must do is thank Allah,” Gayoom said in a victory speech. “He has given us victory. He has given his religion victory.” Yameen, in his inaugural address, took a dig at those who had expressed reservations about the way the supreme court’s interventions had worked in his favour. “The Maldivian nation has decided,” he said, looking characteristically surly. “The international community I’m sure should rest assured that we know how to decide our fate in the future.”

The parliamentary election that followed a few months later was a tamer affair, and the PPM won a strong majority. This ensured that Yameen could rule with impunity.

Yameen, like Gayoom before him, made corruption a mainstay of his political strategy. In 2015, a leaked audit report revealed that his government had leased 59 uninhabited islands to developers without competitive bidding, and embezzled $79 million along the way. Last year, an investigative documentary by Al Jazeera, Stealing Paradise, revealed a separate plot by Yameen’s regime to launder $1.5 billion from leasing out numerous lagoons.

A central figure in these dealings was Ahmed Adeeb, who was appointed tourism minister after the 2013 presidential election. In mid 2015, in a sign of Yameen’s confidence in him, Adeeb was made vice president. Within months, he would become one of his benefactor’s worst enemies.

IN THE MALDIVES, the tourism minister is responsible for overseeing all deals for resort development on uninhabited islands. Once deals are approved, the necessary payments are addressed to the Maldives Marketing and PR Corporation, or MMPRC, the government’s official island-leasing agency. After Nasheed was ousted, Adeeb was appointed the tourism minister in Waheed’s cabinet—“on the recommendation of Yameen,” a one-time confidante of the president told me—and came to collaborate with the MMRPC’s director, Abdulla Ziyath. Stealing Paradise, on the strength of leaked documents, revealed how Ziyath would sign the backs of cheques made out to the MMPRC to allow them to be transferred into bank accounts belonging to private firms owned by Adeeb’s family. Numerous judges, MPs and members of the security forces, and Yameen himself, received kickbacks, usually in the form of cash-stuffed bags delivered late at night. The rampant bribery earned Adeeb a new nickname: the ATM.

In a secretly recorded video included in Stealing Paradise, obtained by Al Jazeera, some of Adeeb’s associates—often known as his “bros”—confess to delivering money to Yameen at the presidential residence. “Some months, it’s every day the money will be coming,” Adeeb’s driver, Mohamed “Oittey” Hussain, says in the recordings. The amount, says another “bro,” ranged from $100,000 to $1 million per delivery.

A cache of text messages also released by Al Jazeera revealed that Adeeb wielded considerable influence over Hussain Waheed, the police commissioner under Yameen; Ahmed “Papa” Fayaz, whom Yameen appointed to head the army’s Special Protection Group, responsible for the president’s security detail; and criminal gangs in the capital. “I am the boss of all gangs in Malé,” he boasts in one text. “I took them over in the last elections.”

Adeeb used the gangs to terrorise and silence those he perceived as dissenters. During the controversial election delays by the supreme court, one gang set fire to the offices of Raajje TV, an MDP-aligned news channel. Afrasheem Ali, a PPM MP considered close to Gayoom, was murdered a few months before a party primary. The reasons for his killing never became clear, but at the time the commissioner of police stated that it involved a political motive, and a fee of 4 million Maldivian rufiya—roughly $250,000. A researcher who has studied Malé’s gangs told me, on condition of anonymity, that some months before the murder a gang member “waved a file at me and said, ‘This is a contract of 5 million rufiya. To kill someone significant.’”

In March last year, the MDP leaked a recording, apparently dating to 2013, of a phone conversation between Adeeb and Abdulla Jabir, a PPM MP convicted of alcohol and cannabis possession in 2014.

“Yameen called me,” Jabir says on the recording. “Banks opened yesterday. I have withdrawn 10 million rufiyaa”—roughly $650,000—“and kept it in my safe. I have all the money Yameen wants.”

Adeeb replies that he will “start working on it now.”

“You are his beloved,” Jabir goes on to say. “Why does Yameen love you so much, Adeeb?”

Because, Adeeb replies, “I get the job done.” Five months later, Jabir was granted a presidential pardon.

Adeeb intervened similarly on behalf of other top politicians and civil servants too. In 2013, secretly filmed videos appeared online showing Ali Hameed, a judge of the supreme court, apparently meeting prostitutes in a Sri Lankan hotel room. Under Maldivian law, the judge, as a married man, faced prosecution for adultery. Adeeb helped close the criminal inquiry against him. “My dear brother you and HEP”—His Excellency the President—“did more than enough to me and my family. I will always be grateful sir !” reads a text message from Hameed to Adeeb that was later leaked. In another leaked message, the judge writes, “We will remain soldiets till the mossion is over in 2018! Or 2023 ? Hah! hah ! Hah !”

Besides making Adeeb his frontman in all of this, Yameen, who has never interacted with either the local or the international media since his election, also appointed him to be the public face of the government. “He was loyal,” Fatimath Luisha, Adeeb’s wife, told me on the sidelines of the MUO press conference in London. “He did whatever Yameen wanted him to do.”

Adeeb was suddenly flush with money—he started flaunting Rolex watches, cruising around Malé on high-end motorbikes and travelling the world. The change made many suspicious. In August 2014, Ahmed Rilwan, a journalist at Minivan News, which later became Maldives Independent, was abducted after he reportedly started investigating the island-leasing scam. He was never seen again. In November that year, Yameen stripped Umar Naseer of his power over police officers as the home minister, after the latter launched a probe into Adeeb’s dealings. The same month, Yameen sacked Niyaz Ibrahim, the government’s auditor general, after he published a report alleging corruption in island sales. Soon, Niyaz’s family started receiving death threats.

One night in January 2015, a group of police officers believed to be loyal to Adeeb raided the home of Mohamed Nazim, who was then still the defence minister. The police claimed that they discovered a pistol, three bullets and a USB stick with “plans to harm government officials” in his bedside drawer. Nazim was sacked from the cabinet the next day, and later sentenced to 11 years in prison. He is presently under house arrest in Malé, from where he has declared his support of the MUO. This January, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled that his sentence was “illegal” and “arbitrary.” One of my interviewees, who had intimate knowledge of Nazim’s work, told me that the former defence minister had warned the president about Adeeb’s money laundering only weeks before the raid.

Nazim’s arrest set off the attempts to remove Yameen. A day after it, Ali Waheed, then the chairperson of the MDP, received a call from Nasheed. “He told me, ‘It’s time to let go of the past,’” Waheed told me over voice chat from the United Kingdom last year. In February 2015, the MDP formally joined hands with Nazim and Qasim Ibrahim’s Jumhooree Party.

The new alliance was a precarious one. On the day Nasheed was besieged, Nazim had entered army headquarters to serve him an ultimatum to resign. On a later occasion, Nasheed publicly called him a “traitor.”

But, those I interviewed from inside the MDP told me, Nasheed knew his party was too isolated to mount a strong challenge by itself. “Qasim Ibrahim has good connections with judges, the police and the army. Many of them have studied under scholarships he granted them,” Mohamed Shifaz, the vice president of the MDP, who was closely involved in the opposition’s plan, told me. The hope, he said, was that his involvement would make it easier to get an arrest warrant for the president. The MDP had seen Nazim control mutineering security personnel in 2012, and “assumed the support had stayed.”

On his part, Nasheed seemed confident that he could mobilise anti-Yameen sentiment. In a rally that month, he invoked the 2012 coup and declared that on 27 February 2015, Yameen’s government would be changed “in that very path deemed legal.”

Both Nazim and Nasheed were arrested a week before the protest. Meanwhile, Adeeb’s tourism ministry demanded that Qasim return loans and pay rents worth an astronomical $100 million relating to properties leased to his Villa Group. Qasim fled to Sri Lanka. Several people I spoke to said that, on the eve of the protest, Qasim asked the MDP to end the demonstration by 6 pm, since he had received threats that his bank accounts would be frozen if the protestors did not withdraw by that time.

On 27 February, nearly 10,000 protestors, including ones from neighbouring islands and atolls, took to the streets of Malé. Majeedhee Magu, the city’s main thoroughfare, which runs for two kilometres across its entire breadth, was packed for nearly half of its length. The protestors waved flags, and raised slogans demanding a regime change. Then, disbelieving, they listened as MDP leaders announced that they were to clear out shortly after 6 pm. Those who remained past the deadline were attacked by Malé’s gangs, and 31 people were arrested. A group of unidentified men vandalised broadcast equipment at the site.

“My party was furious,” Ali Waheed told me. Before Nasheed was jailed, Waheed said, he had told him “to stick to his partner”—Qasim Ibrahim. “I followed his decision.”

The criminal court blitzed through Nasheed’s trial. It conducted 11 hearings in 19 days—a record. Nasheed was charged with “enforced disappearance” for ordering the arrest of Abdulla Mohamed, the criminal court judge, before his 2012 resignation.

Of the three judges hearing the case, two testified as prosecution witnesses. They rejected concerns of any conflict of interest, and repeatedly refused to hear defence witnesses, saying that the prosecution “wouldn’t be able to refute the evidence.” Nasheed was branded a terrorist and sentenced to 13 years in prison. By Maldivian law, the conviction made him ineligible to run for president for the duration of his sentence.

In a secret recording in Stealing Paradise, Oittey, Adeeb’s driver, says that on the day Nasheed was to be sentenced, “Adeeb called me and he told me to pick up a letter,” from Yameen. “I just opened it. It was written Nasheed’s sentence. So I just went and gave it to Adeeb.”

Three days after the verdict, the MDP formally announced another partnership, this time with the Adhaalath Party. The two parties declared the formation of an “Alliance Against Brutality.”

This alliance, too, raised eyebrows. Adhaalath and its self-appointed guardians of Islam were by now notorious for frequently shifting allegiances. Adhaalath had attacked Nasheed personally before the 2013 election, as part of its “Defend Islam” campaign with Gayoom’s camp, giving him the nickname ganjabo, or “pothead.”

But the party won only one seat in parliament, and so was rendered toothless in the new government. Increasingly disappointed with its position under Yameen’s rule, now it again had shared interests with the MDP. Their plan: Nasheed would bring out the liberals, Adhaalath’s Sheikh Imran would get the conservatives on board, and Nazim, temporarily released from detention, would lobby with the security forces and his supporters within the parliament.

“This time, we wanted to double the number we had in the February protest, so we went to more islands,” Ali Waheed told me. According to one of my interviewees, who was involved in the negotiations, “The security forces assured us that if there was enough popular support, they too will join us.”

On the evening of 1 May, the Alliance Against Brutality held the biggest protest the Maldives had seen in decades. Thousands sailed to Malé from across the archipelago. Nearly 20,000 people headed to Republic Square—the site of the 2012 mutiny by security forces—where security personnel now promised to join the protestors.

“Then I got intel that they were going to bomb two places,” Ali Waheed said. Adeeb’s associates, he told me, had loaded a vehicle from the presidential entourage with explosives. “The source said that if we continued, we would be blamed for the blasts.”

Waheed turned back, with Imran in tow. Seeing them retreat without warning, the crowd fell into disarray. The security forces, in the interest of self-preservation, resorted to a crackdown, turning stun grenades, batons and pepper spray against protestors. Lorries carrying police officers drove into the crowds. Hundreds were arrested. Dozens were released only because custodial centres couldn’t take in any more. That night, jubilant government supporters in Malé set off fireworks.

Imran and Waheed were arrested by the next day. “The police officers asked me, ‘Oh, is this the new government now? Have you got what you wanted?’” Waheed told me. At Dhoonidhoo, the two spent most of their days in solitary confinement in cramped tin sheds, passing in and out of consciousness in the summer heat. “The government passed us messages: join us and you’ll be free, or you will be charged for terrorism like Nasheed.”

Three weeks later, Waheed was released on bail. He boarded a flight to Sri Lanka, and later secured asylum in the United Kingdom. His departure set off a chain of opposition defections. Imran remains under house arrest in Malé. He has been barred from talking to the media.

To date, most members of the opposition believe that the May protest was the best chance at regime change. “I had no choice,” Waheed told me bitterly. “If we had still continued, today I’d be telling you how many people got killed that day.”

Shauna Aminath, an advisor to Nasheed at the time, told me that a month after the May protests the PPM and the MDP struck a backroom deal. In exchange for a presidential pardon for Nasheed, the MDP would help impeach the vice president, Mohamed Jameel, and pass a constitutional amendment to allow foreigners investing over $1 billion to buy land in the Maldives. Jameel, whose detention sparked the confrontation between Nasheed and the judiciary that ended in the MDP leader’s resignation, had become the vice president in 2013. Now, however, as a PPM MP made clear on Twitter, the ruling party suspected him of communicating with the opposition to put himself forward as a possible replacement for Yameen. He was swiftly deposed. “What else could the MDP have done?” Aminath said. “We can’t keep going while our political leaders are put behind bars.”

On 19 July, Yameen commuted Nasheed’s sentence to eight weeks of house arrest. The next day, the MDP voted overwhelmingly in favour of the PPM’s motion to amend the constitution, and it was passed. The same day, Ahmed Adeeb was sworn in as vice president. Fearing arrest, Jameel went into exile in the United Kingdom.

“And then,” Aminath said, “they stabbed us in the back.”

Two weeks later, the criminal court ordered that Nasheed be returned to jail. He emerged from his home quietly and was bundled away in a police van. In photographs taken at the time, he looks like a man who has finally been defeated.

I WAS SURPRISED when Yameen chose Adeeb,” Umar Naseer told me. As he saw it, there were already signs of the new vice president’s intent to threaten his boss. “My intel was telling me that Adeeb was trying to make political moves. He was already in contact with senior army officials, business community, MPs, judiciary and foreign investors.”

And then it happened. On 28 September, as Yameen and his wife were returning to Malé from the neighbouring international airport on a speedboat, after completing the Hajj, there was an explosion onboard. Yameen was unhurt, but his wife suffered a back injury. Fingers were pointed at Adeeb. The president publicly expressed “500 percent” confidence in his deputy, but also quietly instituted a three-member committee to probe the blast.

As the investigation started, a purge began. Nearly everyone thought to be close to Adeeb—in the police, the army and other public institutions, as well as in various business bodies—was transferred, dismissed or detained. This included the defence minister, the police commissioner and the head of the president’s security detail. Several people had their houses raided. Many “bros,” including Oittey, fled the country.

Meanwhile, experts from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka arrived to inspect the presidential yacht. The FBI and Saudi investigators declared that the blast had been accidental. The Sri Lankan experts said it could have been caused by a homemade bomb. A month after the blast, Adeeb was arrested for trying to assassinate the president. After a trial behind closed doors, he was convicted of plotting an assassination and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Then things got all the more bizarre. Over the next month, the police claimed that they foiled two more assassination attempts. First, they arrested a Sri Lankan national, claiming that he was a hired sniper. Then they claimed to have discovered a bomb near the president’s house. Meanwhile, the army claimed to have found a cache of arms stolen from its armoury buried underwater near an island being developed as a resort.

Umar Naseer told Reuters that there was a “clear connection” between the three incidents. He told me that all evidence pointed to Adeeb.

“The bomb-maker from the army was the same person who had made explosives for the May day,” Naseer said when we met. “When it failed, Adeeb had wanted to use hit squads to target the president using the stolen weapons.” The Sri Lankan national arrested was not necessarily a sniper, he added. “He was just recruited as one. The case against him is very loose. My suggestion was that we don’t arrest him.” But Yameen, paranoid and livid, had not listened. The Sri Lankan media later revealed that the arrested suspect was a fisherman.

I was not able to get the official view of these incidents, or of other recent events. Spokespersons from the police and army refused to be interviewed when I approached them, and the presidential office rebuffed my requests for a meeting with Yameen. I approached Adeeb’s lawyer, but he refused to speak too. An opposition leader currently in exile, however, told me that Adeeb had been actively plotting to remove Yameen, and, just weeks before his arrest, was in talks with the MDP to impeach the president.

After the arrest of his deputy, Yameen delivered a televised address—his first since his inauguration speech. He painted himself as a victim of a conspiracy by his “fondest” deputy. “I noted that the vice president’s influence and power was spread very much over the whole police institution,” he said. “Things were similar in the army.” He then ordered an audit into the island deals under Adeeb’s watch at the tourism ministry.

In February last year, a state-sanctioned audit implicated Adeeb in irregularities in the leasing of 59 islands and lagoons, and in embezzling nearly $79 million. The audit found that several MPs and ministers had also benefitted from the scheme, but none of them were named or penalised. It also absolved the president of any involvement. Adeeb was sentenced to 33 years in prison.

Soon afterwards, an employee of the Bank of Maldives sent out a mass email containing details of alleged embezzlement by Adeeb’s front companies. One of the listed transactions showed Yameen receiving $500,000. The whistleblower was promptly locked up for “unauthorised disclosure of private information.”

In London, Fatimath Luisa, Adeeb’s wife, denied that her husband had tried to assassinate Yameen. As for the suspect financial deals, she told me, “I don’t think Adeeb could be the only person doing it. Yameen must have an idea about it. Or Yameen and Adeeb together must have done it. I wonder how Adeeb could be the only one getting the funds. It’s impossible, right?”

It was safe to assume that many would be disgruntled at cash handouts drying up with the investigation and Adeeb’s prosecution.

“So the moment Adeeb was on the blacklist, I started negotiating,” Akram Kamaludeen, the MDP chief for Malé, told me. He got in touch with Muhtaz Muhsin, an associate of Adeeb’s who was fired from his post as prosecutor general after he tried to delay proceedings against the former vice president. By the first week of February 2016, the two, along with “an exiled leader of the opposition,” had assembled a group of police and army personnel willing to revolt. The recruits were given a hefty sum of cash and an implausible mission: to arrest the president in the middle of the night from his residence.

At midnight on 7 February, the police contingent, led by Muhsin, left the capital in a speedboat, bound for a magistrate court on a neighbouring island. The judge there had agreed to furnish them with an arrest warrant for the president on corruption charges.

The plan, Kamaludeen explained, was for the group to link up with a “spontaneous” gathering of protestors at Yameen’s house. There was also to be a small group of army personnel to subdue Yameen’s guards. The policemen would then go inside and execute the warrant. Once arrested, under Maldivian law, a sitting president is constitutionally bound to step down. The date of the coup was to coincide with the fourth anniversary of Nasheed’s ouster.

“On the way to the president’s house, the tyres of the police vehicle got punctured,” Kamaludeen said. “They had to go on foot.” When the army personnel arrived at the planned hour outside Yameen’s house, there was no one there. The contingent was noticed and intercepted by police loyal to Yameen. The mission was aborted.

“I knew they would come for me,” Kamaludeen told me. “I told my family that I was going out. I wasn’t carrying luggage, so they didn’t ask me where I was going.” He boarded a flight to Sri Lanka. Muhsin and the magistrate who issued the warrant were arrested.

It later emerged that the arrest warrant against Yameen was found lying on the streets of Malé. Nasheed, by this time in the United Kingdom, called a top army official and implored him to execute the warrant as required by law. The government called the document a “fake.” The plotters would have to be “more manly” if they were to take him down, Yameen scoffed in a speech a few days later.

The supreme court issued an order that only the criminal court in Malé could issue warrants against any resident of the city.

Soon after the formation of the MUO, Kamaludeen and Mohamed Jameel were charged for involvement in the removal plot. Kamaludeen, when we spoke, denied that Jameel had been involved. On 2 June, as I was interviewing Jameel at an upscale shopping mall in London, the former vice president excused himself to answer a phone call. A few minutes later he hung up, and smiled for the first time in our conversation. Yameen, he said, “has got witnesses to say I am behind it. The international community has to understand we are dealing with a monster.”

I approached Nasheed several times, through intermediaries in the MDP and other associates of his, to ask for an interview. He never agreed to one.
in the last week of June 2016, I met with Ahmed Mahloof at a beachside cafe in Malé. A footballer turned politician and MP, Mahloof had been expelled from the PPM after speaking up against the detention of Nazim. In June, he joined the MUO as a spokesperson. He told me of the plan to hold nightly rallies across the country calling for Yameen to resign, but was also conscious that opposition supporters were getting jaded with street protests. “Whatever we do,” said Mahloof, “we should do within two months.”

Mahloof was jailed in mid July, accused of organising anti-government protests. Only days later, the nightly rallies began. “We can’t seem to get the crowds,” Imtiyaz Fahmy, an MP with the MDP, told me. Even on a good day, the crowds numbered only around a hundred people. The police arrived within minutes to disperse them, citing inconvenience to traffic.

The government’s crackdown became more severe, and more arbitrary. An Italian tourist found clicking photographs of an MUO rally was deported for “practising journalism.” A criminal court remanded an opposition sympathiser in custody for 45 days, saying his tweets were “inciting hatred against security forces.” At least three news outlets were shut down after they carried unflattering coverage of the government, including the country’s oldest newspaper, Haveeru. The rest were reined in by a new law criminalising defamation, which imposed crippling penalties of up to $13,000.

A day after the failed removal attempt on the night of 30 August, police turned up at the offices of Maldives Independent with a search warrant that accused the publication of plotting to topple the government. A brief search revealed nothing incriminatory. Disappointed, the police took away a defunct CCTV recorder. Anticipating trouble, the publication’s editor, Zaheena Rasheed, had very recently gone into exile. (The severity of the threat to independent voices in the Maldives became clear this April when Yameen Rasheed, a prominent political blogger and critic of the government, was found stabbed to death in his Malé apartment.)

In early September, I met Mohamed Shainee, the fisheries minister and a close aide to Yameen, in his sea-facing office in Malé. In a cabinet notorious for stonewalling journalists, Shainee was one of the few ministers open to interviews. He was among the select few to have survived in Yameen’s cabinet for the three years since it was formed. Even the slightest show of defiance had been met with punishment—demotion or dismissal at best, and sometimes imprisonment. Ahmed Zuhoor, who was appointed the home minister in June 2016, was reduced to being simply a “minister” just months later after reportedly expressing reservations over the government’s push to reintroduce capital punishment. The president’s spokesperson, when asked about Zuhoor’s change of title, told the media, “Should the title ‘minister’ always be followed by an ‘of’?”

Shainee praised what he saw as the economic development Yameen had delivered through agreements with China and Saudi Arabia. Each island in the Maldives, he said, was now on the verge of transformation. A recent report by the World Bank, however, pointed at high youth unemployment, swelling public debt and a growth rate of under 2 percent in 2015, a new low since the global recession of 2008. The report was met by jeers from the ruling party. One government MP told reporters at a press conference, “The World Bank is jealous of the Maldives’s progress.”

“The government is very strong,” Shainee told me. “The only way it can be changed legally is through the parliament, and we are very sure that that cannot be done.” I asked if this was for fear of repercussions, and pointed out that Yameen had sacked almost 20 cabinet ministers over his tenure. “No,” Shainee replied. “It is the courage of the president to bring a change to the country. ‘Whatever you do, you can’t get away with this’ is the message he is sending.”

On 8 September, only three days after my conversation with Shainee, there was yet another attempt to overthrow Yameen. It was timed to come a day after the premiere of Stealing Paradise. On this occasion, fewer than 80 protestors gathered, a few blocks from the president’s residence, even though MUO leaders had repeatedly assured them that the police would join their cause. They did not. “We didn’t even feel they were being serious,” one of the protestors from that evening told me. The police dispersed the protestors within minutes. There was no inconvenience to traffic that night.

Ali Waheed told me that Yameen’s power was still too strong and far-reaching. Soon after Nasheed’s ouster, Waheed chaired an internal MDP committee to investigate what had made the overthrow possible. These inquiries led to a startling revelation: some of the MDP’s own people had been involved. This, Waheed explained to me, was a crucial reason why none of the removal attempts against Yameen had yet succeeded. “Do you think everyone wants him out?” he said. “The moment they do, he won’t be there.”

As part of its strategy to isolate Yameen and weaken his government, the MUO has been lobbying foreign governments to impose sanctions against the regime’s leaders. Nasheed has met with representatives from several Commonwealth countries, as have other MUO figures. On a visit to Delhi in June 2016, Ahmed Naseem, the MDP leader and former foreign minister, called on the Indian government to put greater pressure on Yameen’s administration, including through sanctions. Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, a spokesperson for the MUO, told me that the opposition’s conversations with India had been going well. But, he added, they had resulted in little real action.

The lack of Indian initiative has hobbled the MUO’s international efforts. In September, I telephoned Paul Godfrey, a spokesperson for the European Union delegation to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The onus for establishing a bold line against the Maldivian government, he said, rested primarily on India—because of the depth and duration of its involvement in the archipelago, and because many governments look to it as a regional watchdog in South Asia. While the West has vocally opposed such things as the Maldivian government’s incarceration of Nasheed and its crackdown on dissent, India has largely stayed silent.

An official from the Indian embassy in Malé, speaking to me informally, expressed the view that Yameen had done what he had through legitimate, if compromised, channels: the judiciary and the parliament. The president, the official said, “is following the letter of the law, even if not the spirit of the law.” Despite repeated requests, the embassy itself declined to offer any official comment.

“India has been consistent in non-interference in the internal affairs of Maldives, now as ever,” N Sathiya Moorthy, a senior fellow with the Observer Research Foundation, an influential Indian think tank, told me over email. Barring a single statement on Nasheed allegedly being dragged inside court premises while on trial in 2015, Sathiya Moorthy pointed out, “India has not made any official claim or statement on the domestic affairs of the Maldives.” Now, he continued, “It would seem that India wishes Maldives speedy return to political normalcy, which has suffered intermittently over the past decade and more.”

Sathiya Moorthy, who closely studies India’s southern neighbours, offered an unsentimental view of India’s position in the Maldives. “There does not seem to be much direct Indian influence on the Maldives’s domestic politics,” he said, especially when compared to the country’s sway over some other neighbours. Nasheed was an avowed ally of India while in power, but even so, after his resignation, there had not been “any great shift or change in India’s Maldives policy.” India played a role in securing permission for Nasheed to leave for the UK, but it did so “on the humanitarian front,” Sathiya Moorthy said, and “there did not seem to be any political angle” to its efforts. He added that in light of Nasheed’s peculiar position—an immensely popular pro-democracy figure living abroad under political asylum, absconding from imprisonment handed down by the supreme court of a sovereign neighbouring government—India “must tread carefully in dealing with him, personally and at the official level.”

How well India’s approach has served its own interests, not to mention those of Maldivian democracy, remains open to debate. In November 2012, the Maldivian government, then under Waheed, threw out an Indian firm, GMR, that had been contracted under Nasheed to upgrade and operate Malé’s international airport. The Maldives continues to claim that it has an “India-first” foreign policy even as it has recently grown close to China and Saudi Arabia, which the Indian government sees as rivals in the region. In October, in a sign of the country’s diplomatic realignment, the Maldives quit the Commonwealth after the organisation expressed concern over a “democracy deficit” and lack of judicial independence under Yameen.

As October turned to November, Yameen seemed to have finally hit a major setback as his party broke apart. Gayoom withdrew his support for his half-brother. In a seeming retaliation, the courts stripped Gayoom of his post as the head of the PPM. The party headquarters in Malé was ransacked, and furniture, computers and cartons of documents were loaded into trucks to be ferried to a new party office set up by Yameen. Yameen declared that his would be the “real PPM.”

In the second week of the month, I walked to the old PPM headquarters, which still served as an office for Gayoom’s faction. The building had received a fresh coat of pink and white paint. Only one wall had been left untouched, displaying untidy graffiti in Dhivehi. “‘President Gayoom, we have taken your party from you,’” the office receptionist translated for me. “There were more of those but we painted over them. President Gayoom said he is going to frame this one.”

Inside, the decor was austere, and two portraits of Gayoom hung proudly on opposite ends of a corridor. I was shown into a conference room, where I met Faris Maumoon, the 46-year-old scion of the Gayoom clan. Faris had been expelled from the PPM in June, after he opposed a government-sponsored bill to allow leasing out islands without an open bidding process, reportedly on his father’s orders. He greeted me with a restrained smile and the easy confidence of an aristocrat. I had been chasing him for four months to get this interview. “I thought it was finally time,” he said.

His misgivings about Yameen’s rule had started in late 2014, with the rise of Ahmed Adeeb, Faris began. The former vice president’s actions seemed to have been “sanctioned by, sometimes devised by those above him.”

“Every institute is now a rubber stamp: parliament, the anti-corruption commission, judicial services commission,” Faris said. “It takes time to realise that perhaps what we did may not have been right. It takes even longer to say, okay, I don’t want this anymore. We want to change this.”

I asked if he thought the Maldives had become a dictatorship.

“Yes,” said the son of the former dictator.

Four months after this meeting, Gayoom signed an agreement with the MDP-led opposition to “restore democracy” in the Maldives. With Faris at the forefront, on 27 March, the opposition tabled a no-confidence motion against the parliamentary speaker, Abdulla Maseeh, a Yameen loyalist. This was planned as a prelude to a similar motion against the president himself. On the day of the vote, the deputy speaker, also from the ruling party, refused to allow electronic ballots—the typical method of voting in the parliament. The opposition loudly protested, and security personnel were summoned to remove the objecting MPs from the chamber. Maseeh won the vote, with 48 votes in his favour and not a single one against him in the 85-member house. A week later, Gayoom was thrown out of the party he set up, as were four PPM MPs who had supported him.

Despite its failure, the anti-Yameen bloc had, for the first time, posed a threat to the government in the parliament. To counter it, in April, the government amended parliamentary rules to require the support of at least 42 lawmakers, instead of the earlier 12, in order to submit a no-confidence motion against the speaker. “We have finished formulating a vaccine to tackle this flu,” Ahmed Nihan, the PPM’s parliamentary leader, told the media. “Hopefully, this flu, this illness, will not affect us for the rest of the year when we are immunised.” In May, the supreme court granted itself the power to veto any impeachment motion passed in parliament against the president or vice president, as well as against any cabinet minister or judge, the auditor general or prosecutor general, or the heads of a number of regulatory bodies.

On 12 July, ten MPs from the PPM defected to join a renewed opposition attempt to pass a no-confidence vote against Maseeh. Counting them alongside MPs from the MDP and the Jumhooree Party, the opposition now had a parliamentary majority of 45 members. The motion was submitted, and a buoyant Sheikh Imran told a local television channel that the opposition was on the cusp of “a complete victory.”

But, once again, the jubilation was premature. On 18 July, police arrested Faris Maumoon on charges of bribing parliamentarians. Qasim Ibrahim was declared a suspect on similar charges, and barred from travelling abroad. Meanwhile, after the supreme court declared that MPs who quit or are expelled from their parties stand to be disqualified from parliament, the four lawmakers who earlier followed Gayoom out of the PPM were removed from their seats. The opposition now lacked the 42 signatories required to support a no-confidence motion. The deputy speaker declared that there was consequently no need to vote on the earlier motion.

Two days after Faris’s arrest, I called Ahmed Mahloof in the Maldives. It had been a little over a year since I interviewed him in Malé, and the former MP had recently left prison after serving a ten-month sentence. He described his release as a journey from “a small jail … to a much bigger jail.” Much had changed during his incarceration, he said. Mahloof was certain of discontent among the PPM’s MPs, and told me that if the opposition manages “to pass the no-confidence motion against the speaker, we only need two or three months to change the government.” If that plan fails, he continued, “the presidential election next year is our only option, but at this point we know it won’t be a free and fair one.”

The same day, I also called Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, the MUO spokesperson. Anticipating where my questions would go, he decided to answer them before I could even start asking: “We are just as confused as you are.”

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.”

THREE MONTHS BEFORE that night, on the first morning of June 2016, Mohamed Nasheed was to address the press in a conference hall in central London. I was running late as I stepped into the warm space from the chill outside, but so were the organisers. Journalists waited, pens poised and cameras trained on a dais, as did a handful of spectators connected to British politics and civil society. Nasheed, a short, boyish 49-year-old, mingled with the crowd. Several other members of the Maldivian opposition were scattered about. After a few minutes, they joined Nasheed at the front of the room.

“Our country, the Maldives, has reverted back to dictatorship,” Nasheed began. “Our people have lost all their rights: freedom of expression, freedom of assembly. We’ve lost the good governance structures that we had so hoped we could practise.”

It had been six months since Nasheed landed in the British capital. Three months after his arrival, he was granted political asylum in the United Kingdom—for the second time in 15 years. In 2003, Nasheed was leading a pro-democracy movement in the Maldives when he was forced to flee by the government of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the dictator who had ruled the Indian Ocean archipelago since 1978. In exile in Sri Lanka, he helped form the Maldivian Democratic Party. The United Kingdom granted him asylum in 2004.

Four years later, in 2008, the MDP won the Maldives’s first democratic election, deposing Gayoom in the process. Nasheed became president, and pushed forward a wave of reforms. He also earned a reputation for his climate-change advocacy, which included holding a first-of-its-kind underwater cabinet meeting to raise awareness of how rising sea levels threatened the low-lying Maldives.
Internationally, such stunts and an easy charm served Nasheed well. David Cameron, the former British prime minister, once named him among the five world leaders he would most want to take along on a stag party. In the Maldives, however, his policies displeased many still-powerful members of the old establishment, and also alienated some of his allies. Less than four years into his tenure, under pressure from mutineering security forces, Nasheed resigned.

In November 2013, Abdulla Yameen, Gayoom’s half-brother, was elected president under dubious circumstances. The country’s supreme court had annulled a round of voting and delayed a fresh election on largely spurious grounds, leading the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights to accuse the judiciary of “subverting the democratic processes.” Over the course of Yameen’s rule, the UN, Amnesty International, the European Union, the United States and others have repeatedly criticised the Maldives for politically motivated trials of critics and opposition leaders, restrictions on free speech and assembly, and rising Islamic fundamentalism among its almost entirely Sunni population. Yameen’s detractors say he has populated the cabinet, parliament, police, army, judiciary and public institutions of accountability with his loyalists.

Even within the government and among his allies, Yameen’s authoritarian ways have caused havoc. In the last three and a half years, the Maldives has seen three different vice presidents and over 20 sackings of cabinet ministers. Yameen has also, while building new partnerships with Saudi Arabia and China, alienated many foreign governments—not least India, a long-time ally of the Maldives.

Nasheed was arrested in 2015, and sentenced to 13 years in prison. A UN special rapporteur said that “the speed of the proceedings combined with the lack of fairness in the procedures lead me to believe the outcome of the trial may have been pre-determined.” After much international lobbying, Nasheed was allowed to temporarily leave the Maldives for medical attention in the United Kingdom. He did not go back.

At the press conference in London, Nasheed spoke about a fresh election due in 2018. “We don’t believe the present government in Maldives is willing to have free and fair elections,” he said. “We must find enough leverage so that the government relents and speaks to us. For that, we need your assistance.”

This was a pitch for the Maldives United Opposition, a new coalition ranged against Yameen and his Progressive Party of Maldives. Besides Nasheed, the MUO’s leaders included Mohamed Jameel and Ahmed Adeeb, both former vice presidents under Yameen, Mohamed Nazim, formerly Yameen’s defence minister, and Sheikh Imran, the head of an Islamist outfit called the Adhaalath Party and, at various times, an ally of both the current regime and the democratic opposition. Each one of them had been jailed, exiled or otherwise silenced by Yameen. Until recently, Nasheed had accused Jameel, Nazim and Imran of plotting against him in 2012. Now, he called on them to “restore democracy” in the country.

“I understand how difficult it is to take this step,” Nasheed said. “But we have decided this understanding and knowing the gravity of the issues faced by our people.”

The subtext to this would later become clear: the former president intended to overthrow the incumbent using the same forces once used against him. The midnight march in late August was the first attempted overthrow since the MUO’s inaugural press conference. Another one followed the next week, and failed just as badly, before the street protests ground to a halt. Later, I discovered that these were only the latest in a longer series of failed plots against Yameen. Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party had led two others in February and May 2015, and another discreet attempt in February 2016.

The tactics on all of these occasions were similar: to try and turn a civilian protest into a full-blown rebellion backed by the government’s own security forces. Each time, some civilians rose up, but no security personnel joined them. This pointed to a larger issue—the deep roots of Yameen’s regime, and the web of complicity between it and all organs of the Maldivian state. Many in the security forces have benefitted from the government’s corruption, and any change in regime comes with the threat of exposure. The same applies to parliamentarians too, who, on top of that, must also reckon with the government’s often deceitful political manoeuvring. Earlier this year, the opposition tried to orchestrate a no-confidence vote against the speaker in the country’s parliament, where the Progressive Party of Maldives holds a majority, but failed to muster the necessary numbers. “It’s easier to convince the police than the MPs,” an opposition leader, who was closely involved in the August plan, told me. “The parliament is full of money-crazy people. These monkeys have turned us into a banana-republic.”

The greater threat to Yameen might well reside within his inner circle. Besides the attempted overthrows, he has also weathered three alleged assassination attempts, reportedly organised by the man who was once his most trusted deputy, Ahmed Adeeb. These apparently failed for some of the same reasons as the rebellions, including bad planning and botched execution. But all the same, Yameen and his shrinking circle of supporters have shown what seems an uncanny knack for staying ahead of the growing opposition.

Over six months in the Maldives last year, from June through November, I interviewed more than two dozen former or current members of the government, the opposition, the security forces or civil-society groups. These meetings, often held in dimly lit cafes over the Maldivian staples of coffee, cigarettes and areca nuts, revealed in remarkable detail the failed attempts to remove Yameen, and the vicious machinations that have shaped the country’s recent politics.

My conversations with members of the opposition also exposed disillusionment among supporters of the MDP, and divides within the ranks of the MUO. In the days after the August overthrow attempt, planned street protests ground to a halt as the opposition found it ever harder to mobilise crowds. Several opposition leaders were disgruntled over the BBC report, and the MUO’s open declaration of an impending plot. “Who makes an announcement before attempting to overthrow a president?” the opposition leader involved in the August plan said. “The president was obviously ready for it.” There was also an intelligence failure on the opposition’s part, he added. Yameen was not even at his residence on that August night. He had left hours earlier for the presidential retreat on the island of Aarah.

There was consensus among those I spoke to that the Maldives had relapsed into dictatorship. What went unsaid was that the profile of those lining up against the regime has changed greatly since Yameen came to power. The opposition has grown, and the MUO presents a major challenge to the current government, but in getting to this stage it has taken in more and more members of the old guard, and employed less-than-democratic means to try and dislodge its nemesis. It also now encompasses a variety of competing interests and centres of power that could hamper its unity—whether as a dissident force or, should Yameen fall, as a ruling one. With so many opposition leaders carrying histories of complicity with undemocratic forces, there are chances that even if the current opposition attains rule, democracy in the Maldives could once again be sidelined.

THE FIRST PRESIDENT of the Maldives, Amin Didi, was beaten to death by an angry mob in Malé in 1954. He had abolished a centuries-old sultanate in 1953 and established a republic, although the country remained a British protectorate. Shunted out of power while on a visit abroad, after his return he attempted a coup to re-establish the sultanate, with himself as prime minister. He failed, and was killed on the night of his doomed attempt.

The sultanate was successfully re-established soon afterwards, but was finally abolished in 1968. By then, the Maldives had gained its independence. With the return of republicanism, Ibrahim Nasir became president. In 1978, as he sensed his influence waning, he fled to Singapore, making way for Gayoom. Nasheed’s immediate successor after he fell from power in 2012 was Mohamed Waheed. He fled to Singapore a week before his term ended, in 2013, and was replaced by Yameen.

Besides the serving president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom is the only person to have held the presidential post and avoided a violent death or exile. Gayoom, who ruled from 1978 to 2008, also holds the dubious distinction of being the longest-serving dictator in modern Asian history. Gayoom’s systems of patronage and intimidation shaped an entire generation of Maldivians, and continue to shape the presidency of Yameen.
Gayoom, now aged 79, is a soft-spoken man with a clean-shaven face usually frozen in an expression of mild amusement. A graduate of the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo, he is a well-regarded Islamic scholar in the Maldives. During his rule, he acted as the head of the government and the judiciary, and, in the words of the constitution, the “supreme authority to propagate the tenets of Islam.” Those disagreeing with his religious interpretations were banished to remote islands. In extreme cases, religious scholars had their long beards lathered with chilli sauce and shaved off.

Under Gayoom, the Maldives built itself up as a high-end tourism destination. Tourists had first arrived on the islands in 1971, when an Italian entrepreneur brought 22 of his compatriots for a 12-day stay. The pioneering excursion had its share of hiccups: the foreigners found the local food too spicy and the typical coral-stone houses too basic. But pristine beaches and near-perfect weather made up for the lack of material comforts. Those comforts gradually arrived, as Gayoom began leasing out uninhabited islands—even today, hundreds of the archipelago’s 1,192 islands have no one living on them—to be developed into resorts by his closest and most faithful. One of his former domestic helpers, Qasim Ibrahim, landed a number of these leases. Today he is widely described as “the richest man in the Maldives.” By the end of Gayoom’s reign, the Maldivian tourism industry was worth several billion dollars a year, and was the single most important part of the country’s economy.

Page 1 of 512345
View as  
Single Page
Multiple Page

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.

READER'S COMMENTS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *