Maldives Emergency Tests Fragile Democracy

6 November 2015 FDI Team

Diplomatic intervention by the West and India, as democracies, will be increasingly necessary to help address the slide back towards authoritarianism in the Maldives.

Background

Citing an imminent threat to national security, Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen declared a state of emergency on 4 November. The 30-day order limits constitutional freedoms and gives security forces sweeping powers of arrest. Critics were quick to lambast the move, however, saying that it was aimed at silencing political dissent. The presidential decree came just two days before the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) was due to stage a massive rally in the capital, Malé, in response to earlier crackdowns and the imprisonment of its leader, former president Mohamed Nasheed. While international pressure continues to mount on the beleaguered Yameen, the state of emergency underlines just how quickly the situation has deteriorated in recent weeks, with many now fearing an unhappy end to the country’s seven-year experiment with democracy.

Comment

Tensions in the Maldives had been running high after an explosion on Yameen’s yacht on 28 September – which injured his wife and two others – led to the arrest of his deputy, Ahmed Adeeb, in late October. Yameen alleged that Adeeb tried to assassinate him, despite an FBI investigation ruling out foul play. His arrest added to the disorder that has beset the atoll nation in recent years. With no signs of the turmoil subsiding, Yameen decreed the state of emergency lasting until 4 December.

The decree will effectively silence opposition and significantly curtail the constitutional freedoms of citizens, including their right to meet and travel throughout the country. It will also grant the security forces, which have already undertaken raids in recent weeks, wide powers to arrest and detain individuals. On the streets of Malé, meanwhile, the atmosphere is reportedly subdued, with soldiers beginning patrols and cordoning off key sites, such as water and power plants.

Announcing the decision, Mr Yameen addressed concerns that he was abusing his powers and maintained that the decree was necessary to safeguard the safety and stability of the country. ‘In enforcing this decree,’ he averred, ‘the rights and freedoms stated in the constitution will only be restricted within the limits of … the constitution, and only to the extent strictly required by the situation.’

That appears unlikely, based on recent form. Yameen’s tenure has been marred by heavy-handed tactics since he came to power via a bloodless coup in 2013, ousting Mohamed Nasheed, the country’s first democratically-elected president. Not content with sidelining the man once dubbed the “Mandela of the Maldives”, Yameen’s government charged him with terrorism offences. In March this year, Nasheed was jailed for 12 years despite global attention and objections from the United Nations, international governments and high-profile lawyers, including Amal Clooney, wife of actor George Clooney.

That run has continued with the arrest of Adeeb. Charged with high treason upon returning from a trip to China, Adeeb was dumped by his party and later impeached by the Yameen-dominated parliament on 5 November; Nasheed’s MDP party abstained from voting, claiming it was unconstitutional. Adeeb’s arrest has not come as a surprise to observers: his predecessor, Mohamed Jameel, was impeached on the same charge while overseas and remains on the run. Those who oppose Yameen or who appear to be a capable replacement, like Adeeb, do so at their peril.

Such events portend a stormy future for a country famed for its sunny beaches and turquoise waters. Increasingly, Yameen’s actions are beginning to resemble those of his half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whose 30-year rule from 1978 to 2008 was characterised by coups, conspiracies, coercion and violence. Conscious of the seriousness of the situation, international officials issued strongly-worded censures of Yameen’s actions on Thursday, with Washington calling on the government to restore constitutional freedoms and end all politically-motivated prosecutions. London echoed those sentiments.

Should Yameen not heed those calls, the international community has some number avenues it can pursue. One option, as suggested by Mohamad Nasheed’s international counsel, which includes Amal Clooney, is to impose UN sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans on Yameen and his associates. The US and Britain could also ban the Maldivian Government from doing business with companies registered within their borders, including lobby groups and legal firms, such as Cherie Blair’s Omnia Strategy, which provides advice to the Yameen Government. That would be a stinging, if perhaps less-than-fatal, rebuke to the president. A riskier route is to implement travel warnings against the country: with tourism accounting for one-third of Maldivian GDP, any boycott would be costly financially but could also push the Yameen Government into further isolation.

More astutely, the West should pursue diplomatic channels. India, the region’s major power, has remained silent thus far and the West ought to encourage it to take a firm but constructive role in resolving the unfolding crisis, especially given that India enjoys warmer relations with the Maldives than most. New Delhi, cognisant of the need to avoid further instability on its doorstep, could be receptive to the idea.

That would take political will and deft diplomatic manoeuvring in the coming weeks. But with the sun perhaps beginning to set on democracy within the Maldives, the West can ill-afford to look away.

Andrew Manners
FDI Visiting Fellow

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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