“YAMEEN hayyaru kurey, Yameen hayyaru kurey,” were the cries that rang out in the early hours of Thursday morning. It was past 1am in the Maldivian capital of Male and the angry protestors were showing no signs of abating; thronging the streets once again on Thursday night, sounding their horns and demanding justice as police waded in.
Mass protests and chants to arrest the president are a far departure from the idyllic paradise most outsiders associate with the popular honeymoon destination. But in recent months, a storm has been brewing in the remote island nation as the Maldivian people have fought to stand up against the increasingly authoritarian regime of ruling president Abdulla Yameen.
This is how #Maldives police is treating the opposition and people . Current situation in Maldives during #stateofEmergence
brutally pepper sprayed on the peaceful protest! #HappeningNow in Capital City of Maldives pic.twitter.com/kxqKZOg0g8
— 🎈 (@Simwarr) February 22, 2018
After incarcerating many of his political opponents, Yameen then ignored a Supreme Court ruling ordering their release. Instead, he implemented a state of emergency on Feb 5, suspending several constitutional rights and giving himself sweeping powers to arrest and detain.
The arrests continued with the chief justice, several Supreme Court judges and former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom on allegations of attempting to overthrow the government. The tactics bore the hallmarks of a totalitarian purge.
The simmering tensions in the remote country were brought to boiling point when on Tuesday Maldives’ parliament approved the extension of the state of emergency by 30 days, in a vote the opposition condemned as “illegal” and the prosecutor general has called “unconstitutional.”
The anger among the people in the capital is palpable and the late night protests show that the resolve of the Maldivian people remains strong even in the face of mounting authoritarianism.
People remain defiant
“I don’t think he should stay in power for any reason,” 28-year-old Abdulla Nishthar, who goes by Nittey, told Asian Correspondent.
“Every moment he is in power, the Republic of the Maldives and all its citizens are being robbed of their wealth and resources.”
Nittey, a hotel manager from the small island of Gulhi, has become a prominent figure in the anti-government movement, suffering injury and arrest in recent protests. He has witnessed first-hand the damage that Yameen’s regime has inflicted on the nation and accuses the president of “raping” the country and “misinterpreting (the Constitution) for his own selfish needs.”
Looks like Maldivians has got accustomed to illegal State of Emergency and pepper spray. President Yameen must respect and rule according to the Constitution or resign. It’s obvious that the people will not give up until they get justice pic.twitter.com/7yFObD9v2N
— SRazak (@SaleemaRazak) February 22, 2018
Since coming to power in 2013, Yameen has been dogged by allegations of rights abuses, misrule, and “unprecedented corruption.” A 2016 investigation by Al Jazeera revealed how Yameen and his former deputy coordinated the theft of millions of dollars in tourism revenues.
Despite the president remaining defiant in the face of such allegations, it seems the people have had enough and are mobilising in force.
Former news editor of public channel MNBC One Thayyib Shaheem told Asian Correspondent that through social media, “everyone in the opposition is organising” and, with such a powerful tool at their disposal, the current unrest and anger has spread far beyond the capital to the surrounding islands.
The strategy appears to be working as crowds gathered on Wednesday night for the third round of protests since the state of emergency began, shirking off the threat of detention and danger of injury.
— Badruddeen 🎈 (@Badruddeen) February 21, 2018
Both the internal turmoil and the international attention the protests are garnering are ratcheting up the pressure on Yameen who, at the time of writing, said he was open to dialogue with the opposition.
But fighting against the tide of authoritarianism has been far from easy, with protests often resulting in a military crackdown and arrests – 25 in total during the Feb 16 rallies, including two journalists.
Freedom of expression under threat
Even before the tensions of recent weeks, Yameen was overseeing a clampdown on freedom of expression to silence critics across the country. Nittey noted that only recently, members of parliament who are known Yameen loyalists, were in discussions to bar access to Twitter within the Maldives.
“It’s very difficult,” Thayyib said. “The government and their allies, they are making threats, death threats and other kinds of threats, to media people and they’re inhibiting free media.”
And Thayyib will know this better than almost anyone. As an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience, he is now in exile in Sri Lanka after exposing the corruption of the Yameen government. After being forced from his role in public media in 2012, Thayyib continued his investigations as a freelance reporter, uncovering underground deals within the administration. If he returns to his home country, he will be arrested on charges of disseminating false information about the government.
Such strongman tactics, along with the corruption allegations, have left little support among a population that is tired of autocratic behaviour.
In May’s local elections, the opposition Maldives Development Party (MDP) overwhelmingly trumped Yameen’s ruling Progressive Party (PPM) despite what anti-corruption organisation Transparency International called, a “lack of a level playing field for opposition political parties.”
“There is no one who wants him,” Nittey said when asked if he knew of anyone who supported Yameen staying in office.
This view seems to be echoed by people across the islands. From conversations with Maldivians – from boat mechanics and tour guides, to hoteliers and restaurant owners – across the islands and in the capital; not one person expressed support.
As public opinion only stands to worsen, and people continue to take to the streets in protest, Yameen is cutting an increasingly lonely figure as the man at the top of a crumbling pyramid.
In fact, Thayyib believes the only people who do still support him are those businesses that have benefitted from his questionable policies and the parliamentarians implicated alongside him in corruption allegations who stand to face prosecution without his presidential protection.
Resolution before destitution
A resolution to the civil unrest is growing more urgent by the day as the turmoil is having a direct and severe effect on tourism – the lifeblood of the Maldives.
Despite the president’s best efforts to reassure the international community that all is normal on the resort islands, several countries – including India, China and Singapore – have issued travel warnings, urging citizens to avoid the popular holiday destination.
As the manager of a local guesthouse, Nittey said he’s had many cancellations, in part due to the “illegal state of emergency,” but also, he says, because the world is wising up to the corrupt environment to which Maldivians have been subjected.
“The world is finally becoming aware of how the citizens of the Republic of Maldives are essentially slaves to impossibly high costs of living.”
“A very small percent of the wealth that pours into the country makes it into the local communities.”
As numbers of tourists drop and low season approaches, Nittey fears for the future of his business, and he is far from alone in this concern. With services and tourism making up 82 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, much of the population is reliant on tourists to get by.
And so the people of the Maldives will continue to fight; not only for their livelihoods, but for their right to fair democratic representation.
“I hope that this corrupt government is removed,” Nittey said, “that the judiciary, the legislature and the executive powers including the military are all under no more duress, and that the loyalists are flushed out from the woodwork of the government.”