The former president of Maldives and the present Speaker of Maldives Parliament, Mohammed Nasheed was wounded in an alleged terror attack near his residence in Male on 6th May 2021. International actors including India condemned the attack. A key player in the democratic transition of Maldives since 2008, Nasheed had championed actively for the cause of democracy, faced exile, terrorism charges and prison sentence in his active political career spanning more than two decades. On 9th May 2021 Maldives police arrested three suspects of the attack but no radical outfit has claimed responsibility so far. Meanwhile, Nasheed was flown to Germany for further treatment on 13th May 2021. The Government of Maldives also appointed a Special Envoy Mr. Abbas Faiz, a human rights scholar, to assist the government to monitor the investigation and trail of those involved in the attack. The attack once again brought to the forefront pressing issues that the island nation is facing at present i.e, the issue of radical Islam and resistance against any form of reform. The attack on the speaker, therefore, conveys a message. Any dissent against radical Islam and attempts to change the status quo of existing state organs which can challenge the nexus of politicians, radical elements and persons in services such as judiciary and military through reforms is not welcome.
A Second Chance to Democracy: Assertion of Radical Groups
The Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) victory in the 2018 presidential elections as well as in the 2019 parliamentary elections rekindled hope in addressing pressing issues of security, corruption, political transparency and radicalisation among the youth of the country. Most of the opposition parties rallied behind the leadership of MDP led by President Solih and Nasheed, to defeat the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) government (2013-2018), led by former president M. Abdulla Yameeen.
During the tenure of the previous government, Maldives faced an unprecedented attack on freedom of speech. Writers, journalists and civil society activists were attacked and a few went missing. The killing of blogger Yameen Rasheed in 2017 by a radical Islamist group, was one example of how liberal and moderate voices in the country were silenced. To address the issue, President Solih appointed a “Presidential Commission on Enforced Disappearances and Deaths” in November 2018 to investigate nearly 27 cases. In September 2019, the Commission revealed that journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla, who went missing since 8th August 2014 was killed by an Islamic extremist’ group and the killing was the result of disputes between ‘Islamic extremists and liberals on social media platforms. The Commission exposed the nexus between Islamic extremist groups, senior officials, and judges that had derailed the investigation under the Yameen administration. The report particularly noted the role of former Vice President of Maldives Abdulla Adeed in influencing the investigation in disappearance cases. He is currently in prison for his alleged link to a money laundering case. Nasheed has been vocal about the emerging threats posed by radical Islam through al Qaeda and Islamic State (IS). At the Indian Ocean Conference held on September 4, 2019, in Male, he said “the al Qaeda and ISIS are developing a deep state within the Maldives and are capturing strategic positions in the security establishments – in the police, military, in immigration, in the education ministry...so that a deep state is able to influence”.
The statement sums up the present day political and security scenario in Maldives and it will take a long time to break the nexus. Various examples in recent years point to this. For example, in January 2019, an island in the northern Maldives sentenced a woman to death by stoning on charges of adultery and the decision was defended based on religion. Persons who spoke in social media against the stoning were threatened by Islamic groups. There are reports of extremist groups threatening women’s groups such as Uthema for their comprehensive shadow report on Maldivian commitments to uphold the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as being anti-Islamic.
The present government has taken some measures to address the issue such as the amendment to the “Prevention of Terrorism Act”. The Amendment to the Act introduced in 2019, lists ‘religious and political extremism and radicalisation as terrorist acts’. However, some of the aspects of the amendment were criticised by lawmakers of the ruling party MDP as well as by former president Abdulla Yameen. The opposition coalition led by Yameen accused the government of ‘planning to target religious scholars and preachers in a bid to “offer space for secular ideology.” The MDP lawmakers on the other hand questioned the amendment based on powers given to the police in searching the private property and arresting individuals without a warrant.
According to the US Department of State “County Report on Terrorism”, between January 1, 2014 to October 31, 2019, nearly 188 cases related to religious extremism were brought forward. There are approximately 1,400 “religious extremists” in Maldives. In October 2019, Maldivian police arrested ISIS-K recruiter Mohamad Ameen on “suspicion of spreading extremist ideology” and recruiting people for ISIS from Syria, Afghanistan, and Maldives. The government as per the recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security, designated seventeen organisations as terrorist organisations. Some of the organisations are IS, al Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, Lashkar-e-Taiba, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). The Act also criminalised participation and support to these organisations. The government crackdown on extremist groups also triggered counterattacks. In April 2020, several boats anchored in the harbour of Mahibadhoo island were set ablaze and in February 2020 and three foreign nationals were stabbed in Hulhumale.
Reform in Organs of the State: A major challenge
The attack on Nasheed is however not just linked to his views on radical Islam but also on his views on systemic corruption. On 6th May 2021, on the day of the attack, the Corruption and Asset Recovery Commission had sent the list of those who received money from Maldives Marketing & Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC), amounting to $3.4 million corruption scandal to Parliament. According to reports, the lists has 281 names of serving personnel in security forces, judiciary, serving ministers and persons in independent commissions and parliamentarians. Speaker Nasheed told the parliament that “he would do anything to ensure that the investigation gets completed even if parliamentarians and ministers are implicated.” The list was released on 13th May 2021 and includes prominent MDP leaders, such as the MDP Parliamentary Group and Representative of Medhu Henveyru Constituency Ali Azim, Kendikulhudhoo Constituency MP Ahmed Easa and Representative of Maradhoo Constituency Ibrahim Shareef. The MDP also took a decision to not allow persons named in the anti-Corruption Commission as well as in Presidential Commission on Death and Enforced Disappearances to contest the upcoming party’s National Council Elections due on 29th May 2021.
Nasheed has been in support of switching to a parliamentary system from the present presidential system, which he believes is best suited for ensuring peace and order. The change of system would allow Nasheed to become Prime Minister. However, within MDP there are differences about changing the system and Nasheed’s stand is not supported by a majority of parliamentarians of the MDP. The present presidential system was chosen by the people in a referendum in 2007. Therefore, a change can only be brought through a referendum before the presidential elections in 2023. Change in the system also entails more decentralization which can give power to Atolls on resource use and shift decision making away from capital Male. In the present political scenario, the law makers are not ready to devolve power to Islands, probably given the geography and strategic location in the Indian Ocean region. The current President of Maldives won the election through an umbrella coalition, consisting of Islamic party such as Addalat Party and Jumhoori Party. The leaders of these political parties are inducted into the government as ministers. Nasheed, an advocate of “India First Policy”, has also been vocal about China’s investments in Maldives and has advocated renegotiation of China funded projects agreed in various sectors to address the debt issue. Maldives debt to China is nearly US $ 3.4 billion. The Maldives government is yet to decide on the same. Therefore, differences within and among parties is a big challenge towards any reform initiatives. One example in this regard is that the draconian 2016 Defamation Act was repealed by the present government as promised during elections. The Act, empowered the State to act against any form of dissent by criminalising “defamatory” speech, as well as comments against “any tenet of Islam” or comments that are deemed to “threaten national security “or “contradict general social norms”. But in 2019 the present dispensation banned the Maldives Democracy Network that had campaigned for human rights protection and release of political prisoners during Yameen’s tenure.
Maldives got a second chance for democratic consolidation in 2018, but developments within Maldives show complexities involved in democratic transition in a state that was mostly under authoritarian rule. The first multiparty elections held in 2008 provided ray of hope in transforming state institutions towards transparent democracy. But the hope did not last long. The first democratically elected, government led by president Nasheed collapsed in 2012, due to opposition protests. The PPM led government under the leadership of Yameen reversed the nascent gains of democratic transition in 2008. The period witnessed shrinking of space for dissent, lack of transparency in policy decisions, corruption and radicalisation. Any dissent against the government and demand for reforms in state institutions was dubbed as “anti-Islam”. Opposition leaders were jailed on terrorism charges, which also included Nasheed. Civil society and protests were brutally suppressed. This led to international condemnation.
The second chance to strengthening democracy in Maldives will be lost unless there is a united and inclusive approach among political parties and civil society to address pressing issues of state reforms and increasing radicalisation among the youth. Drug use was most prevalent in the age group of 15-24 years for both males (36%) and females (34%). This shows that the Maldives government will have to work on such vulnerabilities. Tourism contributes 59% of GDP and Maldives cannot afford to lose due to political and security instability. The impact of COVID -19 on the economy and employment may accentuate radicalisation due to lack of opportunities. The attack on Nasheed is a testimony to the grip that the hard-line religious elements have on the Maldivian society. The government’s approach in addressing the issue will have to go in hand with realising the development agenda of the MDP led government as mentioned in its Strategic Action Plan (2019-2023). The strategic plan covers a wide range of issues, such as developing the blue economy, education, health, small and medium enterprises and family welfare. Promotion of liberal Islam as well as controlling drug/narcotics use among youth were among the areas mentioned in the plan.
*Dr Samatha Mallempati, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
 The President’s Office, Republic of Maldives, Press Release, “Commission on Deaths and Disappearances discloses details of probe into Rilwan’s Case”, 1 September 2019, https://presidency.gov.mv/Press/Article/22015?term=0. Accessed on May 8, 2021.
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