A look at a Muslim country that also toppled a long-serving dictator to sweep in democracy but two years before the the Arab Spring began, and where the Maldives is now.
You’ve probably heard of it either as an idyllic, beautiful tourist destination known as a popular honeymoon destination, or, as it is oft-advertised, as a shining example of a peaceful transition from a dictatorship to a democracy.
The former is true. The latter? Not even close. The overwhelming feeling is that the Maldives has left behind one dictatorial regime only to transition smoothly into another. Only now, after so many people had worked so hard to supposedly bring democracy into the country, felt celebratory at having accomplished something as momentous, something to even be proud about on the international stage, the idea that we’ve just gone from the frying pan into another, spanking-new pan is a bitter pill to swallow that’s not going to sink in easily. To an international media that had loved the narrative of the people of the Maldives rising up to bring about a peaceful change from an evil dictatorship to seeing the Light- one that could be lauded and held up as an example- the idea that this new leadership could be more of the same just doesn’t seem very nice.
What exactly is the problem now? It’s that, barely two years into our supposed new democracy, the handful of people elected into positions of responsibility have carried out the kinds of gross abuses of power much derided in the previous regime as hallmarks of a corrupt dictatorship.
If you consider the fact that the previous dictatorship was widely talked about a ‘democracy’ and taught so as such to us in our own schools and in articles we read until the protest movement against it began, the idea that now again this is democracy being a masquerade for dictatorial leadership isn’t that surprising. It is one that is endemic from the top-down, with the president, charismatic former activist Mohamed Nasheed, himself also being guilty of some of the same things he campaigned so vociferously against in the previous presidency. From maintaining control of the state television and radio networks against the original agreements made to hand them over in 2010 and the orders of the courts to do so, to appointing cabinet ministers without parliamentary approval even when the law clearly says so, up to carrying out foreign and local policy programs without the consensus of pretty much any other body whether parliament, ministries, or experts and even carrying out campaign travels on state funds, something he had spoken so strongly against before he came into power. He also pushed together local council elections, in a move much advertised as a victory for democratic rule in the Maldives- creating local councils for islands and atolls in the Maldives for the first time and having elections for local citizens to be elected into the council. Only, once the councils were made which would govern every individual location, he created an office of ‘presidential advisers’ to be put into each of these councils, that would report to him directly. With many of the people elected into local councils inexperienced and not particularly qualified as well as with the apparent seniority of a government official in their midst, these officials have a considerable say in local affairs. The supposed victory for democracy only allowed stronger control and micromanagement of the nation by the president, in a move which while legally okay is in practice leaning dangerously close, once again, to dictatorial policies.
However, this isn’t even the major problem facing the country. That would be the functional plutocracy- or oligarchy, if you will- made up of the members of parliament and high-ranking officials and judges, that currently pretty much control the Maldives as a whole.
The parliament recently attempted to pass an MP privileges bill- voted to pass it, actually, but then backed down by deciding to delay and edit it under unexpectedly fierce public pressure- which would give them a monthly salary increase that alone would be four times the wage of an average government employee as well as enormous lifetime pensions and wildly extravagant benefits for a country with a collapsing economy and not enough money to pay civil servant salaries; more worryingly, there were also a number of provisions which went under the radar of public anger at parliamentary financial excesses, such as making it illegal to search an MP, to arrest one in any circumstance before getting express permission of the Parliament speaker and, most crucially, a provision that any ‘criticism or words against’ an MP by a member of the public should be met with a fine, jail term and/or removal from their jobs- a provision that would, just two years into the bright new democracy, would make freedom of speech, expression and the right to protest illegal. Months later, after much of the public anger had subsided, the parliament is again passing privileges for themselves, this time bit by bit instead of as a whole- the aforementioned salary increase was passed last month, days after the Finance Ministry had claimed it just didn’t have the money to pay civil servant salaries. You can find a link to one of the bigger protest groups on Facebook, where the members of the public have detailed and informative posts and discussions, here.
The corruption and graft in parliament doesn’t stop there, and runs from the companies owned by senior parliamentarians getting lucrative government contracts and tax exemptions to MPs accused of serious criminal offences remaining unpunished. However, the most worrying, probably, is what is now public knowledge that opposition party MPs are being paid off to publicly switch allegiances to the ruling party (link to op-ed that discusses with further details, amid a short analysis of the political scene), supposedly for seven-digit values. One of the senior officials of the ruling party had boasted openly that they could do whatever they wanted once the conversions of MPs reached a level where the ruling party would gain a majority, saying anyone, even the Supreme Court, just try and stop us once we get there! Between the push to suppress dissent by the public and give ruling members protection, along with the push to effectively merge the executive and legislature into a system where their word would be law and changed however they wish, is what would make it impossible for this to be called anything but a dictatorship, or to be called a democracy in any sense of the word.
All this is supplemented by a judiciary where a large number of judges do not even have a high school education and a third of appointed judges have criminal records; and crucially, where the Judicial Services Commission and high judges are corrupt and strongly linked to and work with the legislative branch. Article in more detail.
Things reached a head when a particularly vocal activist for parliamentary and judiciary accountability (her contact here), who had been leading calls and trying to get public and international support for an open Public Inquiry into these matters, was stabbed in broad daylight in the middle of the street during the height of peaceful anti-parliamentary discontent, in a gang attack so far out of the usual M.O. that for many people it counted as confirmation that gangs were being paid off and supported by powerful officials in government. She hasn’t gotten an open Public Inquiry yet, of course, and it’s probably not going to happen if things keep on the way they have been (if international pressure might end up forcing the issue, thank you). For all the talk of press freedom in the current era, it seems that, much like many other governments making a show at democracy you’re free to parrot one of two opposing lines- either the government or the opposition. But when it comes to criticizing or trying to hold the people in power accountable, although you can’t be legally charged or prosecuted for it; the fact that with the aforementioned stabbings, being constantly told by my parents and friends and family to not speak out against the state of things, that it was too much of a risk if my voice ever got out there enough to be a threat and that criticizing people in power would be potentially damaging for my prospects even if it had no impact at all, the fact that knowing all this is making me write this article under a pseudonym because I don’t dare take the risk of putting it out under my real name should be a good pointer as to how free you actually are to criticize.
The major media sources being owned or controlled by influential political figures with agendas, from ones that claim to be independent online news sources to channels that are blatantly political and the national TV networks as previously mentioned, makes protest and activism especially hard. Don’t go to them for news of what’s really going on, any journalists reading this, any more than you’d expect to find out the truth of Mubarak regime crimes through Egyptian state television last year. Civil servants and members of the public fighting against these issues have been labeled in various mainstream media sources as being political party members just creating agitation and ‘drama’, for example. As someone who has been involved in the movement, its made up of activists and ordinary citizens of various political beliefs but a shared anger at the situation- I can tell you that we are not political props playing out roles, as you can see from my criticism of the entire spectrum of leadership. All these issues are widespread in both the main parties, however much each blames only the other. Fact.
And this is why, at the end of the day I still say that, when I’m fighting for my country, I’m fighting to save it from a dictatorship. That is what we have become- a parliamentary dictatorship, a plutocracy controlling the country just as surely and with the free rein and abuses of power that are markers for a dictatorship. Barely two years in and we might have become just what so many of us fought against to begin with, and now with the legitimacy of being labeled a democracy, with the media labeling it a democracy and kids being taught that this is a democracy, there’s the genuine worry that if this situation goes on it could take root and become the norm for the next few decades again, until people revolt and start afresh again.
Why is this story of tiny little Maldives relevant to the world stage? Because while Egypt and Libya see long-serving dictators being toppled by people power here is a case study of a largely Sunni country with a dictator that had been in power for decades, toppled on a wave of people power that swept in the bright hope of true democracy. Let our mistakes be a lesson for the next wave of democracies- to design and instill strong checks and balances as you rewrite your laws and constitutions to create a framework where abuses of power cannot easily fester; to not compromise into doing a half-baked job when building the foundation for your new countries; to use the power of technology and the internet that didn’t exist in the founding days of democracy but do now to create a system where people representation is maximized and those in power cannot undertake massive decisions without a certain format of public approval, especially in small countries; to design technology frameworks from the start with your bright young computer whizzes to make sure that all decisions and transactions, where the government money goes and how aid money is allocated, is publicly visible on the internet in terms that laymen can understand; to link salaries or benefits of government and public officials to an index and create a percentage net (100-125% of average government wage as parliamentary salaries?) above which they cannot increase their own paychecks, and tie in wages to qualifiers such as actually attending and carrying out their jobs to keep incentives for performance much like any business employee would; as well as creating a framework for people to be able to mobilize and have a voice through a means not controlled by a party or state media as part of the new government infrastructure, and a means for allegations of serious corruption or abuses of power to be investigated or public inquiries to be made and penalties handed out by representative citizenry so that those things can’t be covered up or let off by merely a slap on the wrist or sacrificing a scapegoat and leaving the issue unsolved; and to think it over and look for flaws and create a strong, free democratic system that will have the checks and balances to run as fairly and freely as possible instead of just taking the system from some other country and smacking it onto your own. When you’re rebuilding your countries after you’ve toppled your old dictators, rebuild it to ensure you won’t go right back, to a dictatorship again and this time one that you’ve helped entrench.
Why am I writing this article? Because it is my only hope, right now. I hope that the rest of the world, for the Middle East as they undergo the Arab Spring, will learn from the past and build their new countries having learned from our mistakes. And mostly I hope that, in a small country so dependent on imports and tourism, international scrutiny or at least discussion of the situation may do what our activism at home couldn’t and give the government and parliament a push towards being more accountable, or at least towards not abusing their power as flagrantly and persistently.
Those of us that are young and trying to fight for our country and still studying, still getting our degrees in universities around the world, hope that when we come back with qualifications and new ideas we can try and cause serious change- but that’ll be in years from now, after the next elections in 2013 with the one after that being in 2018, by which time things may have taken root too deep to change if left unchecked- so for the now, for the next few years, all of you are our only hope. While we don’t have that international scrutiny yet, I hope that somehow and somewhere this post will help bring it about. So any of you journalists reading this, please cover this story, in some way or the other. People living abroad, just boycott us until things are cleared up, or the money you pay for that holiday will keep on being used to screw the people of the country over. Please do. All this, it’s all that we can hope for now as we fight for the future of our country.
Edit 10:20 6 Sep 2011: Our president Mohamed Nasheed yesterday justified the enormous spending of government funds on perks and bonuses for MPs and officials while the government declares it has no funds to pay civil servant salaries as being perfectly justified: arguing that high officials, renting out bigger houses and living a more expensive lifestyle, need this salary increase (which will take their monthly wage to 17 times the average government employees wage) as well as other perks.
Edit 9:13 5 Oct 2011: After major citizen activism and pressure against huge pay bonuses while civil servants were being unpaid, extra taxes affecting the poor being levied and the economy near collapse, resulted in a court order verdict demanding the extra pay amount be with withheld, the executive and parliament completely ignored the court verdict (as they have had previous history of doing) and went ahead with it anyway.
Contact a fellow activist who’s been in the activism much longer and harder than I have, and will know much more on facts and details, on Twitter here.
Another activist here.
A similar blog post here.
If I have made any factual mistakes or gotten any details wrong, do let me know and I will correct it.