The Maldives archipelago inspires images of pristine blue water, white sandy beaches and palm trees. Yet on February 23, a very different image populated Maldivian social media: the former president and current opposition leader Mohammad Nasheed, also known as the Island President, was arrested and dragged to court on charges of terrorism. Nasheed’s charges stem from the detention of a senior judge during his presidency three years prior. The incident has unleashed a wave of criticism and, on February 27, thousands marched in the capital city Malé, demanding current President Abdula Yameen’s resignation.
To understand the gravity of this incident, it is important to note certain aspects of Maldivian history. The Maldives gained independence from the British Empire in 1968 and within ten years was transformed in an authoritarian republic, led by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. For thirty years under Gayoom’s rule, the government severely restricted freedom of speech or political opposition; torture and arbitrary imprisonment became commonplace.
Yet, in 2008, there emerged a glimmer of hope for democracy in the Maldives, embodied in the leadership of Mohammad Nasheed. One of the main founders of the Maldivian Democratic Party, he was also the island nation’s first democratically elected President. Nasheed’s concerns with climate change, an issue that had been overlooked for a long time and crucial for the Maldives’ survival, were admirable. So was his call for greater democracy, which was ultimately crushed by Gayoon—by the system he created, by his supporters, and by his loyalists.
Unfortunately, a little less than a year into his presidency, Nasheed was overthrown and forces loyal to Gayoom’s government came back to quell all democratic hope in the Maldives. Once Nasheed’s vice-president, Waheed Hassan, had also stepped down, Gayoom’s younger brother, Abdulla Yameen, took the role of president. It is worth noting that even before getting elected president in 2008 and stepping onto the international scene, Nasheed had been imprisoned over twenty times on false terrorism charges, amongst others, and tortured on multiple occasions in prison.
Democracy seemed to have disappeared almost as quickly as it had appeared. Like in many autocracies, opponents to Gayoom’s ruling party have been detained over time. And this may well continue under Yameen’s rule. While certainly not as authoritarian as his brother, cronyism and disregard for the rule of law are reminders of Gayoom’s old regime. In April 2014 for example, the police raided a legal rave party, approved by the Minister of Tourism, and 79 people were arrested.
Nasheed’s most recent arrest is once again based on anti-terrorism laws. This time, he is being charged for a 2012 arrest of a high judge and allegedly using military force to enforce this arrest. According to Time Magazine, Nasheed’s arrest seems to have been triggered by “suspicions that he would try to flee the island nation to avoid facing terrorism charges.”
With one of Yameen’s allies now siding with Nasheed and supporters protesting and showing their discontent in the streets of Malé, Yameen’s grip on the island-nation is loosening and he is doing all he can to grasp what small credibility he has left. This means eliminating his opponents one-way or the other.
The younger Maldivian generation deserves a renovated hope in democracy. Perhaps international pressure on these pristine islands is a good way to make a point across to Yameen’s government. Most recently, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has cancelled his plan to visit the island nation, due to concerns over the political unrest. This decision has also served to send a message to Yameen’s government concerning Nasheed’s arrest. But other forms of international pressure could likely hurt Maldivians more than help them, since tourism is a major source of revenue for the country’s economy.
A better solution could come from international investments, to enable real economic development in the country. Priorities should include increasing employment and diversifying the revenues of the country—which are currently limited to tourism and fishing. This would help to drive the country towards more openness and away from the temptations of isolation in fundamentalism. It remains to be seen whether, or how, neighboring states in the region and the international community at large respond to the political unrest, and the overarching expressions of authoritarianism by the current Maldivian government. It is without question, however, that Nasheed’s arrest signifies a pivotal time for the Maldives.