Chaos Islands: a Surprising New Alliance Makes a Play for Power in the Maldives

By Omkar Khandekar | 5 July 2016

Ever since Mohamed Nasheed—a former president of the Maldives—came to Britain in January 2016, he has made a series of public appearances. During these events, held in the months before he was granted political asylum in May, his message has seldom wavered: Maldives, the archipelago in the Indian Ocean consisting of about 1190 islands, is in turmoil. In 2008, Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) had come to power in the Maldives after the country held its first ever democratic elections, heralding the end of a three-decade-long dictatorship. Now, it had gone back to it.

On the chilly morning of 1 June 2016, as Nasheed took the stage in a large hall at the Royal Over-seas League, a non-profit club in London, he was, in the eyes of the Maldivian judiciary, a “terrorist” on the run. This was unsurprising given that the judiciary in the Maldives has had a history of issuing rulings convenient for the president Abdulla Yameen, the erstwhile dictator Mamoun Abdul Gayoom’s half-brother.

The former president was not the only one to have fallen out of favour of the judiciary, and by extension, Yameen. Nasheed shared the stage with, among others, four members of the country’s political elite. While the banner behind these speakers read “Maldives United Opposition,” the resistance against the present leadership was anything but cohesive. Each of the four Nasheed sat with had played a crucial role in a watershed coup in 2012 that had forced Nasheed to resign. It had also set the stage for Yameen to take over the presidency in farcical elections, held in 2013.

But when launching his newly formed alliance, Nasheed played down the chequered past of its members. “We have had our differences,” he told his audience, which consisted of nearly 30 members of the British media, politics and civil society. “But today, we have come together in one united opposition.”

He then laid out the Maldives United Opposition (MUO)’s agenda: “We don’t believe the present government in Maldives is willing to have free and fair elections [in 2018]. We must find enough leverages over the government so that it will relent and speak to us.”

Over the next hour, the MUO panel explained that its election strategy involved the appointment of a shadow cabinet, on the lines of the British parliamentary system. Each cabinet portfolio in the government of Maldives would have a shadow minister in the opposition, responsible for “reforming” the institution. The cabinet would be led by the former vice president Mohamed Jameel, who was sharing the stage with Nasheed that day and had fled the Maldives after a motion of no-confidence against him was passed in parliament last year. The MUO, its members explained, would take over as the interim government if—and when—the one led by Yameen fell out of favour of the people of Maldives.

Accompanying Nasheed and Jameel at the event was Fatimath Liusha. She was representing her husband and Jameel’s successor Ahmed Adeeb, who had been jailed for allegedly plotting to assassinate the President. Ali Zahir, the deputy head of the right-wing Adhaalath Party, was present on behalf of his party’s leader, Shaikh Imran, while Adam Nazim represented his brother and former defence minister Mohamed Nazim. Both Imran and Nazim are being held in captivity in Maldives.

For those present in the room, the subtext was clear: the former president, ousted in a coup, intended to overthrow the government using the same forces. In this endeavour, he would be helped by his friends, foes-turned-friends and friends-turned-foes-turned-friends.

In essence, the formation of the MUO is a response to the rising tide of discontent against the Yameen government, both among the public and the politicians in the Maldives. In the years following the coup, Nasheed was arrested and prosecuted in a series of trials that the United Nations described as “politically motivated.” In February 2015, he was photographed being dragged to the court by the police. The former president—his glasses broken, shirt torn and face contorted in pain—made headlines across the world, and prompted the human rights activist Amal Clooney to announce that she would take up his case pro bono. After the Maldivian courts sentenced Nasheed to 13 years of imprisonment in March 2015, thousands of his supporters took to the streets of Malé, the capital of the Maldives. The protests became larger with time, and two months later, in May, nearly 20,000 people came out. In response, President Yameen issued instructions to the police to launch the biggest crackdown in a decade. Close to 200 people were arrested, including leaders from the opposition. The courts sentenced them to be detained in custody for two weeks.

Like Gayoom, Yameen too has been accused of misusing the country’s independent institutions for personal gains and political vendetta. The accusations started right after he was elected in 2013, following an unprecedented sixth attempt at conducting elections. (The Supreme Court created obstructions for every election attempt in which it seemed that Yameen may lose.) During his term, the Maldives has rejected old allies such as India and Iran in favour of those with little concern for human rights such as Saudi Arabia and China. Religious extremism is on the rise and press freedom has been threatened within the country. Three media outlets have been forced shut over the past year because of political pressure. The government is currently mulling over making defamation a criminal offense. Capital punishment has been revived and the country is now set to execute a man convicted for the murder of an MP, even as there are suspicions of the president’s involvement in the killing.

Street protests have often led to remarkable changes in the Maldives. In 2003, thousands of people protesting the custodial death of a civilian prompted Gayoom to lay a foundation for a transition to democracy. In 2012, Nasheed’s government was toppled after pro-regime protestors gathered on the streets every night for several weeks. Aware of their potential, Yameen’s government banned street protests in November 2015, only weeks after a state of emergency was declared in the Maldives.

In June this year, Ahmed Mahloof, an independent MP and spokesperson for the MUO, told me that the opposition planned to defy the ban on 14 July and hold several street protests as a part of their campaign. But organising such protests immediately after the announcement wasn’t an option.

A journalist from the Maldives explained why. Once the MUO was declared, the journalist said, people had expected the movement to pick up pace quickly. But the season of Ramzan started on 5 June. “Being a Muslim country, most of the people observe a fast for the entire day. It tends to tire them out, and they won’t be too inclined to get out on the streets in the evenings.” As they waited for the Ramzan to end, the MUO held press conferences in India and Sri Lanka in a bid to mount international pressure.

Meanwhile, there has been turbulence in the president’s cabinet as well. Over the past few weeks, murmurs of a long-suspected fall-out between Yameen and Gayoom have become louder. On 21 June, the home minister Umar Naseer resigned, becoming the eleventh member of cabinet to exit since Yameen assumed presidency. Although the members of the MUO duly congratulated him on the move, it was a dubious win for them. Naseer had played a pivotal role in the coup, and had admitted in an interview that he had coordinated with the protestors and politicians through a “command centre” in 2012. However, it was yet another affirmation that President Yameen’s influence was waning. On 1 July, Naseer tweeted that he would be contesting the presidential elections in 2018—which many believe is a sure sign that Gayoom no longer favours Yameen, and is throwing his wight behind a new candidate.

While the president’s office has maintained its composure over this falling house of cards, it has been creating obstacles for the eventuality that the Opposition gains widespread support, and things come to a head between them. On 22 June, after having worked for seven months without a deputy, President Yameen appointed his finance minister Abdulla Jihad as the third vice president of Maldives in less than a year. In the event of Yameen being forced to resign his post, Jihad would be immediately succeed him. A few days later, on 27 June, the Supreme Court upheld the terrorism charges against Nasheed, making him constitutionally ineligible for the post of president.

Despite indications to the contrary, Ibrahim Hussain Shihab, the international spokesperson for the president’s office, said in late June that the government didn’t think of the MUO as a threat. “Given their differences… and track record of working together, we do not believe that they warrant any significant response. It is a marriage of convenience,” he said.

Shihab’s is an opinion shared by many observers. Shortly after the announcement of the coalition, Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed, a former Ambassador of Maldives to the United States, wrote in the local news website Maldives Independent that Nasheed’s partners wanted to capitalise on the dissent within the country to realise their own political aspirations. Another reason for their compliance, he added, was the possibility that “membership of [MUO] is being sought as a means to escape prosecution from transgressions committed while in office and obtain a grant of immunity from the future government.”

When asked about the belligerent past they shared with Nasheed’s MDP, both Jameel and Ali Zahir maintained that they had resolved their differences and looked forward to working together towards the cause of free and fair elections in 2018. An MDP member, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, told me that that the disagreements from the past would not resurface in the new union.

“Nasheed has always been a maverick politician,” he said. “If you look at the shadow cabinet, it is made up mostly of MDP members. So there is little chance of the other MUO alliance partners betraying us again. We are prepared to run against each other in the elections of 2018. That said, what better chance for them to whitewash themselves ahead of it?”

The first protest rally begins in less than ten days. A divided government is readying itself to face a fragmented opposition, setting in motion a battle for legacy in the Indian Ocean.

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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