Forever Indebted I Remain; Goodbye @Yaamyn

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Yameen Rasheed who was found brutally murdered on 23.04.2017; Source: Mihaaru.com

Today yet again, I put down my words with a heavy heart. My soul feels as if it has aged rapidly overnight. I have been walking around in a daze since I woke up to hear the news of the brutal murder of social media activist, prolific blogger and human rights defender Yameen Rasheed. He was known to many via his twitter handle @yaamyn, just like his friend Ahmed Rilwan, journalist at Minivan News who was forcibly disappeared in August of 2014, who was known to many as @moyameehaa (mad man).

Yameen was found on the staircase of his home, with multiple stab wounds on his body around 3am. His routine of late had been to work until wee hours of the morning. Mihaaru reports that even though he is someone who continually received death threats, because the number of threats had receded to an extent, he had taken to walking home rather than taking a taxi which he usually does. CCTVs at his residence were reportedly facing a different direction when the murder occurred early morning. Reading what little news that has trickled down indicates and points towards premeditated murder.

Yameen reported the death threats he received to the Maldives Police Service (MPS) on many occasions. Yameen had reportedly even sought protection from the police at different junctures. MPS reportedly questioned people regarding the death threats that were received by Yameen. It is not clear whether charges were pressed, nor of any arrests made in that regard. Yameen himself tweeted many times of the failure of MPS to take up his cases with any modicum of seriousness. Today, he is no more and MPS will once again get away by suggesting that there exists no negligence whatsoever on their part in upholding law and order in the country. After all, the regime is safe and sound, so are its affiliated members of society. MPS deserves a pat on the back and commendation rather than condemnation.

Yameen’s shocking murder is one that carries significant similarities to that of the devastating murder of Maldivian parliament member Dr. Afrasheem Ali. His supposed killer is now waiting to be put to death by the state, the moratorium on the death penalty which was lifted after six decades to make way for his sentencing. Too many questions remain unanswered surrounding Dr. Afrasheem’s murder itself. No free thinker believes that the state has ensured that justice was done nor that due process was followed. Some link Rilwan’s disappearance with unearthing the truth behind Dr. Afrasheem’s murder. Allah SWT knows best.

Rilwan’s disappearance left scars that still remain festering in the cesspool that is known as Maldives. Rilwan was the voice of reason for many of his friends and twitter peeps alike. I saw and felt the hard blow it was for close friends of Rilwan like Yameen. One of the many failures of MPS has been their reaction towards Rilwan’s family’s attempts to seek answers for his disappearance.

Yameen was never far from Rilwan’s family’s side when they faced Maldivian authorities. Nor was he swayed to give up in campaigning for justice for Rilwan and his family. Mihaaru reports that Yameen was in fact preparing to come up with activities that could be held to commemorate the 3rd year since Rilwan went missing, a task that requires a lot of creative thinking and maneuvering given state’s lockdown on any activities as such that could rock the boat of ‘stability and prosperity’ Maldives is currently traversing upon.

What makes Yameen stand out is the fact that he was steadfast in his criticism of a regime that seems to have zero tolerance for the freethinker. A free thinking society is after all what regimes like ours fear the most. That fear manifests itself in bogus politically charged trials, reputations soiled through fabricated and planted evidence at the behest of the regime and if you are one of the thorniest of thorns in the government’s side, you get forcibly disappeared or at worse, stabbed and brutally murdered. The free thinkers have effectively become refugees in their own land.

Yameen stood for principles that I believed in. We at times clashed on issues where our views differed. But deep down inside, I respected him for his core values and principles which echoed with mine. A society free of corruption, where institutions are able and just, where liberty and freedoms are rights not owing to political affiliation but in spite of it as enshrined in our Constitution as everyone’s right. Yameen represented to the Maldivian society and the world, the few of us who shared his values, most being too scared or intimidated by the thought of standing up against the rising tsunami that is the Maldivian government, cracking its whip on dissidence of any form.

Yameen was a contributing, valuable member to a society that is rotten at its core. He understood that. A society so deeply divided by partisan politics, religion and other issues that are brushed under the carpet. Most Maldivians are a complacent lot. We human beings are a complacent lot. We think very little of the suffering of the other person, unless we ourselves one day stand looking at devastation of the same kind or worse. Our education system and living conditions demand nothing less from society, except to be ‘law abiding’ in the form that the government deems creates a stable society ripe for ‘development’.

Talking about corruption, injustices, the sheer magnitude of failures of successive regimes gets you locked up or worse. There is no safe space for the free thinker in Maldives. Today more than any other day in recent history, I have come to realize that there is no place in Maldivian society for people like myself who wants to do right by the people. Who actually want to live a life of dignity and afford the same to the rest. Perhaps there never was room for people like Yameen, albeit for a brief period of time when a people elected government ruled until it was toppled through a coup d’état that we as a society have yet to recover from.

Yameen represents the kind of mind and spirit that regimes like ours despise. Because people like him are not swayed by partisan politics. They see wrong for wrong, no matter who does it. Even though labeled and affiliated with MDP and ‘yellow fever’ as some put it, Yameen stood up for values that perhaps echoed most with what MDP represents. Because whether we accept it or not, MDP seems to be the only party that remotely even talks about values of justice, peace and freedom that people like him and a few members of Maldivian society actively advocate for at the risk of their own lives.

Today, I feel indebted to Yameen. Because he actively worked for things and values he believed in. Those that I believed in. He gave the middle finger to everyone who thought they could intimidate him with death threats or worse. He never gave up the fight to find answers for his friend’s disappearance. He never stopped asking. He never ceased in his efforts to take on the institutions of Maldives that have failed so miserably in creating an equitable and just society. He never gave up. That is the lesson we all need to take from his death.

It is often said that the brightest of souls are those that leave us all too soon. Their brief sojourn through life touches us in profound ways that remains inexplicable long after they are gone. Yameen was not my friend in the traditional sense. But he was someone I deeply respected for his values, and I would like to believe he did so with mine. Life got in the way when two opportunities came up where I could have met him in person. Perhaps if I had, his death would be even more difficult for me to process than it is now.

The outpouring of grief, sorrow and solitude upon his death on social media is one that attests to the fact that his activism was one that did not go unnoticed. Similar to the time when Rilwan disappeared, Yameen too has joined a list that I fear is going to grow as time goes on by. I wonder how many of us would have to die brutal deaths, or be forcibly disappeared before Maldivians as a collective people rise and demand justice from the regime that controls all our resources. I wonder when enough would be enough. While most view gang affiliated violence with a lack of interest, today we lost a valuable, intelligent life force to be reckoned with. Perhaps that is the message that those behind his death wants to send to the rest of us. Speak your mind, you face the same verdict. Kowtow to the regime, you are safe.

Maldivians need to wake up and look past the “developmental” rhetoric spewed by the authorities. That a bridge and a platform to view its construction does not make for development. That a state which fails to uphold the sanctity and sacredness of human life is one that has failed at its core. That a reality show that keeps the majority of the masses engrossed in the fabricated drama that unfolds every week is not going to teach our children the values they need to uphold for a society to flourish. That there would be no Maldives left for the generations to come because we as a collective people have failed in ensuring that it is so.

I can’t even fathom the sense of deep loss and pain that Yameen’s family, close friends, and colleagues must be feeling. What I feel is almost negligible in contrast to how much pain they must be undergoing right now. My prayers remain with them, that Allah SWT grant them ease in these difficult times. I have never stopped praying for Rilwan’s family. Yameen’s death and asking for justice for him will now forever remain in them as well. Because as a society that has been left with little else to do, prayers are all that remain.

Rest In Peace dear Yameen. For your loss is one that has shaken us all to our very core. Perhaps it is fitting that your very last tweet was the emoji of a balloon flying away. You’ve left us with tears in our heart, but unwavering faith that one day your death will be avenged, even if it be in the Hereafter. Justice will find those that are responsible for this inviolable desecrating act on a precious human life.

Rest In Peace my dear. Rest In Peace. 

I believe in love, it’s all we got
Love has no boundaries, costs nothing to touch
War makes money, cancer sleeps
Curled up in my father and that means something to me
Churches and dictators, politics and papers
Everything crumbles sooner or later
But love, I believe in love – Elton John, Believe

🎈

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Gender Equality & its Unintended Victims

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Source: The Odyssey Online

Talking about gender equality is the in thing of the 21st century. It is also the 4th identified SDG goal by the United Nations towards attaining sustainable development across the globe. I do understand and acknowledge that the term is one that has been coined out of sheer necessity due to intense marginalization efforts targeted at women since the beginning, born out of the need to drive the momentum of equal rights for everyone, regardless of their gender.

However, it is at times interesting and a bit jarring to observe just how skewed this drive for ‘equality’ becomes in the face of certain events that takes place. For instance, on 21st of February 2017, a 71 year old man from R. Dhuvafaru became a victim of an acid attack, who is now undergoing treatment at state run Indhira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH) for the injuries he sustained.

What surprised me the most was there was nothing about this attack on social media platforms that are usually abuzz with every little thing that takes place. No one was talking about the fact that the contact lenses he was wearing melted in his right eye owing to the attack. That the attacker had been lying in wait when the victim had been on his way to the mosque for his dawn prayers. No one was going aghast over it. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration on my part to say that pin drop silence was what remained.

However, when a 50 year old woman was attacked on 24th of December 2016 with bleach in Sh. Lhaimagu during the early hours of the morning (similar to the attack on the victim mentioned above), the storm that became Twitter for instance was one to behold. Everyone was quick to condemn the attack, link it to extremism, the rise of fundamentalism and of course the fear that acid attacks on women might become an emerging trend as in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and even Afghanistan. NGOs were quick to condemn the attack while the same NGOs weren’t heard from this time around.

Another circumstance where I came across the same was a discussion I had with a fellow classmate on trafficking victims. When I asked her whether it was just females alone who are victims of trafficking in Malaysia, she didn’t particularly have a response or seemed to care. I have come across Amnesty International reports done on foreign labor in Malaysia where there are horrific accounts from trafficked victims who are male, who are exploited, beaten or worse by employers and even authorities who mostly get away with victimizing these groups of people.

While everyone focuses on women and children when it comes to victims of trafficking, perhaps for the obvious reason that they are the more vulnerable out of the three, it is still unsettling to know that just because these victims happen to be male, they are not considered as victims as much as females are. This is what I find wrong with the whole skewed machinations behind the advocation of and implementation of mechanisms that addresses gender equality.

A victim is a victim regardless of gender. Be it male or female, they are still victims under circumstances that should never have taken place, should never be. Condemnation should have the same vigor behind it, if we are going to do it at all. Otherwise we just become hypocrites who in the name of gender equality have lost sight of the bigger picture.

The Insidious Nature of Modern Day Slavery

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Nepali girls recruited into the sex industry in India. Source: Glamour Nepal

Recently one evening in class, a student used the example of modern day slavery to explain a concept, something which the lecturer had a hard time accepting, at least to my observations. When people talk or believe modern day slavery to be something that is nonexistent, I guess the only thing their minds can conjure up is the fact that slavery of the kind that saw the blacks and convicts shackled, bound and collared ended a long time ago. The days when people were sold off as slaves in countries like Australia, and this too in broad daylight in the open market places, that day has perhaps long come and gone. But slavery in itself, it exists in many forms even today, and I do not believe that the concept of enslaving people would ever die out as long as we humans continue to exploit our resources, human and otherwise, in our quest for power and wealth.

Slavery is the concept that drives and thrives in the example of the little Nepalese girl brought to India in the name of giving her an honest wage earning job to make ends meet back at home, the girl who is then sold into prostitution in a bustling city that cares naught how or where the underage child who services you comes from. This girl who finds herself saddled with HIV or some other sexually transmitted disease with devastating consequences, or a pregnancy way before she is past her teens, or most often than not, the whole package deal. The shackles of slavery are what the baby she gives birth to is born with, a life of servitude in the oldest profession in the world, or worse.

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On Child Labor in Philippines – Source: Al Jazeera

What is it other than slavery when child labor is exploited in different parts of the world, for instance in the carpet weaving industry in Turkey, where young and nimble fingers are overworked until they are cracked and bleeding, until their fingers are no longer able to work through the weaves and loops. What can you call the concept of children who are forced into doing dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs such as gold mining in the Philippines where young ones are lowered into pits as deep as 25 meters on a rope, pits where oxygen is pumped in manually, shallower pits not even getting this, which as a result has seen many a death of child laborers through suffocation? What do you call this, but modern day slavery when these children are forced to leave school, leave their childhood behind and start earning their keep for survival?

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Migrant Worker Exploitation. Source: Amnesty International

What do you call the Bangladeshi man for instance, who sells off his assets, mortgages his property and becomes embroiled in a vicious cycle of debt that prevents him from seeking a better life for himself or his family ever again, all because he had to pay off the agent at home who promised him lucrative work in a country like Malaysia or Maldives? He arrives in host country only to find his passport has been withheld, forcing him to work in sectors that provides little or no occupational and safety measures, working for mere pittance in jobs that the locals shun. He is exploited in every single manner possible, churning in a hopeless situation that doesn’t seem likely to improve in countries that look upon their migrant workforce with abject hostility. What do you call this vile form of exploitation where either he dies from a work related accident that could have been prevented, or he returns home years and years later, having finally served off his debt, a broken shell of a man from the one that left, the one who was optimistic that he would be able to turn his family’s luck around.

What should people call most city dwellers caught up in the cycle of “work -> pay rent -> die”; all because they were not lucky enough to be born into the 1% of the families of the world that holds 90% of its wealth? They live their life paycheck to paycheck, not because they spend frivolously, but without having made a frivolous expense all their lives, just surviving in the demands made on the urban poor living in a city that mocks at them with how far they are lagging behind the rest of them.

Modern day slavery may not take place in broad daylight, where auctions are held at the market to sell off little girls and boys into the world of prostitution, whereby they are treated to the ugliest side of human nature, where no one hears their cries for help. Modern day slavery is more insidious and vicious an animal in the way it manipulates, eludes and evades the established systems in place. Majority of us are shielded from this ugly side life here on Earth. Perhaps, the most blatant hypocrisy being that this form of exploitation is even “accepted” when it comes to the capitalist theory of development, where capitalist exploitation of the working class of nations lying on the semi-periphery and periphery are seen as the unnecessary evils of development.

Modern day slavery thrives in every corner of the globe. As consumers, most of us are guilty of contributing to this cycle. Buying that t-shirt manufactured in a barely standing with multiple hazards in existence factory in Bangladesh which might burn down any minute. The love for handwoven carpets that has you buying one at an exorbitant price for your father who loves the intricate designs, only mere pittance of which is paid to the child whose nimble fingers are now no more. Perhaps the gold necklace that you just bought for your wife that contains gold mined by a child whose life has been extinguished by the lack of oxygen in the pit in which he worked more than 12 hours a day; until modern day slavery took away his life, the slavery which some cannot bring themselves to believe exists.

Such is modern day slavery.

Such is the insidious nature of human exploitation at work.

Defamation Bill & Its Un-Islamic Defense

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Source: The English Law Students’ Association

It is being talked about with much fervor today, the Islamic viewpoint behind criticizing the leadership and governance of a country and its head of state. Last year, right after the Independence Day celebrations were held, I wrote about how the government was imminently going to pass legislature that is “required” to put us behind bars for exercising our right to free speech, especially when it concerns the government and its elites. Today would most likely be the day upon which this prediction is going to become a reality, depending on whether government aligned party members pay heed to the sentiments of the people or bow down to their own greed, which has seen them profit most handsomely in recent times.

With the Defamation Bill submitted to the Parliament for the second time around, it went into the committee stage where religious scholars from the Fiqh Academy in the country were invited to have their say. Unsurprisingly, the sheikhs who turned up were in fact in agreement that the Defamation Bill is crucial and an important bill that needs to be passed, and furthermore went onto cite that defamation in fact, is considered to be a criminal offense in Islam. These sheikhs further went onto elaborate how criticizing the leader of a country is not to be done, how Islam forbids this, how Islam asks of society to obey their leaders, even if they turn out to be tyrannical monsters.

Islam on Oppression

Up till now, I have tried to refrain from saying much on the issue, because for one thing, I might not be the best of people to talk about things from an Islamic perspective, given that my knowledge when it comes to the Sharia’ and laws via which Islamic jurisprudence is governed is pretty much limited in comparison to the high heeled scholars of the country, the ones who go through their entire lives with their third eye blind, unable to see or hear of the cries of the sheer injustice that has become the norm in this country of ours.

My knowledge of Islam, the religion I follow and love, which is very much a part of who I am, does not jive at all with what the esteemed sheikhs revealed at the committee floor. In fact, I went on to do some reading to find out what I could about the scriptures being quoted often by the sheikhs who are in support of such a law being passed.

I found out that Sunni scholars agree upon the point that a leader should be obeyed, regardless of how corrupt and tyrannical he or she becomes and tramples the law of the land as they see fit. The only avenue left, according to these groups of scholars, is to advise the despot in place, hoping that his non-existent conscience grows a limb or two before the whole country is engulfed in misery and suffering.

On this note, Shiite scholars disagree and goes as far as to say that a ruler needs to be even forcibly removed from office, if it were to come to the point where he or she starts to trample on the rights of the people, when corruption becomes the accepted norm along with injustice that becomes rampant. According to these groups of scholars, corrupt and tyrannical rulers are not to be obeyed, and they hold the viewpoint that it becomes a “must” upon the people to remove such a leader from that position of power upon which they reside.

Of course, given the Sunni-Shiite split that pretty much makes anything the other group has to say blasphemous over the other, this clearly does not give much insight when it comes to how exactly Islam views the concept of leaders, the sheer magnitude of the responsibility that is thrust upon them, and how society should react and be able to act when it comes to less than stellar behavior from the leaders that govern.

Islam as a religion comes bearing peace amidst above everything else. This does not mean the peace of the kind that exists merely on the surface, but peace of the kind that reigns when there justice to be had in a society, regardless of race, skin colour, blood line or your status of wealth.

Establishing justice in its truest form, the way Allah SWT decreed it might be an impossibility in the context of the world, with its inherently corrupt people, the shifting areas of grey within the established man-made laws and the differences of opinion that arises in defining what the laws mandate, which sometimes are as vastly different from the other as night is to day.

In Surah An-Nisa, Allah SWT says, “O you who believe, be persistently standing firm in justice as witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. Follow not your desires, lest you not be just. If you distort your testimony or refuse to give it, then Allah is aware of what you do. [Ayah 135].

Abu Dharr reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:Allah the Exalted said: O my servants, I have forbidden oppression for myself and have made it forbidden among you, so do not oppress one another.

Furthermore, Anas (R.A) has narrated that Allah’s Apostle (PBUH) said, “Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or he is an oppressed one. People asked, “O Allah’s Apostle! It is all right to help him if he is oppressed, but how should we help him if he is an oppressor?” The Prophet said, “By preventing him from oppressing others.” Volume 3, Book 43, Number 624: Sahih Bukhari.

What does all of the above indicate? The simple fact that establishment of justice becomes paramount in a society, more so when we claim ours to be an Islamic one, standing firm in its principles. Thus, it becomes the duty upon the ruler appointed by the people to manage their affairs to establish the system of justice that remains removed from other influential forces at work. It becomes a must upon the ruler to appoint judges who are able and remain uninfluenced by corrupt practices, and to create check and balance mechanisms that works properly to weed out vile practices that breaches the establishment of trust that is forged between a people and their government.

Hence, it becomes imperative upon the people to voice out against injustice, corruption, and mismanagement of the kind that hurts the people and society. What the Defamation Bill is geared to do is to stop any voice of reason out there that sheds light on any such practices of the government in the management of our affairs. It is targeted towards instilling fear in the hearts of those that do not want tyranny, injustice and corruption to be the way of life for Maldivians, but are helpless to do much more than voice out their discontent. With humongous fines cited as punishment, not to mention jail terms if people are unable to cough up the fines payable to the state in millions, the Defamation Bill closes the door on the rights of the citizen when it comes to “preventing the oppressor from oppressing others”.

Islamic History & Its Lessons

Looking into the history of how Islam as a religion was propagated through different times, up until the last of the Prophets, Prophet Muhammad PBUH was sent, there exists lessons for all of us in what took place then.

If one were to ponder upon, for instance, why Prophet Musa (AS) was sent upon the people of Egypt, the Pharaoh being notorious in the tyranny that he was imposing upon his people, I believe we would identify what is wrong with the statements of the Sheikhs from the Fiqh Academy. Of course, Prophet Musa (AS) undoubtedly was sent to show the people the right way, but he was also sent to liberate the people who had been suffering for years under the tyrannical rule of a leader that was becoming more and oppressive and paranoid by the day. Paranoid enough that he wanted all male offspring born to the people be killed, for fear that the vision of a leader who would end his reign may come true.

A lot of people talk about how Prophet Lut (AS) was sent upon the people of Sadoom and how it all relates back to acts of homosexuality that was rampant amongst their people, to the extent which men preferred their own gender over women. But what most fail to pinpoint is the fact that there existed more severe problems in their society than homosexuality. Injustice was the law of the day, where judges were corrupt, awarding justice to the highest bidder. The poor bore the brunt of the unequal practices of the state and no message that Prophet Lut (AS) delivered upon the people were heeded upon. The sheer injustice of the people of Sadoom, who had become a law unto themselves was a pivotal reason why they perished under the punishment of Allah SWT. But few of the esteemed Sheikhs remember to tell this part of the story when they regale the life of Prophet Lut (AS).

Moving on, let us think of why Prophet Muhammad PBUH was sent to us, as a blessing upon mankind. Of course once again, he was sent as a guidance for the Ummah, until the Day of Judgement is upon us. He was sent as the last Prophet, not only for the Arab race, but for all mankind, across the globe. But while establishing the principles of Islam such as oneness of Allah SWT and that one should turn to Him and only Him, what else did the Prophet PBUH propagate and teach and establish during his life?

He taught the Ummah the importance of establishing justice, the benefit of seeking knowledge, the peace that would never be found in a society unless the rights of the collective people are seen to and established. He taught us to listen to the voices of the people, to hear both sides of an argument and the importance in establishing the truthfulness behind testimonies taken into as evidence when delivering punishments and verdicts on civil and criminal cases that arose during his time.

He showed the value behind respecting the other, regardless of the differences, even be it when it comes to their faith. He liberated the people that were suffering under the tyranny of the rich and elite in Mecca from a life of servitude or worse, and he showed us that democracy is not a “modern” or rather “un-Islamic” concept as most would like to point out, but democracy in its truest form comes from the practice all of the above.

Subjugation of the People – What makes it so Easy

Why are societies so afraid of giving power back to the people where it rightfully belongs, so inherent in subjugating the people? Why do tyrannical leaders such as Bashar Al-Assad of Syria, late Saddam Hussain of Iraq, Hitler from Germany and even Pol Pot who led the infamous Khmer Rouge, find their footing in society and are able to repress people in a manner that is incomprehensible to the freethinker?

Perhaps, the answer lies in a mix of factors which includes religion in its midst. Religion that is used as a political tool to suppress, a tool that is used to silence the voice of dissent, the discontent that people feel, to impress upon them the fear of the sovereign being upon which their faith resides, all the while forgetting that the Creator looks upon leaders of society just as much as its people.

Leaders tend to forget that we all share the commonality that is death. Whether one believes in the Hereafter or not, we are all going to die someday. Humans, though we would like to assume that we are the most advanced of species to walk the Earth, have not yet figured out a way to prevent death, or perhaps the secret to an eternal life. Thus lies the stupidity in thinking that as leaders they are invincible. That just because they sit on that throne today, they will be there forever.

We the people cast our votes to elect our leaders, be it our representatives at the Parliament or the head of state of the country. While the system has in place organizations specifically geared towards establishing the check and balance mechanism that should rightly work to remove the unhealthy practices of corruption and injustice, when that mechanism fails, there should be other avenues for the people to address the issue, be it even the last resort of removing an elected official from office. There should be legal avenues that protects the rights of the people to this extent, so that they are not left vulnerable in the hands of madmen who are willing to cross every single line out there to serve their needs.

The lesson that leaders, especially those that claim to be Muslims need to learn is that even if people were to listen and obey them forever because they are left with little choice but to do so, there would indeed come a day when that power would be stripped from them, where they too would face the bitter taste of death. Where I believe that they would face a worse torment than what the people could have delivered if they had the inclination to, where they would be answerable to their Creator for all that they had done in this world.

“The best jihad is the word of justice in front of an oppressive sultan.”

The Politics that Governs Gang Violence

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“You can’t compare us (Maldivian gangs) to the ones in the UK or to other countries. We are very different…Maldivian gang violence can be much more brutal and frequent as this is a small community and people can’t hide in places for that long.” – Gang member
(Rapid Situation Assessment of Gangs in Male’ – report by The Asia Foundation published in 2012)

The recent deaths of two 14 year old boys just this Friday (03rd June 2016), has once again stirred the outrage of the public when it comes to the existence of gangs and associated violence, especially in the capital. Calls on the authorities to take action has been pouring in from all sides, while the Home Minister Umar Naseer tried politicizing the issue as he is prone to do so to in order to earn his paycheck.

All the voices will die down eventually in a couple of days as it usually does, because for one, there is not much people can do apart from going onto the streets and playing out their own form of vigilante justice, secondly, the issue is far more complex than the very obvious resultant effect of violence and bloodshed, and thirdly, the law enforcement and the justice system has been in a loop of repeated failure for far too long for it to do an abrupt reversal and start being true to the principles of the establishments in question.

The Numbers

“Before we went out to attack…not to kill, but now… we use Nite 10; 30-40 tablets of 10mg each, drink alcohol and smoke cannabis, then we are numbed out and feel no pain when we kill.” – Gang member
(Rapid Situation Assessment of Gangs in Male’ – report by The Asia Foundation published in 2012)

While research into gangs and resultant behavior has been far and few when it comes to Maldives, The Asia Foundation published  a report on “Rapid Situation Assessment of Gangs in Male’” in 2012 which highlighted the reasons behind the emergence of gang culture in the country. A National Values Survey (NVS) conducted by the Foundation in 2011 brought to light that there existed about 20 – 30 different gangs operating in Male’, with 50 – 400 members in each group. I can only imagine that the numbers must have increased by now.

The research while primarily conducted in Male’, conducted 24 in-depth interviews with gang members and held focus group discussions with gang members as well. The picture that emerged then was a harrowing one at that, with gang members themselves expressing concern about escalating violence.

The website mvmurders.com lists down homicides that have occurred in the country, an attempt to document the lives that has been lost to senseless violence. Though not all of the murders recorded resulted from gang violence, most of it in fact can be attributed to just that. With 57 murders recorded, 49% of them have taken place in Male’, while 12% in other islands within the Kaafu Atoll and 7% in Laamu as well as Haa Dhaalu.

In terms of years, the highest percentage of murders (18%) were committed in the year of 2012 followed by 2015 in which 14% of the recorded murders from 2011 to-date have taken place. 2016 is following closely on the heels of 2015, with 6 murders already recorded, and we have barely made it halfway through the year.

For a country with a population that was recorded to be just 344,023 according to the latest census carried out in 2014, 38% of whom live in Male’; the numbers paint an alarming picture, given the continued inadequacy of the institutions in place to take constructive action to address the issue.

Emergence of Maldivian Gangs

“I had a very rough family… had many problems…my Dad used to beat me up. One time my Dad was so mad at me that he stepped on my neck…I see the gang as my family… they are much better…” – Gang member
(Rapid Situation Assessment of Gangs in Male’ – report by The Asia Foundation published in 2012)

It is only natural that the incumbent home minister be blamed on a large scale for the insensible deaths that has taken place. While I agree that he is indeed responsible in a big way since he has been occupying that position for over 2 years now, the inevitable truth is that the culture and existence of gangs that we see so prominently now, emerged during President Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom’s regime.

President Maumoon’s policies on centralizing development created the cesspool that is Male’ City, which in turn led to the unraveling of socioeconomic differences on a large scale. Thus spurred the establishment, growth and activism of gangs in the country, largely centered in the capital. This culture has been for the most part supported by the elites in the political structure, which is how gangs survive, become stronger and more embedded within the system.

According to the report from The Asia Foundation, one of the core reasons driving youth to join and participate in gang-related activities stems from the widespread breakdown in family structures which made them seek out ways of belonging in order to replace the breakdown of their familial structure. Because they want to turn away from problems at home, they seek out the companionship of the less than savory, which in the end means these children become part of the structure that forms these gangs.

Report also highlighted the weak democratization in certain areas which contributed to the problem. The political and business elite making use of gang members as a means to an end forms the cycle of exploitation and indebtedness that exacerbates the issue. This also means that for the youth, gang related activities also become their way of earning a paycheck – as difficult a pill as it might be to swallow this fact.

Lastly, the report also highlighted on the harsh sentencing carried out for youth committing minor offenses, the resultant effect being increased disillusionment among young people about the system that governs.

Ground Reality

“If one of the gang members is harmed or killed…we will have it in our hearts forever…we will only get peace if we take revenge…we will only be satisfied when we have killed the person.” – Gang member
(Rapid Situation Assessment of Gangs in Male’ – report by The Asia Foundation published in 2012)

A little bit of walk down the memory lane helps form the picture that relates back to the findings of the report discussed above. It was in June of 2008 that “gangs declared peace” in Male’, by announcing a new “alliance” or “peace treaty” in a press conference renouncing violence against each other. According to the press conference, the group would work with the government on issues such as blood donation drives for thalassaemic patients.

If I recall correctly, this was following an increase in violence on the part of gangs, which required the Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) to come out into the streets to show to the public that they were indeed worthy of their monthly salaries. I also vividly recall one of the officers giving an interview to the press on how they had worked together with the gangs to hammer out this deal. In time, people also forgot.

Since then, gang related murders has become a sort of norm in the country. Periods of violence and lulls that people have more or less gotten desensitized to. The murder of Bobby in 2012 remains forever prominent because he was an innocent killed along the way, a case of mistaken identity.

Stories of how the senior judges of the Criminal Court have special procedures in place when it comes to gang related cases is also something we have heard over time. Police officers who are committed to doing their jobs, compiling evidence and presenting them in court to convict members of gangs on the offenses committed does not seem to make much headway when it comes to an issue that is riddled with corruption and vested interests of politicians.

One has only got to bring to mind an incidence that took place during Abdulla Riyaz’s reign as Police Commissioner, who faced the issue of a police officer that refused to testify against a member of the notorious Masodi gang for doing him harm. I remember Riyaz being livid over it; he might have been one of the executors of the coup in 2012, but from what I saw, he was someone who was big on establishing the police culture within which most law enforcement agencies in other countries thrive. But once again, the politics involved, the fear of being faced with a worse fate meant that even the police officer backed down on giving his testimony to court that would have convicted the gang member.

Moving on, we come to the current home minister’s reign. The man, as pompous as he might be, had a vision of grandeur in tackling drugs and gang related crimes in the city. Investment in the dog squad was one such move. Enforcement of MoniCon (monitoring and control) orders was another.

It was Umar Naseer’s move on former Vice President Ahmed Adeeb, a man who has been pictured many a time with various gangs along with his beloved President and wife, that clipped the wings of the golden unicorn that Umar rides on. His powers as the Home Minister were basically cut down to the point where he could still sound like pomposity itself while twiddling his thumbs at work. This was largely attributed to Umar’s orders to low ranking officers within the police service to investigate then Tourism Minister Adeeb for alleged unlawful activity.

In 2014 Maldives Police Service (MPS) launched an operation to dismantle huts used exclusively by gangs in the capital. The operation however, was a short lived one. What began in August of 2014 was quickly brought to a halt in September when President Abdulla Yameen decided cease the dismantling operation. As he stated it, the operation was being brought to a stop “until a solution could be found after studying the whole problem”. The President also stated that, though the operation had been undertaken with “good intentions”, dismantling the huts alone would not provide a long-term solution. So here is where one needs to ask, where does the long-term solution that the President was hinting at lie? And how soon, if ever,  would we see it?

Recalling the speech that was delivered by the President after jailing ex-VP Adeeb on various charges, which includes the alleged assassination attempt on the President, is also evidence enough of the lack of political will behind the rhetoric echoed by the government on gang violence. On a televised speech, President Yameen confessed that gangs were given money by Adeeb, and that an alternative arrangement needs to be sought when it comes to maintaining that particular line of “friendship” after Adeeb had fallen out of favour.

These I believe were statements delivered by the head of state, live on national television. One has to look no further to realize that gang related violence and other such activities are here to stay, as long as politicians who are in power continue to bankroll, make use of and back them.

One interesting development along the way, before the recent murders took place, was the incidence where Special Operations (SO) officers of MPS ransacked three gang hangouts, with no protocol or official mandate backing this “operation”. Equipment used by gang members were smashed to smithereens, blood was shed, though luckily none of it resulted in loss of lives; the story that emerged was that one of their officers had been threatened by a gang member or something of the sort. I believe threats of the sort must be hurled every now and then and that SO officers are more than able and thick skinned enough to handle a few slurs and insults.

This makes me believe that something more happened, something which their superior officers didn’t want to deal with officially, resulting in the officers taking matters into their own hands. While I don’t condone the act itself, I believe that this hints the level to which the issue of gang related violence and other such crimes has fallen – there is no justice to be had, so might as well take matters into own hands to ensure that the gangs receive the message loud and clear. Do not mess around with SO officers.

Not much news emerged in an official capacity on what took place afterwards. There was talk of SO officers being shuffled here and there, but we all know that putting up with SO is a ‘necessary evil’ by the government of the day, as long as they want a squad of people who would not hesitate to follow orders and beat citizens up. That is the most apt and fitting description of the squad I can come up with.

The news this morning that some 19 individuals apprehended right after the spate of violence took place have all been released is another such example. According to government aligned newspaper Avas, a love triangle seems to have been the reason over which the violence began in the first place. The chilling, matter of fact account from the anonymous gang related source cited on the paper says as much.

Interestingly enough, the police were quick to deny that the arrests made had been in anyway related to the murders that were committed within a span of just a couple of hours. The “lack of evidence” cited is just one of the many proverbial slaps on the face of the public, something which I believe will continue to happen long into the future. At the time of writing this article, a police news conference brought forth the news that two individuals had been arrested over the murders.

Is there a way out of this mess?

“I have tried to get a real job but I have not had any luck. Being in the gang allows me to earn some money. If I get a proper job I will leave the gang life.” – Gang member
(Rapid Situation Assessment of Gangs in Male’ – report by The Asia Foundation published in 2012)

While it is more than difficult to view the road ahead with any positivity, a “solution” such as the one proposed by the home minister is one doomed to fail. Umar Naseer told in an interview given to Avas that there are plans to send off minors involved in gangs to a police training facility, I believe with the hopes of disciplining these children. An issue that is multi-dimensional in nature requires multi-pronged solutions in order for positive changes to emerge.

  1. First and foremost, if any change is to take place, there has to be political will behind it. No social issue can properly be addressed without the backing of the government in place. Solutions requires funds, commitment and policies that can identify and address the various issues that can emerge and change over time. Which is why, with President Yameen at the government’s helm, it is near impossible to see the incumbent regime doing anything constructive regarding the existence and operation of gangs within the country.
  2. The law enforcement establishments needs overhauling in their entirety. There will never exist room for justice nor peace for the people of the country, as long as the police and the court system continues to trample on the rights of the people enshrined in the Constitution and the laws of the Republic. Changes need to happen from within, from the attitudes of the officers in place to rooting out corrupting influences and practices. Though easier said than done, I believe that reforming these key institutions is a necessity that needs to happen for any positive change take root on the ground.
  3. Developmental policies of the government needs to undergo radical changes if we are to stem the social issues owing to the centralization based developmental agenda that is currently in place. Everyone talks about how Male’ City is overcrowded, how social issues are rampant, how families break apart having to make do in congested one room “apartments”, the rising costs of living, the inequality divide that is prominent. All of this relates back to the fact that majority of the population has to shift to the capital in order to seek for better services in terms of education, basic healthcare and beyond. President Mohamed Nasheed’s decentralization policies were a starting point towards giving authority with accountability to provincial zones within the country – a dream long forgotten now. However, I still believe that decentralization is the key towards alleviating the burden of citizens who flocks to the capital – and along with it, the social issues which in the end leads to establishment and existence of gang related activities within the country.
  4. Education is the most powerful tool in empowering people. Which is why the educated always accuse the incumbent regime of despoiling contemporary education policies that could make a difference. Subjects on morality and ethics, education in terms of best practices in Islam are all lacking in our education syllabuses. Furthermore, identifying those kids who are having trouble in dealing with the school environment, the root cause behind kids who are acting out – all this requires teachers to go beyond their mandate and care about the welfare of their students beyond the borders of the classroom and school. This in turn requires that teachers be equipped with the skills to do so, that counselors employed in schools work with students to make a difference. It is a tough and ofttimes a heartbreaking journey for teachers who give their all to the “difficult” students, but I believe that this indeed would make a difference.
  5. Employment opportunities for the youth are crucial, if we are to keep them gainfully employed without having to resort to activities that are at most illegal in nature. Maldivian youth shy away from menial labor that can be classified under the 3D sectors (dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs such as construction). This is the reason why the government needs to identify areas in which youth would be willing to work in, to step up their efforts in vocational training, and ensure that entrepreneurship thrives and is given a fair chance in the economy. All this requires collaborative effort in terms of agencies specialized in youth, education as well as other sectors that could help pave the way forward.
  6. Family counseling services, as highlighted in the Asia Foundation report is also crucial. The stigma associated with seeking counseling, the policy issues related to giving graduates in the field the room to work and grow is essential. Otherwise, family issues that grows out of hand would continue to fester, leaving behind wounds that might never get the chance to properly heal, if ever. All this relates back to young children turning to the next best thing – gang culture within which they find that sense of belonging that should be nurtured within families.

The solutions outlined are just certain areas that I can think of, which requires proper in-depth study, finances and of course commitment and the backing of the political elites if they are to make a difference. I just hope that the people realize that without any of this changing, our country would become intolerable for the generations of tomorrow, the young ones that we are nurturing to lead this country of ours into the future.